The Geometry of Hurdling

Just because you’re pouring syrup on this don’t make it pancakes.
–C.L. Smooth

As a high school student I couldn’t care less about geometry. I passed with a C- and was glad to be done with it. Except for Chemistry, there wasn’t a subject that I found more tedious and more useless. So it’s more than a bit ironic that when it comes considering the geometry of clearing a hurdle efficiently, there are few things in this world that I find more fascinating. I don’t know if it’s possible to be considered a hurdle geek, but if so, then I definitely fall under that category. Constantly I find myself thinking about angles of take-off, angles of landing, the shape of the body while it’s on top of the hurdle. Such thoughts inspired this article, in which I will discuss the geometry of hurdling.

Basically, the goal of any hurdler is to take up as little space as possible. This is true when considering all three directions – laterally, horizontally, and vertically. The less space you’re taking up in all three directions, the faster you’re running over the hurdle. And you’ll also spend less time on top of the hurdle, will have more speed coming into and coming off the hurdle, and the better chance you’ll have of accelerating off the hurdle. Too much lateral motion, too much horizontal motion, and/or too much vertical motion will create a pause in the attacking of the hurdle, and will therefore cause deceleration as well as, most likely, a loss of balance that cannot be regained until you land.

Lateral Motion (Width)
In hurdling, as in sprinting, any lateral movement serves as a deterrent from getting to the finish line as fast as you otherwise would. That’s why, even before you talk about clearing the hurdles, you need to focus on making sure you’re running in a straight line to the first hurdle and between all the rest. A lot of hurdlers will zigzag in the lane without even realizing that they’re doing so, thus causing balance issues when they take off into the hurdle. Most often this excessive lateral movement begins right out of the starting blocks and sets a tone for the rest of the race. Generally speaking, you don’t want to be wide in the lane, you don’t want to take up a lot of space in the lane. You want to run in the middle of the lane. I tell my hurdlers to try to run in such a way that even if the lane were narrower by six inches on both sides, they could still fit their strides within the lane with no problem.

In the hurdling motion, wide arms can cause all kinds of problems. The worst type of arms are what I call “parachute arms.” In this case, both arms go outward like wings during hurdle clearance, keeping you hanging in the air and preventing you from descending even as the legs are trying to. Another problem a lot of hurdlers have is that they swing the lead arm across the body as they take off, and then swing it widely away from the body as they descend. This style of arm swing does create some force, but too much of the force is moving laterally, thereby causing twists in the shoulders, hips, and lead leg, and width in the trail leg.

For my tastes, the best lead arm of any hurdler out there, male or female, is that of Liu Xiang. It whips up and down in a tight, forceful motion that is free of any lateral angles whatsoever. A lot of hurdlers will open up the elbow of the lead arm as they attack the hurdle, and then close the elbow as they pull the arm back and touch down off the hurdle. This is probably the most common type of lead arm motion, and it is very effective because it provides a sort of torque effect that is very forceful and propels you forward coming off the hurdle. But I prefer Xiang’s style because the opened elbow creates a slight pause, which inherently causes a lag in the trail leg, whereas Xiang’s lead arm is so fast that it compels the lead leg and trail leg to keep up.

As for the trail leg, a wide, slow motion with that leg creates an awkward landing, and a lot of hurdlers with a slow or late trail leg will end up running almost the whole race on the edge of the lead-leg side of the lane. Width in the trail leg is perhaps the greatest deterrent to hurdlers reaching their potential. There are very few hurdlers whose trail leg actually ends up high with the knee facing the front by the time the lead leg lands. For the best hurdlers, the trail leg looks much like a lead leg in that it stays tight and whips in front in a very tight motion underneath the armpit. Basically, the wider the lead arm is, the wider the trail leg will be, which is why it’s so important to keep the lead arm tight. A low, wide trail leg will often hit hurdles too, at the knee, ankle, and toe. So, if the goal is to sprint over the hurdle, to create the feeling that the legs are in sprint motion, then a wide trail leg will ruin any possibility of that feeling being generated. In the sprint motion, the two legs are never going in different directions – one forward and one outward – instead, both are always going forward. In hurdling, we want the same thing, or we want to at least get as close to it as possible when considering there is an obstacle in the way.

This photo of Liu Xiang and Allen Johnson shows the difference in their styles in regard to arm carriage. Johnson has more of an elbows-out style on top of the hurdle, whereas Xiang’s arms take up less space laterally. Both styles are effective. Xiang’s lead arm drives straight up and straight down. In the photo, it’s headed back down. Johnson’s lead arm, in this photo, looks like it will swing back widely (which is a problem many hurdlers have), but it won’t because the elbow will close as he comes off the hurdle. Notice also the contrast in their trail arms. Neither’s is inefficient because each is a master of his own particular style. Many experts would prefer Johnson’s style because the arm goes back no further than the hip, whereas Xiang’s goes back farther than that, but I prefer Xiang’s because I prefer that straighter angle, which means he’ll use the arm more for power as he comes off the hurdle, whereas Johnson’s arm is primarily functioning as a rudder for balance. Both hurdlers have a very tight trail leg motion.

Horizontal Motion (Length)
Most hurdlers are very long on top of the hurdle. To me, that is the biggest reason that 110m high hurdling, especially in the United States, hasn’t progressed very much at all since the achievements of the last great innovator, Renaldo Nehemiah. Nehemiah was long horizontally on top of the hurdle, but the quickness and power of the snapdown of his lead leg actually created space and reduced the negative effect of being so long. In modern hurdling, it is generally accepted that length is unavoidable, and even preferable. Many top-notch hurdlers seek to take off as far from the hurdle as possible so that they have room to “dive” into it and minimize the vertical element. These hurdlers want to skim the hurdle with the calf and hamstring of the lead leg. This is basically the way everybody hurdles. And those who don’t are trying to. But by minimizing the vertical element, this hurdling style takes up too much space horizontally. On top of the hurdle, the hurdler is very long. A lot of hurdlers will “pose” on top of the hurdle before beginning to descend. Those with better trail legs will reduce the airtime by whipping the trail leg in front, but in the course of a 10-hurdle race, it gets harder and harder to whip the trail leg when it’s starting from so far behind, and thus the horizontal element increases, and the airtime increases. Even Allen Johnson, the true master of this style and one of the greatest technicians ever, is often very long at the end of races.

In this photo, the heel and calf of every woman is past the crossbar, but only Lolo Jones’ lead leg is beginning to descend. The rest are still horizontal. Because Jones takes up less space horizontally, she has more space to run between the hurdles.

Vertical Motion (Height)
Unquestionably, the most maligned aspect of hurdling is the vertical element. Throughout my hurdling life and coaching life I agreed with the general consensus that vertical is bad. One of my mantras when educating beginners was “hurdlers don’t jump,” and then I’d go on to explain that hurdling is an elongated sprinting stride. My stance now is that there needs to be a vertical element in the hurdling motion in order to prevent overemphasizing the horizontal element, and in order to make the hurdle seem smaller. With that being said, I want to make it clear that you don’t want to “jump” in the traditional sense of the word. The reason “jump” is a four-letter word in hurdling to begin with is because it implies spending too much time spent in the air, and that’s exactly what happens when you jump over hurdles. But in order for the legs to stay as close to sprinting motion over the hurdle, there needs to be a vertical element. If the back leg pushes off on too much of a horizontal angle, then that leg – the trail leg – will lag after it leaves the ground; then, when it whips in front, it will whip lower than desired, and, except for the very best technicians (Johnson, Guy Drut), it won’t whip all the way all the way to the front. Terrence Trammell is a good example of a hurdler who is very fast and has a very fast lead leg but who is always running semi-sideways down the track because his trail leg can never catch up.

It’s much easier to whip the trail leg in front when you take off closer to the hurdle, simply because the trail leg has less distance to travel. The problem with a lot of hurdlers is not that their trail leg is late or slow, but that it has too far to travel. So, no matter how fast and quick it is, it won’t get all the way to the front when it’s starting from so far behind. Of course, taking off closer to the hurdle takes away the space to dive. So that’s where the vertical element comes in. By taking off slightly more vertically, you give yourself room to take off closer without overcrowding yourself, thus making it easier to whip the trail leg in front.

Dayron Robles here is already descending upon the hurdle before his heel has even cleared the crossbar, which means he has added a vertical element to his style that enables him to maintain a very tight trail leg. Notice how both of Robles’ legs are heading in the same direction, whereas the trail leg of most hurdlers at this point of hurdle clearance would be much wider, and the lead lead would be much more horizontal. Robles, therefore, is able to run over the hurdle unlike any other hurdler out there.

Customize Your Style
Ultimately, I think that there’s an optimal style for each individual hurdler that he or she must find on his or her own, along with his or her coach, through trial and error, study, experimentation, in the spirit of exploration and curiosity. Don’t just go to YouTube and try to mimic what the best hurdlers do. It’s not that simple. Just because somebody good does it doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. And just because it has never been tried before doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. In practice, you should always be looking to experiment with just how vertical you can get without getting too vertical. Experiment with various types of arm motions and decide which one feels fastest and most powerful for you. And on and on. Don’t look to do what’s “right,” but look to do what works best for you. Hurdlers like Johnson, Nehemiah, Xiang, Robles, and others found the style that worked best for them, and then went on to master that style. They found the geometric angles that enabled them to maximize their speed based on their knowledge of the event, their physical gifts, their body frames, and their temperaments.

High school indoor national record holder Wayne Davis has found a tight, efficient style that works for him.

Wayne Davis, who recently broke the high school 55m hurdle record with a 7.05, is someone I’ve had the good fortune to coach over the past few years. What sets Wayne apart is his relentless curiosity, his willingness to try anything technical that might make him faster, and his utter fearlessness in the face of failure. Wayne is willing to learn something new and take the time to internalize it even if it will make him slower in the short-term if he feels confident it will make him faster in the long-term. For that reason, Wayne doesn’t just run fast, but he understands why he runs fast, and he can continually find new ways to run faster. From a young age, Wayne understood that, because he was smaller than most hurdlers, his angles had to be different.Over the years he has developed a geometry that works for him, that minimizes the lateral and hits on a perfect balance betwen horizontal and vertical.

© 2009 Steve McGill

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