Not too long ago I was out on the track by myself doing some hurdle drills when a kid who couldn’t have been any more than ten years old walked up to me and said, “you’re a good jumper.” In the flash of a second between his compliment and my response of “thanks,” several thoughts ran through my mind: I’m a hurdler, not a jumper. Long-jumpers jump, triple-jumpers jump, high-jumpers jump. Hurdlers hurdle. Another time, a student in one of my English classes asked me, “Why do you like jumping hurdles so much?” I looked at him, somewhat annoyed, I guess, and politely answered, “I don’t like jumping hurdles. Hurdlers don’t jump.” “You know what I mean,” the kid went on. And I did know what he meant, but I could not answer the question the way it had been phrased. “You mean why do I like hurdling so much?” “Yeah,” he said, “why do you like hurdling so much?” I wanted to reply with something deep and philosophical, but all I could come up with was, “I don’t know, it’s what I do.”
Hurdlers, unlike jumpers, don’t want to waste time gliding in the air. The more time spent in the air, the less time spent on the track, and, therefore, the slower the race. There are several factors that can cause a hurdler to glide over hurdles instead of sprinting over hurdles, and I want to address some of them in this article.
Obviously, when hurdlers are gliding over hurdles, it’s because they’re clearing the hurdle too high. The goal is to skim each hurdle as you clear it, without actually hitting it hard. The most common cause of clearing hurdles too high, especially for beginners, is that they aren’t leading with the knee of the lead leg, but are swinging the leg from the hip. When you swing from the hip with a locked knee, you basically have no control over where that leg will go. What you can be sure of is that, no matter how hard you try to snap it down, you won’t be able to. So, for starters, lead with the knee, lead with the knee, lead with the knee. Hurdling form, at its best, is merely an extension of sprinting form. If you’re running on the balls of your feet, with your toes pulled up, driving your knees, then it will feel like a natural extension to do the same thing over the hurdle, regardless of how high it is. If you’re someone who tends to swing from the hip, then you probably need to fix your sprinting form before you can effectively fix your hurdling form.
What I often tell my hurdlers to do is to drive their lead-leg knee at the crossbar, not over the crossbar. I find it amazing how beneficial it is to actually look at a spot on the crossbar, and to drive your knee at that spot. For some reason, if the eyes stay low, the body stays low. That has been my experience. If the eyes start wandering upward, the body tends to wander upward too. It’s not until you start getting in the habit of looking at the crossbar that you realize you haven’t been doing it. So, pick out that spot on the crossbar, and drive your lead leg knee at it. If your mindset is to drive the knee over the crossbar, you’ll clear the hurdle higher than you need to, whereas if your mindset is to drive the knee at the crossbar, you’ll clear it very low, with no wasted energy, and no wasted time in the air. To put it more simply, when you’re in attack mode, good things happen, and mistakes are easier to overcome.
Another problem that causes gliding that isn’t as easy to detect as the swing from the hip is the tendency to kick out the foot of the lead leg too soon. In other words, the hurdler does lead with the knee, but doesn’t drive with the knee. The foot kicks up in front of the knee too soon, thus causing the same negative effect as swinging from the hip, but even worse, because there’s more force behind the motion. The hurdler no longer has any control over the lead leg, and has to wait for gravity to bring the leg back down to the track. This problem not only causes a major pause in the lead-leg action, but also, as a result, causes the hips to turn, and the trail leg knee to dip down too low. Superior speed or power can, in some cases, disguise this flaw, but it’s still something you’d want to fix in order to maximize your potential.
Another problem that can cause gliding is the tendency to maintain the same upper-body posture while clearing the hurdle that one has established while sprinting. When going over the hurdle, you’ve gotta buck. How much you have to buck depends on the height of the hurdle, and your height as well. When I use the word “buck,” what I mean is, you’ve gotta bring your chest down to your lead-leg thigh as you’re clearing the hurdle. As the knee drives upward, into the hurdle, the lower back needs to simultaneously be pushing down. Neither the head nor the eyes nor the upper back come down, but only the lower back. This bucking motion is very effective because it prevents the lead leg from swinging upward, and it forces the lead leg to drive down quickly to the track, as it simply doesn’t have any room to hang in the air.
For more experienced hurdlers, who lead with the knee, who drive with the knee, who buck from the lower back, yet still glide over hurdles, the problem is pretty simple: fear. Sometimes, you’re afraid of the hurdles without even realizing you are. Subconsciously, you tend to “jump” over hurdles because you want to be sure you clear it safely. Maybe you’re tired of all the bruises on your trail-leg knee and ankle, or maybe you have a memory in your mind of a time when you smacked so many hurdles that it cost you a race, so the higher clearance serves as a means of safeguarding against repeating past failures. Where, physically, does this problem manifest itself? In the trail leg, before it even leaves the ground. You’ll push off more upward than forward, elevating instead of attacking. It’s a psychological adjustment that often can be very subtle, but yes, it’s very real. How to fix this problem? A coaching friend of mine gave me a suggestion that worked very well for me with one of my hurdlers: lower the hurdles in practice. If, for instance, you’re a girl who races over 33” hurdles, then lower the hurdles to 30” for the majority of a workout. Because you have no fear of the lower hurdles, you’ll sprint over them aggressively, in attack mode. Then, end the workout with a few reps over 33”s, and you’ll find that you’re able to maintain the aggression and speed that you had over the lower hurdles, because that aggression and speed now feels normal to you, so it carries over.
© 2005 Steve McGill