Pros and Cons of Isolation Drills

Recently I’ve received a few emails asking questions about isolation drills (lead leg drills and trail leg drills), so in this article I will go ahead and address those questions in more detail, and also let all of you know what I do currently with my athletes in regard to such drills.

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of isolation drills:

Isolation drills are helpful for beginners. Isolation drills serve as a very effective method for teaching beginning hurdlers of any age the specific functions of each individual leg. The drills slow things down for beginning hurdlers, allowing them to think about what they are doing while they are doing it. I like to present the hurdling motion as a jigsaw puzzle that is comprised of several pieces, all of which are very important – lead leg, trail leg, lead arm, trail arm, hips shoulders, head, torso. Trying to get it all right at once can sometimes be overwhelming to the beginner, so breaking it down into parts, and then going ahead and putting the pieces back together, can be a very useful method for teaching hurdling mechanics.

Isolation drills are good for warm-ups, both before a hurdle workout and before a race. Back in my day, I would always do three reps of lead leg over five hurdles, three reps of trail leg, and three reps over the top, five-stepping all of the reps. Throughout most of my coaching career, that’s what I had my athletes do as well. To the left, to the right, down the middle. Isolate lead, isolate trail, put them both together. This set of drills functions to prepare the body for the motions it will execute during the race. And on colder days or days when you’re just tired, you can start out as slow as you like, then pick up the pace as you go, even if it means adding in more reps to the warm-up. It also puts you in a good frame of mind to transition to the next phase of the warm-up, which will usually involve starts over the first two or three hurdles.

Isolation drills have a lot of room for variations. The standard setting for me, as hinted at above, is to set up five hurdles at regular spacing, race height, and take five steps between each hurdle. But you can always play with the spacing, the height, the amount of steps in between, depending on what the athlete’s flaws are. You might want to do lead leg drills with the hurdles moved in very close together, for example, if the athlete has developed the habit of kicking out the foot too soon inside of driving with the knee. The athlete will soon discover that if he continues to kick out, he won’t have room to fit in his steps before he or she is too close to the next hurdle. Or if the athlete’s trail leg drill drops too soon coming off the hurdle, spacing the hurdles farther apart can be a good way to force the athlete to drive that knee higher, or else he or she won’t be able to make it to the next hurdle. And there are plenty similar scenarios  in which isolation drills can be beneficial.

Isolation drills teach the mind of the hurdler that the lead leg and trail leg are separate entities. They teach the habit of thinking lead-leg-first, trail-leg-second, as opposed to conceptualizing both legs as being parts of a single unit. This approach to hurdling is what perpetuates the problem of an overly-heavy reliance on the lead leg. Since it’s the leg that clears the hurdle first, it tends to get the most attention.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of isolation drills is that the other leg does nothing while the isolated leg does all of the work. The lead leg hangs low when doing trail leg drills, and the trail leg drags along when doing lead leg drills. Even though I’m not as big on isolation drills as I used to be, I try to make sure that when my athletes do them,  both legs are functioning as they would when both legs are clearing the hurdle. Lead leg drills are more dangerous than trail leg drills in this regard. If you get in the habit of being lazy, low, and slow with the trail leg, it’ll take lots of work to break that habit and to learn to get that leg up into the air as soon as it leaves the ground.

What I do
In my coaching, I’ve pretty much phased out isolation drills, even for  beginners. This is not to say that you should, because as I’ve made clear already, I still find them useful, and still find occasions when they are the most appropriate method of teaching a particular skill or addressing a particular flaw. The main reason I’m phasing out isolation drills is because I don’t want to ingrain the lead-leg-then-trail-leg mentality in the minds of my hurdlers. I don’t want them thinking the trail leg should lag, wait, pause when it leaves the ground. I want them to embrace the notion that both legs rise together.

© 2010 Steve McGill

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