The Phases of a 400 Meter Hurdle Race

A little while ago I wrote an article breaking down the phases of the 100/110m hurdle race. So now I’ll go ahead and write one breaking down the phases of the 400m race.

Hurdles 1-2: You should have a lot of nervous energy and adrenaline built up, go ahead and let it out but keep it under control. This is the quick turnover part of the race, before fatigue becomes a factor, and you’re still building up to top speed. It’s also the part of the race where you establish your rhythm and tempo. For the first hurdle, elite males will take as few as twenty strides, but the key is to take a number of strides that will allow you to establish a quick turnover and to take off from a comfortable distance. For the second hurdle, you want to go with a stride pattern that you can carry at least through hurdle five. Otherwise, you’re using up too much energy in the early part of the race, and your rate of deceleration in the end stages of the race will be dramatic. And painful. And embarrassing. For example, if you try to 13-step the second hurdle and are able to do so, but are dropping down to 15 by the fourth hurdle, then chances are you might be all the way down to 19-stepping by the end of the race. On the other hand, if the same hurdler were to 15-step the second hurdle, he would be able to maintain that stride pattern through hurdle five, and would be sixteen or seventeen-stepping by the end, which is much more preferable than nineteen. You have to know your body, you have to know your conditioning level, and you have to be able to differentiate between bold and stupid.

Hurdles 3-5: By this stage of the race, your rhythm has already been established, and fatigue has yet to become a factor, so hurdles 3-5 are all about staying fluid, maintaining your rhythm, keeping your hurdling technique efficient, and keeping your stride pattern consistent. Don’t get anxious if you see someone surging ahead of you, and don’t get complacent if you’re the one passing people. Focus on your rhythm. If you get caught up too much in the mode of competing you can throw off your stride pattern. Know your stride pattern, know your race strategy, and stick to it. You can make subtle adjustments to your cadence – to your stride frequency – based on the competition, but stay relaxed and make sure you don’t change your stride length, because that can cause major rhythm issues that you might not recover from.

Hurdles 6-8: Okay, this is the scary part of the race. All three hurdles are on the curve, plus the dreaded 250 mark – where the big gorilla sneaks from behind the scoreboard and jumps on your back – is right in the middle of this curve, at hurdle seven. The key to this phase of the race is to stay relaxed. If you’re going to maintain your original stride pattern, it’s going to require more effort now. You can’t let the arms drop; you have to maintain a full range of motion with the arms. The turnover will not be as quick, and the curve will naturally lengthen the distance between the barriers. If you do add another stride or two between the hurdles, then you have to quicken your tempo to compensate for the extra stride(s). Windy conditions might dictate that you alter your stride pattern sooner than you want to. If that’s the case, go with it. Don’t fight the wind, don’t fight the curve. At hurdle eight, make sure you clear the hurdle before you head into the final straight-away. Many mistakes occur at this hurdle because hurdlers are too eager to get the curve over with and get back to running straight up-and-down. It’s important to clear the hurdle first.

Hurdles 9-10: I always say that in a 400m hurdle race, you’re going to reach a point where you can no longer rely on arm thrust, knee lift, and other physical cues to carry you through. You reach a point where you have to dig deep inside your heart and find a strength you didn’t know was there. If that moment comes prior to hurdle nine, then you need to get in better shape to run this race, because your form will fall apart before you reach the finish line. This moment should come somewhere between hurdle nine and hurdle ten. You can’t back down from the pain, and you can’t fight the pain; you have to stay relaxed through the pain. If you have practiced this level of physical pain often enough in workouts, then you will not be surprised by it when you feel it in a race. Your body will do what you have trained it to do. From a technical standpoint, it’s important to stay horizontal while attacking the hurdles, as the enormity of your fatigue will cause you to sail and jump over them, costing precious time.

To the Finish Line: In the 400m hurdles, because the run-in to the finish line is 35 meters, much can go right, and much can go wrong. Much ground can be made up, and much ground can be lost. I know that for high school hurdlers used to the 300m distance, the biggest adjustment they have to make when moving up to the 400h is in the run-in to the finish line. Coming off the last hurdle, you have to keep running. I know that sounds simple, and it is simple, but it’s not so simple when the gorilla is weighing you down. Retain your upright posture, keep pushing the chest forward, keep driving the arms. And most importantly, gut it out. Strategy and conditioning can only take you so far. In this race, you’ve gotta have heart to have a chance.

© 2007 Steve McGill

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