I was saying to one of my athletes the other day, the indoor track season is a boring time of the year for a 400m hurdler. Every other athlete can compete in events that are either shortened or lengthened versions of their outdoor specialties, and field event athletes can compete in their specialties without the worries of wind factors. But the 400m hurdler has to wait until the outdoor season before he can focus on his specialty. In the meantime, his racing consists of events like the open 400 and 800, maybe a 200 here or there. So a 400 hurdler won’t clear a hurdle in a race until the spring. So, how much hurdling should a 400 hurdler do in the fall and winter? That’s the question this article will address.
A lot of 400 hurdlers don’t bother much at all with hurdling during the fall and winter. Instead they focus on building their strength in the weight room, and their conditioning and cardio base by running mileage, a lot of intervals, as well as hill running and the like. I’m with all of that, but I also believe in getting over some hurdles every now and then, even when no hurdle race is on the horizon.
Why? Because the hurdles are a rhythm event. All running events are rhythm events. So you have to stay connected to the rhythm of your event. A hurdler who doesn’t hurdle for a long period of time can easily pick up the old technique from the previous year within a workout or two. But the rhythm takes longer to redevelop. Run too many quarter-miles and you start to develop a quarter-miler’s rhythm. The hurdles are part of the rhythm, so by taking away the hurdles, and allowing yourself to get too used to running without hurdles in your way, then you never get past looking at the hurdles as being obstacles; you never get to the point where you embrace the hurdles as part of the rhythm.
How? I believe in incorporating some hurdling into the interval workouts. 400 hurdlers are always doing interval distances anywhere from 800m down to 150m, so why not throw some hurdles in the way as a way of reminding yourself you’re a hurdler, not a quarter-miler? For example, if the quarter-milers you train with are doing 10×200 at 28 seconds with a 2-minute rest between each one, why don’t you reduce the reps a bit (down to 8), reduce the speed a bit (up to 29 or 30), keep the same recovery, and add two hurdles to clear on the last straight-away? The spacing doesn’t matter; stride pattern isn’t yet the focal point in this phase of the season. As long as there are hurdles on your path, the mental stimulus that the hurdle’s presence provides keeps you in the mindset of a hurdler, which is what is most important.
During such workouts, even though stride pattern isn’t the focus, it always stays in the back of the mind. The brain should never stop strategizing; visualizing stride pattern should stay on the mind all the time. Lets’ say, for those 200’s, you do put the hurdles on the last two marks for the 400h. It’s worth telling yourself, If I can 15-step these two hurdles the whole workout, with only 2 minutes rest between reps, then I know I can 15-step at the end of a race, because the fatigue level will be the same.
I’m also big on setting aside at least one day per week for technique work. It can be a “light day” that doesn’t involve a whole lot of running. A day to address technical flaws. A day heavy on drills, similar to those commonly done by a 110 hurdler. It is so important to not let technical flaws be the reason for late-race breakdowns. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if today’s top 400m hurdlers were as good at hurdling as they are at running a flat 400 meters, they’d be running in the 47’s on bad races. Too many 400 hurdlers just get over the hurdles any old way and rely on their speed and strength to compensate. 400 hurdlers don’t need to be technicians like 110 hurdlers, but actually, to maximize their potential, yes they do.
Energy distribution is the biggest key to success for a 400 hurdler. Wasted energy is the biggest no-no. There are ten hurdles to clear, and a 35m run-in off the last one. You cannot afford to waste any energy. The purpose of being flawless technically is to minimize the amount of wasted energy. I would define wasted energy as any effort exerted that does not help to increase or maintain speed.
Let’s say you’re a 400 hurdler whose lead arm goes over your head and crosses your body when you attack each hurdle. Not a big flaw, really, but check this out: that’s ten times that your lead arm is going over your head and crossing your body. That motion causes your trail leg to swing out wildly. That’s ten times that your trail leg swings out wildly. It also causes the lead leg to hang in the air, killing your momentum off the hurdle, forcing you to re-accelerate when you land. That’s ten times that your lead leg will hang in the air, ten times that you lose momentum off the hurdle, ten time that you have to re-accelerate when you land. Do you realize how much time you’ve lost, how much energy you’ve wasted, because you didn’t fix that one flaw? Do you realize, too, that you didn’t get nearly as much benefit as you should have from all those miles you ran, from all those intervals you ran, all those reps you put in in the weight room, simply because you neglected to address that one flaw? Do you realize why I’m making such a big deal out of something so small? Because something so small is huge.
The best time to work on such technical issues is the off-season, because there is no pressure to fix everything in a hurry. That way, when the spring rolls around and the days are longer and the sun shines down on the track, you can focus more specifically on building speed and developing a stride pattern to use for races. So, 400 hurdlers, use your time wisely, so that once the outdoor season arrives, you can hit the ground running.
© 2010 Steve McGill