Shuffling Between the Hurdles

You may have noticed that a lot of today’s elite 110 hurdlers don’t sprint between the hurdles, but shuffle. Shuffling doesn’t become necessary until crowding becomes an issue. Until that happens, you want to employ proper sprinting mechanics between the hurdles.

In order to shuffle well you have to make significant modifications to much that you learn in sprint mechanics. While the basic principles are the same, execution is much different.

Anybody who runs up on hurdles adapts subconsciously, but you want to adapt consciously. When you adapt subconsciously, you’ll chop, not shuffle.

There’s a difference between shuffling your steps and chopping your steps. Chopping breaks up the sprinting rhythm, whereas shufflers keep the same angles as sprinters, except everything is lower. Arm carriage is lower, hands are lower, knee lift is lower, heel recovery is lower. When chopping, the way you run between the hurdles and the way you run over the hurdles are totally different, so there’s a constant push-and-pull going on, a constant breaking up of the rhythm. When shuffling, the running motion and the hurdling motion complement each other much better, and the transition from sprinting to hurdling (3rd step) is much smoother.

One of the most importance aspects of mechanics in shuffling is also one of the most important aspects of mechanics in sprinting: keeping the ankles flexed. Keeping the ankles flexed enables you to cycle your legs in a rotary motion. On the other hand, if the foreleg reaches out ahead of the knee with the toe pointing down, you’ll land with your foot in front of your hips. That kind of shuffling isn’t really shuffling. Not from a technical standpoint. If you look closely at the sprinting form of the elite 110 hurdlers, you’ll see that they do have very good sprint mechanics, although it doesn’t look like they’re sprinting at all. Xiang, Robles, and all the top-level Americans are excellent shufflers. That’s why you don’t see as many hurdlers hitting hurdles as you did as recently as six or seven years ago.

Another key to getting a good shuffle going is the trail leg. If the trail leg kicks back and circles widely, then you can’t establish a tempo with the first step off the hurdle. That step becomes a balance step that you use to regain your forward momentum. So in terms of it being a sprinting stride, it’s a wasted stride.

Learning to shuffle effectively takes time. It’s not like you can know what to do and then just go do it. You have to practice, because it’s not natural, and it certainly doesn’t feel right when you first do it. When you’re trying to run faster, the instinctive thing to do is to pump the arms and drive the knees, so you actually have to break yourself of that habit in order to shuffle effectively.

Back in the olden days, before shuffling became the primary means of dealing with space issues, guys basically chopped their steps and hoped for the best. Renaldo Nehemiah once noted that he always felt like he had to hold back his speed in order to avoid crashing. He would even consciously zig-zag in the lane to give himself more room to sprint. Considering that Nehemiah’s personal best of 12.93 set in 1981 was good enough for an Olympic gold medal twenty-seven years later, you have to wonder if his method wasn’t just as effective as shuffling, but that’s a topic for another day.

Hurdlers in the 13.5 range are the ones who really need to learn to shuffle, but even hurdlers who aren’t at that elite level can benefit tremendously by learning to give themselves more room by lowering their arms and knees in the three strides between the hurdles. Even someone running in the mid-15’s cannot sprint all-out between the hurdles.

The best way to teach yourself to shuffle is the same way you teach yourself anything else in the hurdles: drills drills drills.

One drill is to do what I call the tap drill: although set up 5-10 hurdles at 33”, about 21 feet apart. High-knee to the first one and then generate a quick tap-tap-tap 3-step shuffle between all the rest, concentrating on keeping your hands low and quick, and on cycling the legs very low, with the ankles flexed.

Another drill is to set up five hurdles, with the first hurdle on the mark, with hurdles 2-5 three feet in (3 ft from the regular mark for the second hurdle., 6 ft for the third hurdle, 9ft for the fourth hurdle, and 12 ft. for the fifth hurdle). Out of the blocks, with spikes on, go at the hurdles full blast. Don’t back off speed-wise. Attack the hurdles aggressively, and focus on shuffling to avoid crashing. This drill works, but you’ve got to be fearless in order for it to be effective. It’s best for this drill to be done early during the week of a big meet.

© 2008 Steve McGill

Take a look here at Liu Xiang’s 12.88 from 2006. The replay that takes place is the best for viewing the 3-step shuffle for all of the hurdlers in the race.

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