One of the most difficult aspects of a race for a 400m hurdler to figure out is how to negotiate hurdling on the curve. More stutter-stepping, stumbling, over-striding, and balance issues occur on the second curve than in any other part of the race, probably for the simple fact that there is something fundamentally unnatural about hurdling on the curve. In this article I will discuss some of the problems associated with curve hurdling and possible ways to address these concerns.
The first thing I always tell my athletes about hurdling on the curve is to go with the flow of the hurdle, not with the flow of the lane. This advice sounds very simple, but it’s really very difficult to follow, as it is human nature to go with the flow of the lane. You may have noticed that the crossbar of a hurdle stays straight whether it’s on a straight-away or whether it’s on the curve. A hurdle crossbar does not curve with the lane. So, when you have a straight crossbar and a curved lane, you have a problem to deal with: do I lean into the curve like a 200m or 400m sprinter would, or do I dive straight into the hurdle the way a 110m or 100m hurdler would? I say, dive straight into the hurdle the way a sprint hurdler would. Let me explain why:
Whether you’re a left-leg lead or a right-leg lead, if you clear a curve hurdle with your weight leaning sideways into the curve, the way a sprinter runs, you’re going to land off-balance, which will cause you to stumble, lose your rhythm, and potentially lose your stride pattern. The reason that a hurdler has a natural tendency to lean into the curve is for the same reason a sprinter does – because doing so keeps you moving in the direction you’re trying to go. The downside of going with the flow of the hurdle instead of the flow of the lane is that it will cause you, regardless of which leg you lead with, to land far from the inner edge of the lane. A left-leg lead will touch down more or less in the middle of the lane, and a right-leg lead will touch down somewhere on the outer edges of the lane. So, the question becomes, do you lose more time by touching down wide, or do you lose more time by touching down off-balance? My personal opinion is that landing off-balance can cause more loss of time than one step in the outside part of the lane.
Now, with all that being said, I would also say that, except for the last three or four steps before the hurdle, as well as hurdle clearance itself, a hurdler should, indeed, try to run as similar as possible to how a sprinter would run the curve. If you take fifteen steps between the hurdles, for instance, then, when on the curve, eleven to twelve of those steps should be spent hugging the inner edge of the curve, leaning the upper body into the curve. That way, you can maximize your sprinting ability without compromising your hurdling ability. Then, as you approach the hurdle, drift a little to the middle part of the lane. A right-leg lead must do this in order to ensure that the trail leg clears the barrier. In general, in both the sprint hurdles and the long hurdles, a hurdler wants to stay as close to sprinting form as possible, so to just abandon sprinting principles would be foolish; instead, a hurdler wants to adapt sprinting principles to fit the fact that there are hurdles in the way. So, upon touchdown off a hurdle on the curve, it is important to get right back to the inside part of the lane in the very next step. Just be sure that you touch down first before you cut back in. If you start cutting back in while you’re still in the air, you’ll cause yourself to stumble when you touch the ground. It’s like a wide receiver in football who starts running with the ball before the ball is actually secured in his grasp. Next thing you know, an easy catch turns into a drop because he was too eager to get going too soon.
In hurdling on the curve, it is also important to keep a low center of gravity during hurdle clearance. If you’re too upright, you’ll sail and lose forward momentum, which can affect your ability to maintain your stride pattern. Also, I feel it is okay to allow the arms to go across the body to a slight degree, as long as you keep the elbows tight and pull the elbow of the lead arm straight back as the lead leg returns to the ground. It seems to me that balance problems on the curve are caused more by wide, flailing arms than by any problems with the legs.
A key turning-point hurdle in the 400m hurdles is the eighth one, as it is the last one on the curve. This is the hurdle where the temptation to go with the flow of the lane is at its greatest, because you’re only a step or two away from the straight-away. This is where it is most important to clear the hurdle first, and then get back on the ground sprinting.
Another important factor to keep in mind is that hurdling on the curve is difficult not just because of the angles, etc., but also because fatigue is becoming a major factor, as the curve hurdles, 6 – 8 on most tracks, come in the second half of the race. So, as is always the case, conditioning can solve a lot of problems that a lack of conditioning can cause. Nothing that I’ve said in this article really matters if you’re not in the type of condition necessary to deal with the demands of a 400m hurdle race.
© 2005 Steve McGill