Hitting Hurdles with the Trail-leg Foot

Hitting hurdles with the trail-leg foot is probably the most disconcerting place to hit a hurdle when moving at a high velocity, as it causes the greatest loss of rhythm and balance. Usually, hitting a hurdle with the trail-leg foot causes the hurdler to fall forward, dramatically altering the center of gravity, potentially causing a fall, but definitely, at least, causing a clumsy stumble-step upon landing, as well as a significant loss of speed. In this article, I will discuss the possible causes of hitting hurdles with the trail-leg foot, and ways to correct this problem.

The most common cause of hitting hurdles with the trail-leg foot is what I call, for lack of a better term, the “lazy toe.” The toes of the trail leg point downward as the foot crosses the barrier, and therefore grab hold of the crossbar, propelling the athlete into an unexpected and unfavorable direction of flight. Ideally, the toes of the trail-leg foot should be pointing outward, parallel to the crossbar, as the foot clears the crossbar. This is what Wilbur Ross, in The Hurdler’s Bible, refers to as the “everted toe.” But if you’re a hurdler who has a habitually lazy toe, then you know that leaving the toe hanging is a hard habit to break. But there a few things that can be done to fix this flaw. One tried-but-true method is the simple wall drill, where you place your hands against a wall and make a circular motion with the trail leg, over a hurdle that is right beside you, on the trail-leg side of your body. Do a series of rotations in which you focus on making sure you are keeping the toes pointed upward at all times, throughout the entire rotary motion. Make sure your upper body is in the same posture it would be in if you were actually running. Although I know this may sound a bit funny, I always suggest doing it the wrong way a few times as well, just as a means of teaching your body the difference between the two. Take notice, when comparing the right way to the wrong way, of how small the difference is between hitting the hurdle and sliding right over it. Do about ten to fifteen rotations in a series, and do as many series as you feel is necessary to develop some consistency with the motion. In each series, start slowly so that you can intellectually internalize the details of the motion, then quicken the tempo as you gain more confident and comfortable.

Another way to overcome the problem of a lazy trail-leg toe is to address the issue in your sprinting mechanics. Are you running on the balls of your feet? Are you pulling your toes upward while sprinting in between the hurdles? If not, then focus on those things when doing your skip drills, and then when doing your trail-leg drills. If your toes are pointed upward when you’re sprinting, then the toes of your trail leg will be pointing outward when the trail leg foot is directly over the crossbar. That’s what you want.

Another possible cause of hitting hurdles with the trail-leg foot can simply be that the trail leg is moving too slowly. I’ve always conceptualized hurdling as being more of a reflex action than anything else. That’s why a lot of hurdlers who aren’t great sprinters can run so fast over hurdles – because they have extraordinarily quick muscle triggers, because they have remarkably quick reflexes. Flexibility, strength, and all that good stuff helps too, but you know what I’m saying. Usually, however, when we use the word “quick” in reference to hurdling, we’re talking about the lead leg, not the trail leg. Snap down the lead leg quickly, for instance. What I have found to be true with athletes I’ve coached is that, as the season goes on and their speed increases, their lead-leg quickness increases with it. But trail-leg problems begin to develop that weren’t there early in the season. The reason for that, I believe, is that, as the lead-leg quickness has increased, the trail-leg quickness has stayed the same. Therefore, instead of thrusting upward underneath the armpit, the trail leg comes around in a wide horizontal arc, with no real power behind it. So, in such cases, you just have to be aware that the trail leg you had in, say, March, will no longer work effectively for you in May; it’s gotta match the lead leg’s quickness. This is where one-step drills are useful, but I also believe that just consciously thinking about driving the trail leg upward quickly during reps in practice sessions will successfully address the problem.

As is the case with so many other technical problems, if you don’t want to hit hurdles with the trail-leg foot, it is important to buck. Bring that lower back down so that your chest is directly over your lead-leg thigh. If you’re standing straight up while clearing the hurdle, you’re increasing the chances of hitting the hurdle with any and all parts of both legs. So get low; give the trail leg the room it needs to drive upward.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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