Sprint Speed vs. Hurdle Speed

I was having a conversation the other day with one of my athletes about the differences between sprinting speed and hurdling speed. As someone with a background in sprinting who is just now learning the dynamics of hurdling rhythm, he mentioned that he is discovering that sprinting speed and hurdling speed are nothing alike, that, in learning to improve his hurdling, he has had to dramatically alter his sprinting stride between the hurdles. This article will discuss the differences between sprinting speed and hurdling speed, and analyze why taking a sprinter’s approach to hurdling can spell disaster.

Let’s break it down in simple terms. The two main factors that contribute to sprint speed are stride length and stride frequency. The two main factors that contribute to hurdle speed are stride frequency and hurdle clearance. Sprinters are taught to “cover ground.” In their drills and in their running, covering as much ground as possible, while maintaining a rotary motion with the legs, is considered ideal. But stride length for a hurdler can only be improved so much before that improvement becomes a detriment. Longer strides, which are essential to a sprinter, can can cause a hurdler multiple issues with rhythm and hurdling technique. A hurdler’s stride length must be adapted to accommodate optimal take-off distance from each hurdle. If optimal take-off distance is, for example, 7-3, then the hurdler’s three strides between each hurdle need to be short enough to accommodate that take-off distance. If he gets too close to hurdles, he’ll be forced to “jump” just to avoid hitting them, which will cost him precious ground time. And worse, he’ll start running up on hurdles and hitting them with the lead foot on the way up, which causes major disruptions in rhythm and also can cause crashes.

Efficient hurdling technique is vital because of the simple fact that the less time you spend in the air, the more time you spend running. Landing off-balance, hitting hurdles, clearing hurdles too high, twisting the hips and shoulders, all cause for slower times because they have a direct negative effect on the hurdler’s ability to maintain his three-step cadence.

Other differences between how sprinters sprint and how hurdlers sprint include arm carriage and knee lift. Arm carriage for sprinters is cheek to cheek, or chin to back pocket, with the elbow bent a 90 degree angle. For a hurdler, the bend at the elbow is the same, but the arms should only get chest-high, or neck-high, and instead of going all the way down to the butt-cheek, should only go as low the waist. So really, a hurdler at full speed is just flicking his hands up and down. Ironically, a hurdler with full range of motion with the arms is not moving as fast as one with lower arm carriage, which goes against all the basic principles of sprint speed. But think about it. A hurdler with a full range of motion with the arms is working too hard. Only hurdlers who are straining to maintain a 3-step stride pattern need a full range of motion with the arms. And maintaining that level of effort is very difficult because it is so fatiguing.

In the photo on the left, Walter Dix of Florida State exhibits full range of motion with the arms. In the photo on the right, Terrence Trammel, even at full speed, raises his arms only chest-high. The arms of all the hurdlers in this photo are low. Imagine what would happen if any of them tried to use their arms like Dix. They would crash. Their knee-lift, also, is low compared that of a sprinter. Both Dix and Trammell have reached peak kne-height, yet look how much lower Trammell’s is.

Same thing with knee lift. Sprinters want to drive the knee to an angle parallel to the ground. Knee-lift for a hurdler is much lower. Like sprinters, hurdlers want to drive the heel underneath the butt with as little back-kick as possible, but where a sprinter will then drive the knee up to that parallel angle, a hurdler’s knee will drive upward in the same direction, but won’t get nearly as high. Hurdlers are fastest when they are shuffling between the hurdles, not when they are opening up their stride and sprinting as a sprinter would sprint. So, the mechanics for a sprinter and a hurdler are the same, but for a hurdler, the mechanics must be modified, in order to establish and maintain an optimal rhythmic pattern between the hurdles that allows for as little deceleration as possible.

This photo from the USA Nationals also shows the low arm carriage and low knee lift of hurdlers. From left to right, David Payne, Trammell, and Allen Johnson.

True or False: Hurdling is sprinting over barriers. This statement is in fact true. An athlete who learns sprint mechanics before ever learning how to hurdle can learn how to hurdle very quickly if taught to modify his sprint mechanics to fit the rhythm of a hurdle race. But a sprinter who tries to merely transfer his sprint motion into his hurdling will have all kinds of problems with crowding, balance, etc. So when a sprinter says “I want to get faster” and a hurdler says “I want to get faster,” they’re both using the same vocabulary, but with very different meanings. Hurdlers should not be concerned with improving their 100m time, because they won’t be able to apply that speed to the hurdles. Knowing your 100m time is definitely useful in gauging how fast you’re capable of running the 110s, but there’s no reason to assume that the faster you are on the flat, the faster you’ll be over the hurdles.

If speed were the only factor in determining who the best hurdlers are, then, hypothetically, Asafa Powell or Tyson Gay could step into the hurdles and beat Liu Xiang. But we all know that cannot happen. Even as it stands now, many wonder how Xiang is able to beat Trammell, Robles, and others who have faster flat sprinting speed. I don’t understand why people are fascinated that Xiang can beat faster sprinters in the hurdles. There are hurdles in the way. And they’re 42 inches high. That’s why he can. Nobody, not even a lower division collegiate hurdler running in the 15’s is able to use his maximum sprinting speed in the 110s. Everybody has to adapt his speed to the space between the barriers. Nobody does that better than Xiang.

Another point about a hurdler’s 100m time: there are two reasons why you can never know how fast a true hurdler, who has much experience running hurdle races and little experience racing the open sprints, can sprint: a true hurdler doesn’t put forth his best effort when running an open sprint race. Take away the hurdles, and you take away the motivation to run fast. But the other reason, which is arguably the more important one, is that the experienced hurdler is so used to running the way he needs to in order to maintain his cadence between the hurdles, that when given the room to open up his stride, he doesn’t know how to. Or he feels uncomfortable and awkward doing so. The strides feel too long and the turnover feels too slow. A lot of hurdlers get hurt running the open 100 or the open 60 indoors for that very reason – their muscles aren’t used to running that way, and the shock of the sudden transition causes injury.

So my advice for any hurdler out there wanting to know, “How do I get faster?” is to, first of all, be clear about what you mean when you ask that question. I would also add that although the content of this article applies primarily to male hurdlers, too much sprint speed can also cause rhythm problems for female hurdlers.

© 2007 Steve McGill

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