From High School to College

I was thinking about this the other day: there are very few events in track and field that require athletes to make a major adjustment from high school to college. You got the shot-put and discus with heavier objects, but other than that, the only athletes who must adapt to a new event are hurdlers – the men’s 110 hurdlers adjusting to the height of the hurdles being raised from 39 inches to 42. And because most states have the high schoolers run a 300 hurdle race, these athletes have to adjust to the 400m distance. This article will point out some of the difficulties athletes face, and offer advice on how to make the transition a smooth one.

Long Way Down
The most disconcerting aspect of adjusting to the 42-inch hurdles is the touchdown. When you first start running over 42’s, getting over the hurdle doesn’t feel like that much of a problem. The hard part is the landing. You feel like the ground is moving away from you. You feel like you should be running again by now, but here you are still floating back down. In reality, you might not be floating down at all, but it sure feels like you are. It takes a while to get used to that feeling. Eventually, just by clearing enough hurdles in practice, the 42’s start to feel “normal,” and running over 39’s doesn’t even feel like you’re really hurdling anymore.

Take-off Distance
Another big difference between the 39’s and 42’s is the take-off distance. The higher the hurdle, the further away from it you need to take off. So someone used to the 39’s is going to take off to closely to the 42’s at first. Finding the optimal take-off distance, and being able to hit it consistently, requires much experimentation and repetition in practice. The hard part is, you’re generally going to be faster than you were in high school, but because you need to take off further way over the 42’s, you’ll actually need to take shorter strides. So, yes, it is very hard to be running faster but take shorter strides. A lot of quickness drills can help you overcome this dilemma and to develop a cadence that allows you to optimize your speed while maintaining a quick tempo.

Bend from the Waist
With the higher hurdles, everything on the body must raise higher as well. The lead knee, the lead foot, the hips, the lead arm. Obviously, the last thing a hurdler wants to do is elevate, or “jump” over hurdles. So the question becomes, How do I maintain forward momentum without hitting or crashing hurdles? The key lies in the hips. The lead knee must raise higher, but that’s okay because raising the lead knee higher doesn’t cause elevation. The lead arm must raise higher, which can cause trouble if it raises too high. But really, as long as the hips keep driving forward, you’ll be able to maintain forward momentum unless your lead arm is really jacked up. When the hips raise, the whole body raises with it, so there will be a noticeable pause on top of the hurdle, and a gradual descent to the ground. No snap in the snapdown. The key way to compensate is to lean more than you used to lean in high school. That bend from the waist has to be deeper, more pronounced. That will give you the height you need to clear the hurdle without needing to elevate. The more erect you are while clearing the hurdle, the more you’ll have to twist your hips and shoulders (or elevate) in order to clear the hurdle without clobbering it.

Lazy Trail Leg
Over the 42’s you can’t get away with a lazy trail leg. Plain and simple. A high school hurdler can make a whole lot of noise at a very high level without ever fixing his trail leg problems. But the 42’s expose all flaws in technique, particularly trail leg flaws. A lot of hurdlers who were just sliding the trail leg along in high school find themselves suddenly smashing hurdles with the ankle and knee of their trail leg once they get to college, and they can’t understand why. Well, it’s because your trail leg is just hanging there, or because it’s coming around too widely, or too slowly. The trail leg motion over the 42’s has to be quick, powerful, and tight. The trail leg is so important over the 42’s also because that’s where you get your speed from coming off the hurdle. So you might need to increase your flexibility and strength in the groin and hips so that you can get your trail leg to consistently function properly.

Shin Splints
Be careful of shin splints when training over the 42’s. In both legs. The trail leg is constantly pushing off, and the lead leg is constantly bearing the weight of impact upon landing. My advice would be to train over lower heights as often as possible. Many drills can be just as effective for developing muscle memory when done at lower heights as when done at race height. Needlessly putting your body through rigors of clearing 42’s all the time is just foolish. Achilles problems, ankle problems, calf problems, foot problems, in addition to shin splints, can all be caused by training too much over the 42-inch hurdles. The catch-22 can be that you need to train over the 42s to get adjusted to the height, in which case I would say to try to maintain a high level of quality and try to keep the reps down to a reasonable amount.

300h to 400h
Assuming you came from a high school that provided you with a solid background in training for the 300 hurdles, transitioning to the 400 hurdles is largely a matter of doing much the same as you were doing in high school, but increasing the distances and intensity of the reps. For example, 4×200 over five hurdles at 28 seconds in high school will turn into 3×300 over eight hurdles at 40 seconds in college. 3×400, clearing first two and last two hurdles in high school will become 2×500 clearing the first two and last three in college. It is also necessary to run more mileage in the fall to build a stronger base. The need to have the capacity to switch lead legs also becomes more important in college, as most hurdlers, including some of the best ever, cannot maintain the same amount of strides between the hurdles throughout the entire race. I would also say that doing specific technique work (a 110 hurdler’s workout done at the intermediate height) would be helpful once a week, since technique becomes so important for conserving energy.

© 2007 Steve McGill

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