Back to Basics: Lead with the Knee


The first thing my coach told me on my first hurdle rep in my first hurdle practice was to lead with the knee of my lead leg. He explained that if I swung the leg from my hip and allowed my foot to lead the way, I would have no control over where that leg would go. It could go to the left, it could swing to the right, and it could sail too high above the hurdle. If I was lucky, it might go straight. So my early practice sessions were “boring,” consisting of slow-paced drills in which I learned to lead with the knee efficiently, until I didn’t need to think about it. As a coach, I view leading with the knee to be the foundation of solid hurdling technique. When I teach beginning hurdlers, the first lesson I give is to lead with the knee. When an experienced hurdler is having problems with the trail leg, the arms, or with maintaining balance and posture, I’ll always look to see if the lead leg is functioning properly, as I believe that the root of most technical problems lies with the lead leg, or can at least be partially corrected by focusing on the lead leg.


So, as I coach more athletes, go to watch meets at the high school and college level, and watch some of the bigger meets on television, I find myself surprised to see the same basic issue with many of the hurdlers, including some very successful ones: they don’t lead with the knee. I’m sorry, but the purist in me cringes at the sight of all this sloppy hurdling, even if some of the sloppy hurdlers are winning races. Of course, if you don’t learn, as I did, to lead with the knee when you first start hurdling, it’s a lot more difficult to learn later in your career because the bad habits become ingrained to the point where they “feel” right. But, contrary to popular belief, old habits can be broken, and an old dog can be taught new tricks. It’s a matter of putting in the time, doing the reps, and making the decision to fight through the frustration.


In this photo, Nadine Faustin of Haiti shows the bent-knee
lead leg and flexed ankle that will enable her to snap down
forcefully off the hurdle.


Hurdlers who swing the lead leg from the hip are going to have balance problems, no matter what. Men who hurdle this way often compensate with power. They don’t give a damn about hitting hurdles, and they care even less about the art of hurdling. Their focus is on getting to the finish line first, so if power is their primary asset, that’s what they’ll use to get the job done. Women who swing from the hip usually compensate with speed. The hurdles are low enough that they can sprint through them. Men who don’t have enough power, and women who don’t have enough speed, have all kinds of balance problems caused by swinging from the hip. Arms flail, the trail leg swings wildly, the whole body elevates, and they lose too much speed over the hurdle. In some cases it can be bad enough, especially for younger hurdlers, that they lose their ability to three-step between the hurdles.


A similar problem to swinging from the hip is that hurdlers will lead with the knee initially, but then kick the foot out too soon, so the foot is still leading the way, not the knee. In both cases, the lead leg is moving upward (vertically), not forward (horizontally). The hurdler is therefore jumping, not stepping, over the hurdle. So the key is not to merely lead with the knee, but to drive with the knee. The lead leg needs to move in a cyclical motion, the same as it does when riding a bicycle. Don’t use the foot to get the height you need to clear the hurdle; use your knee to get the height. In other words, as you take off, the knee of your lead leg should be in front of the foot. The foot shouldn’t move ahead of the knee until the foot of the trail leg has left the ground. Also, drive the knee high enough that once you do drive the foot forward, you’re already tall enough that you can step right over the hurdle without needing to kick the foot upward. The motion of kicking the foot upward will raise your center of gravity dramatically, causing a dramatic loss of velocity. If the knee-drive has already given you the height needed to clear the hurdle, then you can flick the foot out at the last instant and step right over the hurdle like you’re stepping over a puddle.


Rod Milburn pushes the chest down over the thigh, keeping his lead leg bent
as he snaps back to the ground.


As I grow increasingly aware of the connection between hurdling technique and sprinting technique, I realize how true it is that poor sprinting mechanics will cause poor hurdling mechanics. Along that line of thought, the biggest reason that hurdlers have trouble leading with the knee, even when they’re really trying hard to do so, is that their sprinting mechanics are inefficient. Specifically, instead of running on the balls of their feet, they’re running flat-footed or they’re rocking back on their heels as they approach the first hurdle and as they sprint between the rest of them. If you’re not running on the balls of your feet, you won’t be able to lead with the knee. To put it another way, if your feet are landing in front of your hips, you can’t drive with the knee. It’s physically impossible. So, in some cases, a total deconstruction of hurdling technique is necessary. If you run on your heels, then you have to fix your sprinting problems before you can fix your hurdling problems. Go back to you’re A-skips and B-skips, focus on doing them properly, and do so with an awareness of how perfecting those drills will directly effect your hurdling mechanics. Don’t do your drills just to say you did them.


Some hurdlers do sprint properly when there are no hurdles in their way, but rock back on their heels when faced with hurdles. This is just plain old fear. You can’t run hurdles and be afraid.


Lead-leg mechanics have a huge effect on the rest of hurdling mechanics. I’m a lead-leg-first kind of coach, mainly because that’s how I was taught. I believe that a properly-functioning lead leg will eliminate other technical problems before those problems are even directly addressed. By driving with the knee of the lead leg, flicking the foot forward with the ankle flexed, and then snapping the lead leg down in a quick, sharp motion, the force of that motion will cause the trail leg to drive upward. Then, once you start working specifically on your trail leg, all you have to really focus on is completing the trail leg motion of driving the knee of that leg all the way to the front, so that it’s facing the next hurdle by the time the lead leg lands. It’s also important to note that as the lead leg knee drives at the crossbar, the chest is pushing down over the thigh, so that the snapdown will have force behind it.


It’s a little different in the 400 hurdles, but Lashinda Demus
in this photo shows that it’s not all that different. The knee
of the lead leg serves as her steering wheel, driving her forward
and keeping her on balance throughout hurdle clearance.


The best way to learn to lead with the knee if you’re in the habit of swinging from the hip is to do a lot of slow-paced drills in practice. Don’t expect results to come in the very next race. Then gradually increase the speed as you grow more comfortable. It’ll take weeks, even months, to internalize the cyclical (rotary) motion of the lead leg, and you’ve got to be willing to put in that kind of time. To me, doing the work to learn how to hurdle efficiently is worth it. No matter how fast you’re running, you could be running faster if you’re leading with the knee than if you’re not. You also have more control over your race, and you’ll be able to make adjustments to your speed as you go down the track. Even though hurdling is a reckless event, it’s a controlled recklessness when it’s done effectively. The control begins with leading with the knee.


© 2007 Steve McGill


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