More Thoughts about Stride Pattern

In the attempt to further address the never-ending questions about stride pattern in the 400m hurdles, I’ve been looking at footage of some old back-in-the-day races to get a feel for how greats of the past ran the race, and to see what conclusions I could draw from these observations. Before getting into the discussion, let me start by giving a breakdown of the stride patterns I noted:

Edwin Moses’ World Record Race in 1983
Edwin Moses (47.02):
· 19 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-10.
Andre Phillips (48.26):
· 20 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-8
· 14 strides to hurdles 9-10

Edwin Moses’ 1987 WC Victory
Edwin Moses (47.46):
· 19 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-10
Danny Harris (47.48):
· 21 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-6
· 14 strides to hurdles 7-9
· 15 strides to hurdle 10
Harald Schmid (47.48):
· 21 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-8
· 14 strides to hurdles 9-10

Andre Phillips’ 1988 Olympic Victory
Andre Phillips (47.19):
· 19 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-10
Edwin Moses (47.56):
· 19 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-10

Kevin Young’s 1992 Olympic Victory
Kevin Young (46.78):
· 20 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-3
· 12 strides to hurdles 4-5
· 13 strides to hurdles 6-10

Derrick Adkins’ 1995 WC and 1996 Olympic Victories
Derrick Adkins (47. 98, 47.54):
· 21 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-6
· 14 strides to hurdles 7-10

Felix Sanchez’ 2004 Olympic Victory
Felix Sanchez (47.63):
· 21 strides to the first hurdle
· 13 strides to hurdles 2-5
· 14 strides to hurdles 6-7
· 15 strides to hurdles 8-10

Bershawn Jackson’s 2005 WC Victory
Bershawn Jackson (47.30):
· 21 strides to the first hurdle
· 15 strides to hurdles 2-10

When looking at these stride patterns, two essential questions arise:
1. Is stride rate (turnover) more important than stride length, or vice versa, or are they both equally important?
2. Is the ability to switch lead legs essential to success in the 400m hurdles?

Stride Rate vs. Stride Length
Bershawn Jackson serves as a great example to support the viewpoint that stride rate matters more than stride length. Prior to Jackson’s 2005 World Championship performance, I doubt that anyone believed it was possible to run 47.30 fifteen-stepping the whole way. In the pouring rain, no less. In an era when almost all elite hurdlers are 13-stepping at least half the race, the fact that a 15-stepper ran so fast is utterly astounding. Obviously, he must really be turning those legs over quickly if he’s beating guys who are taking 10-20 less strides than he.

Felix Sanchez’ 2004 Olympic final might be an even better example of the importance of stride rate. At 5’10”, he is also in the “smallish” range. Of all the 13-steppers mentioned in this article, he transitions to 14 steps sooner than any of the others – after the fifth hurdle. Also, he 15-stepped all of the last three hurdles, whereas none of the other 13-steppers dropped down to fifteen at all (except for Harris, who 15-stepped the last hurdle in the 1987 WC final).

From the examples of Jackson and Sanchez, it seems fair to conclude that, for smaller hurdlers, stride rate is the key to compensating for the longer stride length that taller hurdlers are able to employ.

The two athletes who best serve as examples of the importance of stride length are Kevin Young and Andre Phillips. Let’s start with Young. Twelve-stepping the 4th and 5th hurdles at the 1992 Olympic Games enabled him to do the only thing Edwin Moses never did: break the 47.00 barrier. For Young, there can be no doubt that longer strides translated into faster times. Some experts have argued that Moses too could have run under 47.00 fairly regularly had he chosen to 12-step early hurdles instead of going with thirteen all the way. I don’t necessarily agree with this assessment, because Moses did 12-step the 2nd and 3rd hurdles in a few races in his career, and it didn’t help. But I’ll get into Moses in more detail a little later.

Now let’s look at Phillips, who spent the majority of his career chasing after Moses. Let’s compare his stride pattern in Moses’ world record race in 1983 to that of his own Olympic record race of 1988. In the ’83 race, Phillips took twenty steps to the first hurdle instead of the nineteen he took five years later. And in ’83 he 14-stepped the last two hurdles, while he 13-stepped all of the last nine hurdles in ’88. Obviously, in the time between ’83 and ’88, Phillips came to the conviction that the only way to beat Moses was to join him – to 19-step the first hurdle and to 13-step the rest. So, once he was able to master the 13-stride pattern for the whole race, he had the strength he needed to stay with Moses on the final straight-away, when Moses would usually pull away.

Switching Lead Legs
While some of the best 400h races ever run have been run by hurdlers who used the same lead leg throughout the race, the overwhelming majority of hurdle coaches would agree that the ability to switch lead legs is essential, especially in the second half of the race. Of the hurdlers listed in this article, it would seem that Derrick Adkins and Harald Schmid are the two who best support this point of view. Adkins, in both his 1995 WC victory and his 1996 Olympic victory, took 13 strides to hurdles 2-6, and then 14 the rest of the way, switching leads for all of the last four hurdles. Trying to maintain the 13-stride rhythm would have forced him to use up too much energy too soon, and dropping down to 15 would have forced him to chop his strides too much. So, fourteen was ideal, and it worked.

Schmid, meanwhile, ran a near-flawless race in the ’87 WC. He switched from 13 to 14 at the ninth hurdle, just when the 13 had become too much of a stretch. By dropping to fourteen, he was able to maintain his quickness, and to maintain a smooth transition off the hurdle. Most importantly, Schmid was very good at using both lead legs. Every now and then you see hurdlers who are “ambidextrous,” which, in this sense, means they can lead with either leg with equal ability. Schmid was one of those rare hurdlers.

The reason I’m often skeptical about the benefits of switching leads is because most hurdlers, especially those who compete in the high hurdles as well, don’t practice using the other leg often enough to trust it in a race. Even Adkins, who switched legs effectively, looked ugly when leading with his right leg, and it could be argued that if he had dropped down to fifteen, he would’ve lost less time than he did by throwing up that crooked right leg.

Getting back to the point about Schmid being ambidextrous, this is a quality rarely seen among male hurdlers, but is not as uncommon among females. I once coached a girl who, at only 5’2”, had no choice but to 4-step the 100m hurdles. She was able to do so, quite naturally, in her first few days of practice. In the 100h and the 300h, it was impossible to tell which leg was her “weaker” lead and which was stronger. I think the greatest argument for switching leads in the intermediates comes from hurdlers like her – those who switch leads early in the race, not from elite hurdlers who don’t switch until late in the race. For instance, one of my high school hurdlers right now is working on getting down to fifteen strides between the hurdles, as he was taking seventeen strides all of last year. The other day in practice he “accidentally” 16-stepped the second hurdle. I suggested he go with it for the rest of the workout, and he did. Hopefully, he’ll eventually get down to fifteen, but, in the meantime, sixteen is better than seventeen, as long as it’s in rhythm. Similarly, there are plenty of hurdlers out there who would be better off 14-stepping the early hurdles instead of using up a lot of energy stretching to reach thirteen.

The ‘87 WC is an excellent race to analyze when discussing the various stride patterns. All three hurdlers – Moses, Harris, and Schmid – finished in essentially the same time, but they each used different stride patterns to get there. Moses didn’t switch leads at all, but stuck with his traditional 13-step all the way around the track. Harris switched to 14 at the seventh hurdle, and to 15 at the tenth hurdle. Schmid switched to 14 at the ninth hurdle. But they all finished in what was essentially a three-way tie. This race proves very clearly that there is no one stride pattern that is “best” for everybody, but that each individual athlete has to figure out what is the best way for him or her to get to the finish line fastest. In the British commentary during the ’87 race, one of the analysts was saying that if Moses had switched to fourteen strides over the last hurdle, he might have been able to pull away from Schmid and Harris, because, with the shorter strides and quicker turnover, they had more speed going into the hurdle than he did.

Really, all this analysis of various hurdlers’ stride patterns leads to no definite conclusions, but what it does prove is that all approaches work, but that there is no one approach that works for everybody. I remember once running against a coaching friend of mine in a masters meet, and before the race I told him I was going to focus on staying quick between the hurdles because my legs would hurt too much if I tried to really open up my stride. He responded with a laugh and by saying, “Quick? Ha! That’s not my bread and butter.” So, if I had tried to run like him, it would’ve slowed me down, and if he had tried to run like me, it would have slowed him down. To use his words, everybody has their bread and butter. For some it’s quickness, for some it’s strength, for some it’s endurance, and for some it’s length. As a hurdler, it’s important to figure out what your bread and butter is, and to base your approach to the 400m hurdles on accentuating those qualities before making any major alterations to your race strategy.

© 2006 Steve McGill

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