From the starting blocks to the first hurdle is arguably the most important part of a sprint hurdle race. For 110 and 100m hurdlers, a quick start and smooth clearance of the first hurdle are virtually essential for success, as it is in this part of the race where rhythm is established. Another benefit of a good start is that it puts pressure on one’s opponents. Most technical mistakes that hurdlers make are caused by pressing when running from behind, trying to catch-up. So if you can get out well, and can put pressure on your opponents to catch you, that may lead to them running a less than clean race, giving you the opportunity to even beat hurdlers who are supposedly better than you. Also, getting a good start is necessary for self-confidence, especially against tough competition. An ugly first hurdle can make you feel, and, often, rightfully so, that your chances of winning are over before the race has barely even gotten under way. So, with these thoughts in mind, I would like to discuss in this article the approach that has worked for me in regards to this vital phase of the sprint hurdle race.
In the Blocks
There are plenty of people who know more about the specifics of block placement and starting technique than I do, but I generally allow my athletes to go with what’s comfortable, making sure that they have enough room between the front foot and the back foot that they can push off hard on the front foot. In the mark position, fingertips should be on the track, with the elbows slightly bent, and the shoulders rolled forward. Rising into set position, your back should be parallel to the track, the eyes should be looking about a foot beyond the starting line, and the back knee should stay slightly bent. In the set position, you should feel a lot of pressure on your fingertips and on your shoulders. You should feel like if you don’t get your first step down very quickly, you’ll fall flat on your face as soon as you move to take that step.
A hurdler’s first step should be different from a sprinter’s first step. A sprinter wants to burst out of the blocks with a lot of power, whereas a hurdler wants to focus on being quick out of the blocks. Too much of a powerful burst for a hurdler can lead to getting on top of the first hurdle too soon, causing the necessity to chop the last couple of strides right before the hurdle, which causes a significant loss of velocity going into the hurdle. So, the first step should be short but very quick, touching the ground as soon as possible after the sound of the gun. The hips should be slightly ahead of the foot, and the upper body weight should be well ahead of the foot, with the back staying parallel to the track. Eyes should still be facing downward, but not all the way down the way a sprinter’s would, since a hurdler will need to rise sooner than a sprinter.
The second step should be a little bit longer than the first step. Here, you begin to emphasize a thrusting knee drive, but you still want to keep the eyes down and the upper body low. Most beginning hurdlers will bring up their eyes and their upper body too soon, as they are so focused on getting to the first hurdle that they forget to actually run. Coming up too soon will cause a loss in velocity, as well as an overall tentative approach. You can stay low for two full steps and still have no problem getting to the first hurdle in good rhythm. If you don’t think you can, then a good idea would be to practice starts in, say, lane six, and put the hurdle in lane seven. Have a teammate or coach mark where your eighth step is. Once that eighth step is five to seven feet away from the crossbar, you know you’re okay. If you can’t find an available coach or teammate, then place a cone about five to seven feet from the crossbar. When your first step is even with the cone, you know you’re okay. If you can’t find a cone, use a water bottle. Or a rock. Anything. Once you feel confident that you’re close enough, place the hurdle back in your lane and try to clear it. This little trick should help you get over the fear of not being able to reach the hurdle.
Here, you continue to increase your stride length, bringing more knee drive and arm swing. This step is also the one where you want to bring the eyes up off the track, and get them focused on the crossbar of the first hurdle. Pick a specific spot on the crossbar to set your eyes on. Doing so will help you to stay centered in the lane, and to avoid being distracted by things going on in other lanes. Although the eyes come up on this step, the upper body should still stay low so that you can continue to drive forward as opposed to jerking upward too soon, causing a drastic shift in your center of gravity, which, again, causes a loss of velocity. My observation has been that most elite hurdlers will look up at the first hurdle right at the first step instead of the third step, but their problem is a different one, necessitating that they do so. With their remarkable speed, they would be in danger of crashing into the first hurdle if they didn’t get a good look at it from the very beginning.
The fourth step is the one where you begin to gradually bring up the upper body, keeping the eyes focused on the crossbar, steadily increasing your stride length. This step is the one where you “know” you’re going to be able to run through the first hurdle, not just to the first hurdle.
5th – 7th Steps
Continue to rise toward full height, continue to accelerate, continue to pump the arms and drive the knees, and most importantly, keep your eyes on the crossbar.
The eighth step is the penultimate step, the one before the dive into the hurdle. This stride should be a little bit shorter than the previous two, similar to how a long jumper’s last step onto the board is shorter. The difference being that a long jumper wants to take off upward whereas a hurdler wants to take off forward. It is essential that, when the eighth step touches the track, the hips are in front of the foot, the lower back is beginning to squeeze downward, and the lead leg knee is beginning to drive forward in preparation for the dive into the hurdle. For taller hurdlers, and for many women hurdlers, the dive into the hurdle will be minimal, but that’s a topic for another day. Although I know that not everyone would agree, I feel that you should still be in the process of rising to full height as you clear the first hurdle. You only need to be up tall enough to clear the hurdle; what’s more important is making sure that your center of gravity still has you moving horizontally. Think about it – sprinters don’t come out of their drive phase until they’re about thirty or thirty-five meters down the track, so for a hurdler to think he or she can rise to full height in eight steps without sacrificing speed seems to me to be a bit unreasonable. I don’t think a hurdler should be all the way to full sprinting height until the third hurdle. Optimal take-off distance going into the first hurdle varies depending on the height of the hurdle and the height of the hurdler. Generally, though, I would say that 7 to 7 ½ feet would be best for the men’s 42’s, 6 to 6 ½ feet for the boys’ 39’s, and 5 to 5 ½ feet for the women’s and girls’ 33’s.
© 2004 Steve McGill