Late-Race Breakdowns in the 400 Hurdles

A lot of times, when I hear 400m hurdlers talk, they mention how they’re having a lot of difficulty maintaining their rhythm late in the race. “If I can just fix the second half,” they say, “I would drop so much time.” Then they ask me if I can suggest any workouts they can do to solve their late-race problems. The first question I ask in response is, “How many steps do you take to the first hurdle?” More often than not, they don’t know. My point? Late-race rhythm problems are often caused, at least in part, if not entirely, by rhythm problems in the early part of the race.

In continuing the conversation from the above paragraph, I often find out that the athlete begins stuttering as early as hurdle two, or even at the first hurdle. A lot of times, this information is revealed only after some prodding, because the athlete either doesn’t realize he or she is stuttering early on, or doesn’t think the early stuttering is of much consequence. The reason they don’t realize it, or choose to ignore it, is because they’re not tired yet at that point of the race, they’re being carried by their speed and adrenaline, so they’re able to more or less just run through the stuttering. They don’t really pay the price for it until late.

So, I would say that trying to fix late-race problems by running over more hurdles and longer distances in practices does not really address the issue. Unless you’re out of shape and just can’t hang for 400 meters, then late-race fatigue is more likely a symptom of a larger problem, but is not the root of the problem. If you really want to end the late-race breakdowns, you have to go back to the starting blocks, and move forward from there.

The most challenging aspect of the 400 hurdles, which makes it an endlessly difficult event to master, lies in finding, and then executing, the exact stride pattern that will enable you to run as fast as you can for the whole race. So you really have to practice stride pattern. As you get faster and stronger, over the course of a career or over the course of a season, these improvements in speed will create problems in rhythm. More experienced hurdlers may run into the problem of getting locked into a rhythm that may no longer be optimal for them. For example, someone who took seventeen steps to the second hurdle in his sophomore year of high school might still be taking seventeen his senior year, even though the seventeen is much more crowded now. That athlete will have to make some changes, or else the stuttering that 17-stepping causes will lead to late-race fatigue and even more problematic rhythm issues.

Let’s say the hypothetical athlete from the above paragraph – let’s name him Joe – wants to take fifteen steps to the second hurdle because 17 is feeling way too crowded. In practice he sets up the first two hurdles and tries to 15-step the second one. It always looks like he’s going to make it, but then he always chops his last few strides and fits in his usual 17.

The coach says, “You gotta go after it, you can’t be afraid. Keep your knees up, keep driving your arms.”

But no matter how hard he tries, Joe can’t break the habit of 17-stepping hurdle two. Finally, the coach notes that Joe is taking 24 strides to the first hurdle, that he is not getting his knees up or driving his arms to the first hurdle. “Let’s try this,” the coach offers, “let’s switch your feet in the blocks, take 23 steps to the first hurdle, and then see if we can 15-step hurdle two.”

“But how’s that gonna help?” Joe asks.

“Taking longer strides to the first hurdle should carry over to the second hurdle,” the coach explains. Fifteen-stepping won’t feel like a reach if you’re stride length is already long enough to hit hurdle two in fifteen naturally.”

“Okay, let’s try it,” Joe agrees.

On his first attempt, Joe messes up at hurdle one. He gets all stuttery and ends up running around it. “Man, that’s even worse,” he exclaims.

“No it’s not,” his coach assures him. “You just gotta drive in your first few strides out of the blocks. You can’t be all quick at the beginning. Open up those first few strides and you’ll get there in 23 easily, and it’ll carry over.”

“But won’t I get too tired if I go out too hard?”

“You’ll get more tired if you don’t.”

Joe agrees to give it another try. He follows his coach’s instructions and powers out of the blocks this time. The extra distance he gains from opening up his initial strides enables him to clear hurdle one in 23 strides. He maintains the rhythm into hurdle two and clears it cleanly in 15 strides.

As the season progresses, Joe is able to 15-step through hurdle five before he has to drop down to 17. He is able to hold 17 for the entire second half of the race, whereas before he was dropping down to 19 over the last two hurdles.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Now let’s look at another hypothetical hurdler. We’ll call her Anne. She has the ability to alternate lead legs. Anne, like Joe, has been having a lot of fatigue and rhythm problems late in races. She calls her older sister, Jane, who used to hurdle in college, and asks her for advice. “What should I do to get stronger?” she asks. “I run a lot of 800’s and 600’s in practice but I still die at the end of races.”

Jane knows from personal experience that if Anne is stuttering late, she must be stuttering early. “How many steps are you taking to the second hurdle?” she asks.

“Seventeen,” Anne says.

“Is it comfortable?”

“Yeah. It’s a little crowded maybe, but not too much.”

“Try alternating and take sixteen,” Jane suggests.

Anne tries it at her next practice, and is able to do so, even though it feels kind of “funny.” What she realizes is that, although she’s always had the ability to alternate, she has always preferred to lead with her right leg – her “good” leg. So, even though taking 16 steps and leading with the left leg felt a bit awkward, it was much more rhythmic and a lot less fatiguing. As her season continues and she grows more confident in the left leg, she can alternate through hurdle seven before switching to 17 strides over the last three.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

In the case of both Joe and Anne, and plenty of other hurdlers out there, mistakes they were making early in the race were causing them  big-time problems late in the race. But because their focus was on improving the part of the race where the breakdowns actually occurred, they couldn’t see that the breakdowns needed to be addressed before they occurred. In the case of Joe, the very first step out of the blocks quite literally was causing his late-race rhythm and fatigue issues.

Here are a few other thoughts to consider on this topic:

The running rhythm matters more than the hurdling rhythm. Too often, 400 hurdlers focus too much on the hurdling rhythm. Really, you want to run as naturally as you can. Any type of over-emphasis on the hurdling rhythm – stuttering or reaching – causes a break in the running rhythm. You want to clear the hurdles in your running rhythm. The more you can do this early in the race, the easier it’ll be to continue doing so late in the race.

Chopping strides is an energy killer. It drains energy on both sides of the hurdle. It causes you to decelerate in front of the hurdle, and forces you to have to re-accelerate coming off the hurdle. And nothing is more exhausting than having to re-accelerate when you’re already tired. So, if you are chopping strides early, you will pay the price late. Let there be no doubt about that.

Once you start stuttering, you can’t stop. So, if you’re taking 25 strides to the first hurdle and you’re fast enough to take 23, you’re stuttering. So, it could very well be that you’re stuttering at every hurdle, but don’t realize that you are until it becomes a fatigue issue.

Alternating could be a must in order to achieve optimal race rhythm. If you’re taking 15 strides to the second hurdle when 14 would be ideal, then you need to learn how to alternate. Or you need to trust that other leg. It could be that you won’t need to alternate until hurdle seven. But if that’s the case, and you don’t alternate at hurdle seven, you’ll have to stutter, and then you’ll stutter between hurdles eight, nine, and ten.

As with anything else, any adjustments in stride pattern will set you back before they push you forward. In races, your body will want to stick to what it’s used to doing, but you’ll be telling it to go with the new rhythm. So, your body will be confused. If you stay patient and don’t allow the initial setbacks to frustrate you, you’ll be heading toward a major breakthrough and a huge drop in time. Trust me on that. Please.

The whole point of this article is to point out that while late-race fatigue often means that you need to get in  better shape, lack of conditioning is not the only cause of late-race breakdowns. I’ve known plenty of hurdlers in great shape who still have huge breakdowns late in races. So, be very aware of, and very meticulous about, your stride pattern early in the race, so that you have the energy you need to execute effectively down the homestretch.

© 2010 Steve McGill

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