I must admit that I’ve never been one who has been really excited with the idea of recording touchdown times of my hurdlers in either the 110’s/100’s or the 300’s/400’s, particularly with beginning hurdlers. But it is true that as hurdlers grow more experienced and competitive, recording touchdown times, in practice and in races, becomes more and more relevant to the goal of improving a hurdler’s level of performance. As a high school coach who spends a lot of time with hurdlers who are new to the event or still in the process of learning the fundamentals of technique and rhythm, I often find recording touchdown times to be a superfluous act. It’s like, if I know my kid isn’t in good shape yet, I don’t need touchdown times to tell me he’s slowing down in the last half of the race; I can just look and see that, and I already know the types of workouts I need to have the athlete do in order to improve his conditioning. Many coaches at the high school level record touchdown times because they believe they “should” do so, based on what they’ve read in books or heard at a clinic. The truth is, it is important to record touchdown times of certain athletes, but you have to know why you’re doing so, and you have to know what to do with the information the touchdown times provide.
One of the benefits of recording touchdown times for a hurdler who is already in good condition and already has good technique is that it enables the coach to identify specifically at what point in the race the athlete begins to decelerate, and to what degree he or she is decelerating. Even if this knowledge has no direct effect on how the coach decides to train the athlete, just the mere fact that the athlete knows when he or she is decelerating will encourage him or her to make a conscious effort to run faster through that particular hurdle. Oftentimes, deceleration occurs not just because the athlete is physically fatiguing, but also because he or she loses concentration and lets the arms drop to his or sides. If a hurdler knows, based on touchdown times, that he or she starts decelerating at hurdle seven, for instance, then that individual is going to make every effort to ensure that he or she maintains running form and hurdling form through hurdle seven, which, by itself, can result in a faster race. A hurdler who is unaware of which phases of his or her race are stronger, and which phases are weaker, will tend to run unpredictably from meet to meet, sometimes turning in outstanding performances, and other times, seemingly inexplicably, laying an egg. Recording touchdown times can help to alleviate this unpredictability, as it reduces the level of randomness at which the hurdler approaches the event.
In regards to the 300m/400m hurdles in particular, recording touchdown times can be a very beneficial tool when it comes to developing a race strategy for stride pattern. Generally, the hurdle at which deceleration begins is the hurdle where the athlete wants to increase the amount of steps he or she takes between hurdles, with the idea being that he or she will also increase the quickness of the cadence in order to minimize the amount of deceleration caused by the increased number of strides. Failing to increase the number of strides, choosing instead to try to maintain a consistent number of strides throughout the race, can lead to late-race breakdowns that cause massive deceleration and a feeling of helplessness. The Edwin Moseses of the world, who can take thirteen strides between hurdles all the way around the track, are the exception, not the norm. Even at the elite level, many hurdlers switch down to fourteen and alternate lead legs over the last three or four hurdles. Recording touchdown times gives the coach and the athlete concrete, mathematical information that allows them to make an informed decision regarding stride pattern. It’s very important that when hurdlers increase the amount of strides they’re taking between hurdles, they’re increasing strides of their own volition, as opposed to doing so because they get in that should-I-reach-or-should-I-chop mode as they approach the next barrier.
Along similar lines of the above paragraph, recording touchdown times helps the athlete and coach to make decisions regarding how fast the athlete should get over the first hurdle. Conventional wisdom says the faster you get to the first hurdle, the better off you are, regardless the distance of the race. However, too fast of an approach to the first hurdle, especially in the 110’s/100’s, can lead to a slower touchdown over the second hurdle, as the hurdler simply gets too crowded between the first and second obstacles and has to slow down to avoid crashing. Recording touchdown times can let the coach and hurdler know if this theory does, in fact, play out. If, for instance, the touchdown off the second hurdle is consistently slower than the touchdown off the third, fourth, and fifth hurdles, then it might be necessary to take a more controlled approach to the first hurdle so that the hurdler can be faster to the second one and maintain a more consistent cadence throughout the race. In the 300m/400m hurdles, too fast of an approach to the first hurdle may exacerbate the level of late-race fatigue, which again would mean that a more controlled approach to the first hurdle may result in an overall smoother, more consistent race.
Let’s be aware that recording touchdown times does nothing to address any technique problems, and that just knowing a hurdler’s touchdown times at each hurdle will not, in and of itself, help the hurdler to run faster races. Recording touchdown times is a tool – and a very useful one, if used intelligently – to strategize more effectively and to identify the phases of the athlete’s race that need the most improvement.
© 2005 Steve McGill