Of all the technical problems that I’ve encountered as a coach, the one that I’ve found the most difficult to solve is the one in which the lead leg drifts to the trail leg side of the lane as the hurdler clears the hurdle. By the time the lead leg lands, the hips and shoulders are twisted. As the athlete continues down the track, he or she continues to run somewhat diagonally, causing him or her to be in danger of not clearing the hurdle with the trail leg (if he or she is in an outside lane) or of hitting a competitor’s hurdle with the trail leg (if he or she is in an inside lane), either of which could result in disqualification, both of which will result in slower times. In this article, I will discuss possible causes and possible solutions to this often frustrating technical difficulty.
Swinging from the Hip
The first thing my high school coach instructed me to do when I first started hurdling was to “lead with the knee.” When the knee leads the way, you have good balance and control. When the lead leg swings up from the hip, the athlete basically has no control over where it will go. It might sail very high, it might veer to the left, it might veer to the right. Which means, in some cases, swinging from the hip will cause the lead leg to drift to the trail leg side of the lane. If swinging from the hip is the cause of the problem, then it should be a fairly simple problem to solve; it’s just a matter of getting in the habit of leading with the knee. How to do this? Do a lot of lead leg drills at drill speed, and do a lot of over-the-top drills at drill speed. It’s not a good idea to try to fix problems at full speed because there isn’t enough time to think. The idea is that when you do return to full-speed hurdling, leading with the knee will start to feel more and more “normal,” until it comes naturally. A similar but slightly different mistake is that of leading with the knee, but then allowing the foot to get ahead of the knee too soon. This mistake can be solved in the same way – lots of lead leg drills. I also like A-skips over 30” to 33” hurdles, as A-skips emphasize the importance of driving with the knee, keeping the knee in front of the foot, and driving the foot down under the hip.
Twisting the Hips before Leaving the Ground
Some hurdlers who drift to the trail leg side of the lane do so because they shift their hips in that direction before they even take off into the hurdle, while the foot of what will become the trail leg is still on the ground. This is a very difficult problem to fix because this subtle shift in weight subconsciously serves as the hurdler’s way of attacking the hurdle with aggression. The hurdler is leading with the knee, but because of the twist in the hips, the knee is angling toward the trail leg side of the lane, so that’s where it goes. Plain old walk-overs could be of use in solving this problem, just to get the hurdler used to keeping his or her hips square to the hurdle. A workout I’ve used that has helped is the quick 3-step workout, in which five to ten hurdles are set up five yards apart, and the hurdler takes a quick three steps between the hurdles. The hurdler should pick a spot on the lead leg side of the crossbar and drive his or her knee at that spot on every hurdle. Using the eyes like that sometimes helps the hurdler to run in a straight line. It doesn’t directly address the problem of twisting the hips, but sometimes it indirectly fixes it. Another thing you can do is, instead of setting up the hurdles normally in the lane, set them up so that the part of the crossbar at which the hurdler wants to direct his or her knee is directly above the lane line. The hurdler’s goal will be to run with the lead leg foot on the line, and to land off of each hurdle with the lead leg foot on the line. With enough repetitions over a period of weeks or even months, the problem will gradually correct itself. But if the hurdler isn’t willing to do numerous reps (in the range of 200 hurdles worth per practice session), this problem will linger forever. In such cases, the coach might be better off trying to compensate for the problem instead of trying to fix it. In other words, have the athlete focus on developing a quick, hard, upward thrust with the trail leg as a means of offsetting the effect of the lead leg drift.
Another potential cause of lead leg drift is an overly vigorous swinging of the arms. If the lead arm goes across the body, the lead leg knee will ostensibly go across the body in the other direction. This problem is more common with girls, as girls are more likely to run with their elbows out. If arm swing is the root cause of the lead leg drift, then leave hurdling form alone, and focus on running form. The athlete needs to get in the habit of running with the elbows in; the habit should then carry over to hurdling. If it doesn’t, have the athlete do lots of trail leg reps at drill speed, focusing on not allowing the lead arm to go past the forehead, eyes, and nose before bringing the elbow straight back into running position. This may not cure the problem, but it should minimize it a great deal. For the coach, the most difficult aspect of fixing lead leg drift is identifying the root cause of the problem. For obvious reasons, videotaping practice sessions will aid in this process.
© 2004 Steve McGill