Should Women Shuffle?

A little while ago I wrote an article about shuffling between the hurdles in the men’s 110m high hurdle race. In this article I would like to discuss the same topic in regard to the women’s 100m hurdle race. While there are many similarities between the two races, there are several subtle differences that actually make the men’s race and the women’s race radically different events. So, in short, the women do not want to shuffle like the men do, and this article will explain why.

Height of the Hurdle
The biggest difference between the men’s and women’s race is the height of the hurdle. Yes, this is a topic I’ve discussed before, but now I want to discuss it in the context of shuffling. The most important reason that the faster men have to learn to shuffle is because the hurdles are so high. Whether you’re talking about the high schoolers going over 39-inch barriers or collegians and pros going over 42’s, the height of the hurdle necessitates a major shift in the center of gravity that you have to prepare for as you approach the hurdle. So to create the space needed to clear the hurdle without crashing into it, the men have to take off much farther from the hurdle than the women do. Which leads to the next issue.

Take-off Distance
The further you take off from the hurdle, the less room you have to sprint between the hurdles. So men in that 14.0 and under range who try to sprint run into all kinds of trouble with crowding. To adapt, shuffling has become the norm at the elite level in the men’s race. In the women’s race, because the hurdles are lower, the take-off distance can be closer, so they do have more room to sprint, despite the fact that the hurdles are closer together than in the men’s race. Take-off distance is determined more by the height of the hurdle than by the space between them. Obviously, in the men’s race, it would be easier to sprint if the hurdles were further apart, but the take-off distance would still be the same. So the amount of space between the hurdles affects the speed at which you can travel more than it affects take-off distance.

Then Why do Women Hit Hurdles?
The obvious question at this point is, if women can sprint more than men and can take off closer to the hurdle than the men can, then why do women hit hurdles? Why does the image of Gail Devers hitting the tenth hurdle at the 1992 Olympics appear at some point on every Olympic broadcast? Why did Lolo Jones run into the ninth hurdle at the 2008 Olympic Games? Surely, the women have the same crowding issues that the men do, and could therefore benefit equally from learning the art of shuffling. Right?

No. To me, “shuffling” is a specific technical term that describes a specific way of negotiating the space between the hurdles. Yes, women do have to lower their heel recovery and knee lift in comparison to 100m sprinters, so an adaptation does have to be made. But to shuffle like the men do? No. There’s no point in that. The whole point of the race – of any race – is to maximize your speed. The men shuffle because they have to, not because they want to. The higher you can get your heel and knees the better. Women want to utilize their sprinting speed; they get crowded when they have trouble managing their speed, which is not a problem that necessitates going to the extreme of shuffling.

100m speed
An obvious difference between the men’s race and the women’s race is that, in the women’s race, flat 100 meter speed is a good indicator of how fast the athlete should be able run over the hurdles. In the men’s race, not so much so, especially at the elite level. For the men, whether you run the 100 in 10.6 or 10.1, you have, more or less, depending on other factors, an equal chance of running 13.0 in the 110s. There’s no point for hurdlers at that level to work on their flat speed because the 110s is the only event in track in which getting faster doesn’t help you run faster times, and can in fact cause more problems than it fixes. For the women, though, getting faster in the open 100 is the best way to ensure running faster times over the barriers. In the women’s race, there is a much more symbiotic relationship between speed and technique. Getting faster between the hurdles makes you more efficient over the hurdles, and being more efficient over the hurdles makes you faster between the hurdles.

While very few male hurdlers could even think of sprinting competitively against the world’s best sprinters, women hurdlers should be able to give the best sprinters a run for their money. I would think that if Lolo Jones ran the 100 against Muna Lee, for example, it would be a close race. On the other hand, imagine Dayron Robles trying to keep up with Usain Bolt in the 100, even though both of them are world record holders in their respective events.

But back to the point: a female hurdler should be able to project her 100h time based on her 100m flat time. There are probably people who know the exact numbers better than I do, but I think, generally, at the elite level, there’s about a 1.3 difference between 100m time and 100h time. Someone running the 100 in the 11.5 range, for example, should be able to run in the 12.8 range in the hurdles. To run 12.3 over the hurdles, you’d need to be able to run 11.0 in the 100, no matter how efficient your technique is. Women, much more so than men, should really push the envelope when it comes to utilizing their speed and forcing themselves to react quickly to the oncoming barrier. In many cases, just cutting the third step serves to provide the space needed to negotiate the barrier while minimally sacrificing speed.

Final Thoughts
While the women do not have the freedom to sprint like a 100 meter runner, they do have the capacity to maximize their speed much more than their counterparts in the men’s 110 race. So, while men at the elite level need to master the art of shuffling in order to keep up with the competition, the stride-length adjustments that women need to make between the hurdles are much more subtle. Speed and technique are of equal importance for the women, whereas for the men, technique is paramount because of the degree to which the height of the hurdles inhibits sprinting speed.

© 2008 Steve McGill

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