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One of the worst habits for a hurdler to develop is that of stopping before a hurdle, or going around a hurdle, while doing practice reps.

Generally speaking, it still holds true that what you do in practice, you’ll do in a race. If you develop the habit of veering around hurdles, you are informing yourself – whether you realize it or not – that veering to the side, or stopping before the hurdles and putting your hands on it, is a viable option if you run into trouble during a race. In other words, you’re basically telling yourself, “If I mess up, I’ll just stop.” But in a race, when the gun goes off, you can’t just stop. You can’t veer to the side. You have to go over the hurdle. Somehow. Even if your clearance is ugly. Even if your steps are off. If you don’t get over it, you’re disqualified, and all that practice is wasted.

This problem is most common among five-steppers trying to learn how to switch legs so they can four-step, or four-steppers trying to learn how to adapt to the new rhythm of three-stepping. It is also common among intermediate hurdlers who don’t know how many steps they want to take between the hurdles. So yes, generally speaking, this problem is most common among beginning hurdlers or even hurdlers with some experience who still haven’t fully gotten over their fear of the obstacles.

Let’s say you’re a four-stepper learning how to three-step, and in the workout, five hurdles are set up with all hurdles after the first hurdle moved in a few feet to help accommodate the transition. You get to the first hurdle in good position, clear the second one with ease, start losing speed and balance over the third one, then lose more speed while approaching the fourth one. Question: What do you do? Stretch your strides and try to get there in three steps? Chop back down to the more familiar four-step pattern? Stutter and take five steps? Answer: Any of the above. The one thing you don’t want to do, even in practice, is stop. Because if you stop in practice, you’ll stop in a race.

Get in the habit of developing race strategies. Be analytical about it. Say something like, “I’ll three-step the first three hurdles and then four-step the rest of the way.” As long as you have one or two meets a week, like most high schools and colleges, there’s only so much time to work on things. So you’re always in a position where you have to cut your losses and go with what will be most feasible for the next race. That’s why I always emphasize that the off-season is the best time to put in major technical changes because there aren’t any meets in the way that will slow down the learning process. Also, therefore, there is no need to unnaturally speed up the learning process.

The word I most often shout to my hurdlers when they make technical mistakes during reps is “Recover!” The reason being, the first thought I want entering their mind when they make a mistake is not “Oh no” or “Oh sh*t” or “I suck,” but “recover.” I want them to hear me say it so often that they start saying it to themselves. It’s not about providing positive reinforcement; it’s about giving yourself a useful, functional, straightforward instruction that can instantly be recalled during the heat of the battle in the midst of a race. When you make a mistake that causes you to lose speed and balance, if you think “Oh no,” you’re going to veer to the side. If you think “Oh sh*t,” you’re going to veer to the side. If you think “I suck,” you’re going to veer to the side. If you think “Why can’t I get this?” you’re going veer to the side. But if you continually think “recover,” you’ll develop the ability to make split-second adjustments that can save you and get you back into your rhythm.

A lot of potential hurdlers ultimately can’t cut it as hurdlers because they can’t deal with the frustration that hurdling brings. Being able to deal with frustration is a basic requirement for being a successful hurdler. It is no less significant a factor than height, weight, speed, and all those other things that are so much easier to measure. I always tell my beginning hurdlers from the outset, “If you can’t deal with frustration, you can’t deal with the hurdles,” because the hurdles are all about frustration.

Of course, there will be times when I as coach will step in during a rep and say, “Stop!” And that can happen for a variety of reasons. Maybe I see that the athlete isn’t approaching the first hurdle aggressively enough. In such a case, there’s no point in wasting energy by going over all five hurdles when I can see from the first step that hurdles 2-5 are going to be garbage. Or maybe I forgot to mention something that I wanted the athlete to focus on for that rep, in which case I’ll want to be sure that the athlete is focusing on the technical things I want him or her focusing on. But the basic point of the coach stepping in and stopping the athlete is to ensure that there are no wasted reps. As I’ve said before in another article, quantity without quality is a waste of time, no matter how hard you’re working. It is vital that the coach be very present and very focused during hurdle workouts, because the coach may need to step in and change everything if it’s not working. If a four-stepper is trying to learn to three-step, to reference the example I used earlier, and the athlete is not even close to getting the three-step, then the coach might need to move the hurdles closer together, lower them, or abandon the workout altogether until a later date, when the athlete has fresher legs, or has improved his or her speed to the point where trying to three-step is a more practical goal.

But in practice the general rule is, get in the habit of clearing all the hurdles that are set up on each rep, unless your coach steps in and stops you. Even bad reps can be instructive, and learning to adapt to mistakes on the fly is essential to hurdling success.

© 2008 Steve McGill

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