I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important aspect of hurdling technique is the lean. Why? Because, as this article will explain, the lean determines everything that happens from a technical standpoint during hurdle clearance.
To simplify things, I’m going to categorize the lean into three basic types: minimal lean, downward lean, and forward lean. Let’s break it down:
Minimal Lean is what it sounds like – clearing the hurdle without hardly leaning at all. Minimal lean is considered most efficient for women due to the low height of the hurdles. Most women can step over hurdles without deviating from their sprinting stride very much at all. This was also the style that Renaldo Nehemiah used throughout most of his career. Nehemiah was much more of an “upright” hurdler than the other male hurdlers of his era, or of any era for that matter. For males, being able to hurdle with minimal lean requires exceptional flexibility in the hip flexors and groin. Otherwise, it can lead to hitting a lot of hurdles with the trail leg, because the trail leg doesn’t rise as high as it would if a deep lean were employed. Even Nehemiah did have a problem with hitting hurdles with his trail leg on occasion.
Downward Lean is the typical style employed by most male hurdlers, in which the hurdler ducks his head down so that his forehead almost touches his knee. Downward lean is the “old school” style employed by Nehemiah’s contemporaries Greg Foster and Tonie Campbell, and by David Oliver and Terrence Trammell of modern times. This type of lean creates a straightening of the lead leg, a high elbow of lead arm, and then a snapdown of lead leg on the other side. This style has been used with a very high degree of success by the hurdlers mentioned above, and by plenty of others. It is the style that is most commonly taught to male hurdlers of all levels. Even some females hurdle with a downward lean and straight lead leg, and have run fast times doing so.
Forward Lean is similar to the downward lean, but different in some key aspects. Forward lean, like the downward lean, involves a bend from the waist. But with forward lean, the hurdler does not duck the head down. Instead, he keeps the chin up, the eyes facing forward, and pushes the chest down over the thigh. So, the hurdler is literally leaning forward, pushing himself in the direction in which he is moving – toward the next hurdle, toward the finish line. With this type of lean, the lead leg stays slightly bent (even for males) during hurdle clearance. This type of lean only works effectively if the hurdler raises his or her trail leg high off the ground, as opposed to letting it lag behind. With the minimal lean and downward lean styles, the trail leg lags, then whips to the front. With the forward lean style, the trail leg rises high, so that the hurdler is in a tight ball, so to speak, on top of the hurdle. If you’re going to call anything “new school,” this would be it. Dayron Robles, Liu Xiang, and late-career Allen Johnson are the male hurdlers who most obviously employ this type of lean. I honestly don’t know of any female hurdlers who hurdle this way, except one that I coach, and I’ll get into that a little later.
Logic Behind Each Style
Minimal lean is designed to allow the hurdler to maintain a sprinting rhythm. The momentum gained between the hurdles is carried over the hurdle. When done well, it can be breathtaking to watch. Think Lolo Jones at her best.
Downward lean relies on the force of the lead-leg snapdown to create speed off the hurdle. Think Terrence Trammell, David Oliver, David Payne.
Forward lean is designed to propel the hurdler toward the next hurdle, so that he or she is moving faster coming off the hurdle than he or she was going into it. Think Liu Xiang. You can literally see the propulsion when he does it.
How Each Style Looks (how to tell the difference)
Minimal lean is self-explanatory. You’ll see little to no lean when the hurdler is taking off and on top of the hurdle.
With downward lean, the lead leg skims the hurdle on a flat angle, with the entire leg, from foot to hip, parallel to the track. Once the hips have passed the bar, the lead leg snaps down. The trail leg hangs low after take-off, then whips in front as the lead leg snaps down. As stated earlier, the head ducks down so that the eyes are facing the knee instead of facing forward.
With forward lean, the entire lead leg also skims the hurdle, but the angle is more vertical instead of strictly horizontal. A hurdler with forward lean will look “high” over the hurdle because the butt is raised higher, so that it looks “high” when the shin is skimming the hurdle. As stated earlier, the eyes stay forward, the torso leans in a forward direction over the thigh.
Pitfalls of Each Style
With Minimal lean, the obvious pitfall has to do with what I mentioned earlier – the tendency of the trail leg to hang low. That’s why this is a style that is nearly impossible for male hurdlers to execute. If you try to run over 39’s or 42’s without leaning, you’re going to be smacking some hurdles. The more hurdles you hit with that trail leg, the more balance you lose, and the more velocity you lose. So, by the end of the race, you could be struggling to three-step. Another pitfall with this type of lean is that it creates the need to raise the hips during hurdle clearance. The lean is what raises the trail leg naturally. So, if there is no lean, the hips have to rise in order to create room for trail leg clearance. Unless, again, the hurdles are low enough (women), or the hurdler is exceptionally flexible (Nehemiah). Raising the hips during clearance means a loss of forward momentum, a loss of rhythm, and a lot of kicking legs and flailing arms.
With downward lean, the trail leg hangs low the same as it does with minimal lean. With downward lean though, the reason for the low trail leg has to do with the extreme emphasis on the lead leg as the speed leg. Ideally, the trail leg will whip in front in perfect unison with the lead leg snapping down, but that hardly ever actually happens. The trail leg always lags a little bit behind the lead leg, never gets all the way to the front to where the knee is facing the next hurdle before it takes its next stride. This style is also an injury-creator too, if you ask me, because it puts much strain on the hamstring of the lead leg, and similar strain on the groin of the trail leg.
With forward lean, a lot of its effectiveness depends on the timing. If the trail leg doesn’t rise high and into hurdling position as soon as it leaves the ground, the lead leg will have to kick out the same as it would with the downward lean. If the forward lean doesn’t initiate during take-off, while the trail-leg foot is pushing off the ground, then the hips will rise and the hurdler will float because of the force of the take-off. If the lead leg foot extends too soon instead of staying in bent-knee position, then the space needed to clear the hurdle is taken away, and a crash could occur.
What I Do
I’m big on the forward lean, that’s the style I teach now. Let me explain why:
Because it is the style that allows for clean clearance and speed and power, regardless of the height of the hurdle. I don’t like for my hurdlers to hit hurdles, and I do believe that hitting hurdles slows you down. The forward lean is the type that pretty much ensures clean races.
Because the trail leg doesn’t lag. My number one pet peeve in hurdling is the trail leg that lags behind. The downward lean makes for a lazy trail leg because the onus is on the lead leg to extend and then snap down. The lead leg is doing all the work. With the minimal lean, the trail leg is so low that it’s bound to hit a hurdle even if it’s functioning properly. Again, that’s not as true with females, but the danger is still there even for females.
Because it takes you in the direction you’re actually moving. Forward. The combination of the knees rising upward and the hips driving forward and the torso leaning forward work to create a forward propulsion, not unlike that of pushing out of the starting blocks. So, running between the hurdles becomes effortless because, instead of trying to “sprint” between the hurdles, you’re already sprinting because of the momentum you gained from the hurdling action itself.
A hurdler that I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the past two years is Kendra Harrison of Clayton High School in Clayton, NC. Keni, as the photos below reveal, employs the forward lean style. This style, really, is one of several key elements in the “vertical hurdling” style that I wrote about in an article for this website about two years ago. For those of you who have been wondering what this style looks like when put into action, the photos below, as well as the video a little further down, will give you a clear picture. Keni is the only hurdler I’ve coached who has successfully implemented all key components of the style. If you didn’t read that earlier article, here’s a quick review of what the style includes: a speedy lead arm that forces the action, a bent-knee lead leg, a vertical push off the ground from the trail leg, a high raising of the trail leg as soon as it leaves the ground, a deep forward lean from the waist, a continuous driving forward with the hips. So, the vertical push gets the hurdler into hurdling position very quickly after leaving the ground, and it enables the hurdler to take off closer to the hurdle without danger of hitting the bar with the lead-leg foot. Coming off the hurdle, the hurdler is able to “run” off the hurdle at a downhill angle that creates speed. The photos below were taken at the Indoor Nationals in New York in March 2011.
In the photo on the left, Keni has jumped into what I have been referring to as “hurdling position,” on top of the hurdle. I use the word “jump” here in a positive sense to indicate the vertical push of the trail leg. As you can see, she is leaning deeply, forward, from the waist, with her chest over her thigh, her head up, her eyes facing forward. The lead arm has nearly completed its motion even though her lead-leg foot has yet to reach the crossbar. Thank you Liu Xiang for that one. Her bent lead leg will enable her to continue sprinting when she returns to the ground. Unlike with other styles, we don’t want to “hurdle” over the hurdles and then transition back to sprinting when we touch down. Instead, we want to feel like we are sprinting over the hurdle, that the stride over the hurdle is exactly that – a stride. No horizontal extension of the lead leg, no snapdown on the other side of the bar. Instead, a continuous, fluid motion with no overt attempts to be powerful. The power, instead, is in the speed.
A couple more things about the photo on the left. Firstly, you’ll notice that Keni appears to be very high over the hurdle. Trust me, that’s an optical illusion. If you’re thinking old-school style, you’re saying to yourself that she could have run much faster if she didn’t jump so high over the hurdle. But the truth is, she’s not high over the hurdle. The heel of her lead leg will skim the bar just as a more traditional downward-lean hurdler would. The rest of her lead leg will similarly skim the bar. If you look at the photo on the right, you can see that her shin is skimming the bar. Her hamstring will too. Her butt will too. How? Because she’s running downhill.
Now, a lot of coaches will tell you, quite correctly, that there’s no need for female hurdlers to lean as deeply as Keni does in these photos. My response to that argument is to say that our lean isn’t just for the purpose of hurdle clearance. The purpose of our lean is to create speed off the hurdle. We don’t just want to maintain our speed; we want to be moving faster coming off than we were going in. The forward lean enables us to create that momentum, to literally propel us toward the next hurdle.
A final thought about the photo on the left. Keni is breaking one of my rules here, which is that the knee of the trail leg should never be lower than the foot. But that’s a rule that I think I need to abandon. What really matters is the direction in which the knee of the trail leg is moving. Here, you can see that it has risen high off the ground, it is in good position to continue running. It is not lagging behind. As the foot of the lead leg continues to descend, the knee of the trail leg – which seems to be too low here – will continue to rise so that it will clear the hurdle cleanly. For women especially, there is no need for a lot of width in the groin. Their legs can stay very close to sprinting motion, as Keni’s are here.
Okay, now on to the photo on the right. Here, Keni is just beginning her descent off the hurdle. The first thing I want to emphasize is that both knees – the knee of the lead leg and the knee of the trail leg, are facing the front. With other styles, it has always seemed to me that the legs are, in a sense, fighting each other. The lead leg extends, the trail leg lags behind, turns sideways, until it finally whips to the front. I’ve always felt that the legs should be working together as one, as a single unit. And that, in order to do that, they have to be moving in the same direction. Keni’s legs here are moving in the same direction. They’re both moving forward. They’re very close together. They’re working together.
Again, in this photo, she looks very high. But again, she’s not. The trail leg being that high is exactly what we want because the trail leg is the leg that initially created the downhill effect when it pushed vertically off the ground, and now it’s the leg that will initiate the downhill sprint off the hurdle when it drives to the front. A low trail leg will simply drop when it clears the bar, and will therefore create no acceleration off the hurdle. And keep in mind that, as the photo shows, it is very important that Keni maintains her forward lean as she descends. With the downward-lean snapdown style, the upper body will often straighten up to an erect posture as the lead leg snaps down. No no no. We don’t want any of that. We’ve got to keep moving forward.
Okay, now on to the video. The footage below is from the finals of the girls 60m hurdles at Indoor Nationals. Four girls, including Keni, finished within .03 of each other. Keni was declared the winner by .002. While all the girls are doing things worthy of note, let’s, for the purpose of instruction, focus on Keni, in lane three, wearing the white top, and Dahlia Cox, to her left (from the viewer’s perspective), in lane four, in all black. Keni and Cox both finished with the identical time of 8.42. Keni, obviously, has a forward lean over the hurdles, while Cox has a minimal lean, which, again, is very common among females, including most of the ones in this race.
Unfortunately, there is no slow motion replay of the race, but if you play it back over and over again you’ll pick up on some things. Here’s what caught my eye:
Keni’s style looks much different from that of the other hurdlers in the race. Her forward lean is rather extreme, and she does seem to be jumping over the hurdles instead of stepping over them. But this jump, as weird as it may look, as wrong as it may look, is actually what’s enabling her to come off each hurdle with such velocity. Her trail leg actually is not functioning the way we would like for it to. On the front side of the hurdle it’s excellent – pushing off, rising into position. But on the back side, it’s dropping too soon. So she is not generating as much speed coming off the hurdle as she could.
Cox looks amazingly fast over the hurdles. I’ve looked at this race dozens of times and still can’t believe Keni was keeping up with this girl. Cox, from what I can see here, is a master of the minimal lean style. It looks like she’s running through the hurdles, not over them, because her lead leg is so fast and because her center of gravity is barely changing at all.
Okay here’s the big one: Look at the arms of all the hurdlers within camera range. First look at Cox in lane four, Kendell Williams in lane five, and Shelley Black in lane six. With all of them, you’ll notice that their lead arm goes across their body. With Cox the lateral swing is minimal, but it’s still evident. Then look at Keni, and you’ll notice that her arms move in an up-and-down motion, with no lateral movement across the body whatsoever. How is she able to keep her arms so tight? Because of her forward lean. As I said earlier, the lean raises the trail leg. So, with no lean, or minimal lean, the body will find another way to compensate for the fact that the trail leg hasn’t risen high enough to clear the bar. The lateral movement of the arms causes a slight twist in the hips that gives the trail leg the room it needs. But that slight twist in the hips, and the lateral movement of the arms, both take away from forward momentum. The wider the lead arm, the wider the trail leg.
I know I’m being very picky with this critique, because all of these hurdlers look very, very good. But we’re talking about .03 separating four athletes. So I have to be picky. My purpose, really, is not to claim that the style of the hurdler I coach is superior to the styles of the other athletes. I’m not certain that it is. But I believe in what I do, I believe in my athlete, and I know she believes in me. And really, that’s what it comes down to. Not which style you use, but how much you believe in that style. All three styles of lean discussed in this article – minimal, downward, and forward, have been used with a high level of success. Whichever style you choose, give your all to it, and make it work for you.
© 2011 Steve McGill