Some Alternating Ideas From Minnesota

I recently received an email from Aaron Wheatcraft, who coaches at Rosemount High School in Minnesota, where he coached the 2006 state champion in the 300m intermediate hurdles. Wheatcraft, in his fourth year at Rosemount, ran hurdles himself at Apple Valley High School in MN from 1989-1992, and also at the University of Minnesota from 1994-1997. As a collegian he ran personal bests of 14.45 in the 110s and 52.90 in the 400s. In his email to me, Wheatcraft discussed his thoughts on switching lead legs in the long hurdles, and offered some very useful insights on how to assist hurdlers in developing this skill.

The reason Wheatcraft feels that developing the ability to switch lead legs is essential for a long hurdler has to do with a personal experience from his own days as a competitive high school hurdler. Here’s his story as he told it himself:

One lesson I have learned the hard way is all about alternating in the 300 hurdles. I was favored for two years to win the state championship in the 300 meter hurdles, and both years I came up short. My junior year I came up short due to not being fast enough, and getting into the “Hurdle Zone” (This is a zone where a hurdler just gets stuck in a zone where he don’t attack in between the hurdle, but is more worried about staying in cruise control). My senior year, I never once took a hurdle with my alternate leg and never had the scenario even come up. I never lost a race and cruised right to the state final with the fastest qualifying time. I thought, What the hell, let’s lay it out on the line. This is my last hurdle race in high school, so let’s go after the record. I bolted out of the blocks faster than I ever have and came up to the first hurdle out of stride. To make a long story short, I about killed myself over the hurdle and took the next 250 meters to come up short by a tenth of a second.

Wheatcraft explains that, because of that race, “I have made it a personal goal to have every one of my hurdlers feel just as comfortable with their alternate leg as they do with their usual lead leg.” He also emphasizes that the sooner a hurdler learns how to alternate, the easier it is to master this skill. “It is amazing,” he said, “how freshmen learn how to do this so quickly, and by the time they are seniors it is hard to tell which leg they prefer.”

Wheatcraft has a couple methods he uses to help his hurdlers develop the ability to alternate. One involves setting up hurdles around the track at random distances and having the athletes attack them over and over again. “I focus on no stuttering,” he said, “and feeling that internal distance clock around 20 meters away, and then attacking with the appropriate leg.”

It is important to note Wheatcraft’s point that the decision to lead with the right leg or left leg should be made twenty meters away from the hurdle. Much stuttering in the long hurdles occurs because the hurdler tries to decide six or seven steps away from the hurdle, and by then it’s too late. I’ve always felt that you should know as soon as you land off of a hurdle how many strides you’re going to take to the next one. Wheatcraft’s notion of developing an “internal distance clock” is vital to a hurdler’s ability to adapt to various conditions and factors over the course of a race.

The other method Wheatcraft uses for developing alternating skills is called the “Two-step drill.” Here is his explanation of how it works:

1. The hurdles should be about 15 steps apart (not meters, foot to foot). Set the hurdles at intermediate height – 36 inches for boys, 30 inches for girls.

2. Have the hurdlers chop/high knee to the hurdle and then, when about 5-7 meters away, have them attack the hurdle. The natural tendency here is that they want to carry a lot of speed to the hurdle, which isn’t necessary. They need just enough speed where it forces them to be quick with both the lead and trail. That is the beauty of this drill – it forces you to alternate and to speed up the mechanics.

3. To make it more challenging and to work getting down off the hurdle, I will shorten the distance after the first set. Not much, maybe 1 or 2 feet. This makes them even work harder on the lead leg whip and bringing the trail leg through.

4. I usually end our warm up with this drill. We do 2 sets of 10 reps through 6-8 hurdles.

5. Obviously you can change the quantity as you see fit.

Thank you Coach Wheatcraft for this very helpful information.

© 2007 Steve McGill

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