A while ago, I wrote an article on this website about stride patterns in the intermediate hurdles, and as I’ve watched many races and presided over many practice sessions this past spring and summer, I have developed another philosophy that I want to throw out there as food for thought. It’s not a new idea by any means, but it is one that is not very commonly employed, from what I can see. The idea is to take a consistent number of strides between the hurdles throughout the entire race. In other words, if, for instance, you’re going to take thirteen steps between the first and second hurdles, you should take thirteen steps between the ninth and tenth hurdles. If you can’t maintain thirteen the whole way around the track, then don’t take thirteen at the beginning of the race until your practice sessions indicate that you are ready to take thirteen the whole way. If you’re not able to lead with either leg, then drop down to fifteen strides between the hurdles, and maintain that the whole way. Similarly, a fourteen-stepper should alternate lead legs all the way around the track instead of dropping down to fifteen or sixteen late in the race. What is the logic behind maintaining a consistent stride pattern throughout the course of a race? Read on:
The primary benefit to taking a consistent number of strides between the hurdles throughout the course of a race is that it takes the guess work out of running the intermediates. The less thinking you have to do, the more you can allow your instincts to take over, which is ideal way to run the race. Instead of trying to remember, in the heat of competition, which leg you should lead with at a particular hurdle, or at which hurdle you should add an extra stride, you already know before the race even starts that you are going to take a certain amount of strides the whole way. Therefore, your mental chatter is minimized, enabling you to focus on racing.
Another reason I like the idea of taking a consistent number of strides between hurdles in the intermediates is because the hurdles are such a rhythmic event, and a consistent number of strides logically leads to a consistent rhythm. Just like in the 110’s and 100’s, where a three-stepper three-steps the whole way, or a four-stepper four-steps the whole way, the athlete grows accustomed to the rhythm, and thus is able to feel a sense of the dance that running a hurdle race ultimately is. Obviously, conditioning is not nearly the factor in the sprint hurdles that it is in the long hurdles, but a well-conditioned athlete will be able to sink into the rhythm and become one with it, regardless of how long the race is.
I also feel that once a consistent stride pattern is mastered, it will go a long way in reducing late-race fatigue. The key is to reign in your adrenaline in the first half of the race, to grow accustomed to the cadence of the foot-strikes, and to not allow yourself to over-stride early in the race, before fatigue becomes a factor. If you fifteen-step to the second hurdle, for example, and you’re still able to fifteen-step over the tenth hurdle, then, obviously, you could have thirteen-stepped or fourteen-stepped the second hurdle. So the logical approach would be to go ahead and thirteen-step the second hurdle, switch down to fourteen in the middle of the race, and switch down again to fifteen late in the race. However, what I’m saying here is that the thirteen-stepping early in the race can cause the fifteen-stepping late in the race to feel very slow, and also can lead to the stuttering and chopping that are the tell-tale signs of a mentally fatigued hurdler. On the other hand, if you fifteen-step early and late, then that fifteen-stepping late in the race will feel rhythmic and fluid, and you’ll be stronger because you didn’t expend so much energy in the early part of the race. The intermediates are all about distribution of energy. If you exert too much energy early, you won’t have enough energy to exert at the end.
In regards to reigning in the adrenaline, there is no doubt that someone capable of twelve-stepping, for example, will feel crowded in the early part of the race trying to squeeze in thirteen steps. Therefore, the athlete has to quicken the tempo of his or her strides early in the race, and, through practice, develop a feel for the stride length. Through repeated practice, the athlete’s body will adapt to the stride length and tempo, and it will feel “normal.” I’m sure that when Edwin Moses was taking thirteen strides between hurdles all the way around the track, he must have felt crowded over the first few hurdles, but what if he had tried to twelve-step or eleven-step the early hurdles? Would he have been able to maintain a strong, confident thirteen late in the race? I would guess not. When taking a consistent number of strides throughout the race, the strides will be quick early on, and they will, at first, feel too short; the strides will be smooth in the middle part of the race, feeling more natural; and the strides will be more of an effort late in the race, requiring more of a conscious effort to maintain arm swing and knee lift. But the rhythm doesn’t ever change, and that, to me, is the main reason why using a consistent stride pattern is worthy of consideration.
My personal opinion is that stride length is over-emphasized in the intermediates, and stride frequency is under-emphasized. We all know that, biomechanically speaking, stride frequency is a greater factor than stride length when it comes to increasing one’s speed, but because the intermediate hurdles is such a long, grueling race, common wisdom says that you want to get through it in as few strides as possible, as the shorter strides with quicker turnover require more effort. But in regards to distribution of energy, I would argue that longer strides cause more late-race fatigue if the athlete is not able to maintain that specific stride pattern. Of course, all of this discussion is relative to the athlete’s height, inseam, etc., but I just don’t see the logic behind a natural fifteen-stepper, for instance, forcing himself to stretch to thirteen-stepping just because that’s what his competitors are doing. Find your rhythm, trust your rhythm, sink into your rhythm, and run the race at your own rhythm. I don’t see how that approach to the intermediates can lead to anything but success.
© 2005 Steve McGill