Although injuries are an aspect of all sports, there are certain injuries that hurdlers are more prone to than others. This article will discuss the types of injuries that are common to hurdlers, what their causes are, how to treat them, and (best-case scenario) how to prevent them from happening in the first place.
Areas of Injury
Groin of trail leg – Muscle strains in the groin of the trail leg are usually caused by bringing the trail leg around too late and too wide. Over the course of several weeks, it starts to throb and restrict the athlete’s range of motion, then it becomes chronic, and can ultimately become debilitating. That’s why, one of the most important reasons for the need to develop proper hurdling mechanics early on is for prevention of injuries. An ingrained bad mechanic puts the body in an awkward, unnatural position over and over again, causing injuries that wouldn’t exist if a proper mechanic had been instilled from the beginning. For the trail leg, the idea is to bring the knee directly underneath the armpit of the lead arm, not swinging out wide to the side. Also, just as with the lead leg, drive the knee upward, not outward, and don’t let the foot get out in front of the knee too soon.
Groin of lead leg – Muscles strains in the groin of the lead leg are usually caused by a hurdler doing too many one-step drills, quick-three-step drills – any drills in which the hurdles are placed very close together and the lead leg knee is driving more vertically than horizontally. Such drills are excellent for teaching lead leg mechanics, but the groin of the lead leg is doing a lot of work, which can cause soreness and strains if done to excess.
Hamstring of the lead leg – I would argue that this one is the most common of all hurdler injuries. It is caused simply by clearing a lot of hurdles, so it is an occupational hazard. Again, proper mechanics can help here too. Those who extend the lead leg too far, or lock out the knee of the lead leg, instead of driving the knee and snapping down, are more prone to hamstring strains of the lead leg.
Hamstring of the trail leg – Injuries in this leg occur due to the force applied to the track during take-off into the hurdle. When you start feeling a twinge in this hamstring during a hurdle workout, it’s best to just shut it down for the day, because if you try to fight through it, you won’t be able to push off like you want to, so you’ll have to change your angle of take-off as a means of compensation, which can lead to injuries in your other leg, or in other parts of the same leg, and will definitely cause technical issues.
Shin splints – To a degree, shin splints are another occupational hazard. The shins take on a lot of the impact upon landing, not just coming off the hurdle, but in every step while sprinting. Training on a hard surface, like concrete, asphalt, or even mondo, can lead to chronic shin pain.
Calf strains – Calf strains are usually caused by coming back to full-speed, balls-of-the-feet sprinting too soon after a rest period. That’s why it’s best, after an extended period away from the track, to ease back into shape with some slow distance runs, and then some sprinting at 60%-70% of full speed. If you take this approach, the calves will be strong enough to remain relatively pain-free through rigorous training.
Quadriceps strains – my observation has been that quad strains are rare for hurdlers, as they are naturally much stronger than the hamstrings on the underside of the thigh. The only times I’ve seen quad problems for hurdlers is when doing a lot of downhill sprinting, as this type of workout creates naturally longer strides, which stretches the quad muscles more than what they’re used to.
Achilles soreness – Achilles pain is usually caused by landing too flat-footed while sprinting, but especially when coming off the hurdle. Landing on the balls of the feet isn’t just good running posture; it also helps to cushion the impact for all the other parts of the lower legs.
Knee tendonitis – This one is an overuse injury that can occur in either leg. Some of us are genetically pre-disposed to it. For most people, the pain comes and goes, but is manageable. Those for whom it is not manageable may need to leave hurdling alone, because, in hurdling, there is no way around putting pressure on the joints.
For muscle strains and shin splints, take off for three days to a week. During the time off, ice regularly and take anti-inflammatory pills regularly. Don’t stretch strained muscles! Then, when you come back, come back gradually. Don’t run any faster that the injured area will allow you to. The more you try to force it, and the more you try to hurry back, the more you increase the risk of re-injury. Don’t try to hurdle again until you really feel you can trust the muscle to support you.
With hamstring strains, I always found it helpful to come back from rest by jogging two or three miles for the first few days, trying to pick up speed a little bit each lap as the muscle warms up and the range of motion increases.
For shin splints, one idea my high school coach showed me that always worked very well for me is to tie a 2 ½ – 3 lb. weight to your foot, sit at an elevated height, like on a table, so that your feet can’t reach the ground, and flex your foot upward, gradually bring it back down to parallel to the ground, then lift it again. Do three sets of fifteen, something like that, for each foot (assuming that your shin splints are in both legs).
Dress Appropriately – One of the most basic yet most important ways to prevent any type of injury is to wear warm clothing when you first step out to the track. Even when the weather is warm, you should warm up in warm clothing. In track, even the slightest injury can keep you out of a competition. You don’t have any teammates, so if you can’t do it yourself, it won’t get done at all. In other sports, performing while injured is often noble and heroic, but in track, it’s usually just plain stupid. The elite athletes that I’ve watched practice always wear spandex and/or warm-up suits when they first arrive on the track, and they don’t peel off the layers until they’ve worked up a good sweat. It exasperates me when kids come out in the winter talking about, “It’s cold out here,” and all they’re wearing is shorts and a T-shirt. Of course it’s cold, fool, go back inside and put on some gear. A lot of kids don’t understand that proper attire is not just about changing with the weather, but about preventing injuries to muscles that haven’t been properly prepared to endure the stress that you’re putting them through.
Stretch, Stretch, Stretch – For you youngsters out there, let it be known that, from the beginning of your track career, you want to get in the habit of stretching thoroughly before and after working out. When you’re young and dumb, you’re not yet aware of how susceptible to injury your body is. The old, touch-your-toes-for-five-seconds stretching routine might work for a little while, but it’s going to catch up to you as you get older. The hamstrings, lower back, groin, hips flexors, and calves are the muscles that really need to be stretched thoroughly before and after a workout. Back in my day, I also made it a habit to stretch before going to bed. Some coaches say to stretch again upon waking up, but I always found that my muscles were too stiff in the morning, so I felt afraid I might pull something while stretching that early in the day. But hey, if you’re a morning person, go for it.
Don’t race in practice – We’ve all been guilty of this one; I’ve been guilty of it myself. Trying to keep up with teammates, trying to prove a point, especially in cold weather, is the perfect recipe for winding up on the shelf for a few days. Do your workout the way your coach planned it, and don’t try to be a hero.
Warm up on grass – For shin splints and knee problems in particular, warming up on the grass and doing your sprint drills on the grass helps to prevent injury. Because sprint drills are very ballistic, they put a significant amount of pressure on the lower legs.
Wear shoes with a lot of cushion – Don’t do everything with your spikes on. It drives me crazy to see how enamored kids often are with training in their spikes. Plenty of workouts can be done in your regular training flats. In the off-season, when you’re still building up your conditioning, there is rarely any reason to put the spikes on at all. Spikes generally provide little to no cushion, even the ones with the heel on them, that are designed for intermediate hurdlers. I generally don’t like my athletes to practice in their spikes unless they’re working specifically on their start. So, find a pair of training flats that provide a lot of heel cushion so your ankles and Achilles tendons can make it through the whole season.
The Mental Side
As with all other aspects of being a track athlete, dealing with injuries also has a mental side to it that cannot be ignored. Injuries are often the cause of our greatest fears that our dreams won’t come true, or that we’ll fall short of our goals. These are quite valid fears. For that reason, it is very important to have a support system surrounding you when dealing with an injury of serious consequence. A coach, teammates, family members, athletes who have had an injury similar to yours, music or books that you find inspiring, can all help you to get through the emotional lows when you find yourself doubting that you’ll ever be able to come back and run the way you used to. It is also wise to educate yourself about your injury by conversing with sports medicine people, doctors, and trainers, and even just by looking up information on the internet. By claiming your injury and not trying to deny its existence, you enable yourself to deal with it healthily, and to learn the lessons it is trying to teach you.
© 2005 Steve McGill