In the Hurdles, Progress Comes Slowly

Hey man, slow down, slow down.
–Radiohead

One of the most notable mistakes that many hurdlers make is the mental mistake of growing too frustrated too soon with a lack of progress, believing that if they are trying to improve their technique, then there is no reason why their technique should not be improving, that if they are trying to run faster times, then there is no reason why their times shouldn’t be dropping. The quest for instant results has led many a potential hurdler to give up on the event before giving it a valid try. As we in the athletic world adopt an increasingly unhealthy win-at-all-costs fanaticism, the gratification that comes with making gradual progress and achieving “minor” accomplishments that garner no public recognition is a gratification that many athletes are not willing to seek, and are even less willing to work for. But in the hurdles, you have no choice. In this article, I want to advocate the need to slow down, to relinquish the “I-need-to-hurry-up-and-win” approach to training and competing that undermines the psychological and physical challenges that hurdling presents, and that also compromises the art form.

Anyone who chooses to get involved in hurdling has to have patience and persistence. Patience is necessary because progress comes in small increments, in a series of mini-epiphanies that usually occur in the later stages of hurdle workouts. You’ve gotta keep trying to snap down that lead leg, keep trying to keep that lead arm from swinging across your body, keep trying to stay on the balls of your feet between the hurdles. Persistence is necessary because just mindlessly making the same mistakes over and over again, waiting for everything to click, won’t bring any improvement. Coach and athlete alike need to work together to figure out which workouts and which drills are the ones that are going to most effectively address the technical problems the hurdler may be having. Hurdling is not an event for someone looking for instant results, or looking for an easy way to score points.

A lot of young hurdlers don’t appreciate how long it takes to learn how to hurdle functionally, and how it takes even longer to learn how to hurdle with a high level of technical efficiency. Especially this time of year – early spring, when the outdoor season is just beginning at the high school level – many inexperienced hurdlers are realizing that clearing ten hurdles in the 110/100m race is a lot more demanding than clearing five indoors. Therefore, they are in a rush to get much better real fast. Many tend to believe that if they can “just fix my trail leg” or something similarly simple as that, they can run smooth races without hitting any hurdles. But it’s never that simple.

My personal hero, Renaldo Nehemiah, is known for having cleared hundreds of hurdles in the off-season, just working on one aspect of technique at a time. A lot of hurdlers are not willing to put in so many miles over the barriers, and many coaches don’t understand why so much hurdling in practice would even be considered necessary, preferring to focus on sprinting speed and explosive power, and then just having the athletes put all that speed and power between and over the hurdles on race day. But hurdling is not sprinting. It is very similar to sprinting, it involves sprinting motions, and many lessons of sprint mechanics carry over to hurdling mechanics, but still, hurdling is not sprinting. The flexibility and strength in the hamstrings, hip flexors, and groin area that hurdling requires is extreme, and it cannot be developed properly without hurdling often. Developing event-specific flexibility, strength, and muscle memory is a gradual process that is often frustrating and arduous. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing what you want to do, but not being able to do it, but that happens all the time in hurdling. The body doesn’t want to cooperate with the mind because it prefers to do what it has grown used to doing, or what comes naturally to it. So the process is one of the mind training, or re-training, the body to do it the new way that you’re trying to teach it. That doesn’t happen successfully in the course of one workout, or one week, or even one month.

It’s no secret that when it comes to learning how to hurdle, races get in the way of progress. Athletes grow anxious because “I have a race next week” against stiff competition, so they feel an urgent need to fix a particular technical problem before the day of the meet. Athlete and coach alike must understand that making progress is what is most important, not winning a particular race here or there. During the school season outdoors, when coaching hurdlers who just finished basketball season or swimming season, etc., I’m willing to sacrifice immediate results for the sake of long-term progress and a pay-off at the end of the season. In a high school season, when a coach only has two and a half to three months to work his or her magic, there is no time for the gradual improvement that a full off-season provides. So you have to train through meets. You basically have to cram six months worth of work into half that span of time. I’ll have my hurdlers do heavy hurdle reps in the first month of the season, even on the day before meets, because I’m more concerned with them correcting their technical flaws than I am about them winning the next day’s race.

When it comes to the workouts and drills themselves, slowing down is also the way to go. A lot of beginning hurdlers, and coaches of beginning hurdlers, are in a hurry to three-step so they can get out on the track and run races. So the workouts end up consisting of nothing but full-speed-ahead stretching and reaching to get those three steps. The lead leg is locking, the arms are flailing, the trail leg is lagging behind, but hey, I’m three-stepping! No. Slow it down. While it is important to develop a genuine race rhythm, the fact of the matter is that proper hurdling mechanics cannot be learned at full speed. The faster you’re running, the less time your mind has to think. The slower you’re running, the more time your mind has to think. When you’re learning how to hurdle, you want your mind to have time to think. That’s the only it can teach the body what it’s trying to teach it. Then, when you go back to doing the faster reps, your improved mecahnics will make you faster between the hurdles, which will make the hurdling itself much easier, much more fluid and rhythmic.

I had an eye-opening experience myself last week, when I was working with one of the girl hurdlers on my school team. She’s a junior, a consistent three-stepper, but has always had a tendency to run on her heels and to lock out her lead leg. I had her doing a basic sprinting three-step workout over five hurdles, with the hurdles moved in one foot. She was reaching the hurdles, was getting through the workout, but her mechanical problems were as vividly obvious as ever, in spite of the fact that she was consciously trying to fix her flaws. Finally, half-way through her second set, I aborted the workout and instructed her to slow down, to five-step like she does in her drills, to focus on staying on the balls of her feet between the hurdles, and to drive with the knee over the hurdle. At the slower pace, she was able to “get” what I was talking about, and I could see a noticeable improvement in her running posture as well as her hurdling form. Even her trail leg was coming around more tightly, due to the fact that her lead leg was no longer locking. The next time she did a hurdle workout, we went at drill speed, five-stepping for the entire workout, and she looked great. I didn’t have her do anything full speed prior to the next meet except for a few starts over two hurdles the day before the race. On the day of the race, she dropped more than half a second from her previous race, running a time that, if converted to automatic timing, would equal her personal best.

The lesson that the above anecdote teaches is that the progress you make at slower speeds does, in fact, carry over when moving at higher speeds. Often, hurdlers are over-anxious to go full speed in practice because “that’s how you do it in a meet.” But practice isn’t a meet; practice is preparation for a meet. It is erroneous to assume that you have to go all-out on every practice rep in order to be ready to race. With that thought in mind, workouts like the back-and-forths, or the quick-steps, or drill-speed hurdling, are very useful. They serve the function of giving the mind the time it needs to think, and to pass those thoughts on to the body. When the body is sprinting full speed, three-stepping over hurdles that are set the full distance apart from each other, the mind doesn’t have time to think, so the hurdler has to trust that his or her body will do what he or she wants it to do without telling it anything. And that’s fine during the latter stages of a season, when I want to trust my instincts, and I don’t want to spend time thinking, processing, analyzing. But in the learning process, when trying to specifically address technical flaws that are ingrained in the body, slow down, man, slow down.

© 2006 Steve McGill

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