The Phases of a High Hurdle Race

Recently I received an email from a coaching friend of mine asking me to discuss the phases of a sprint hurdle race from start to finish. I don’t consider myself an expert on that topic, but I guess I know enough to write an article on it without sounding stupid. So, here goes. Broadly speaking, a 100m/110m hurdle race can be divided into three phases:

1. Starting line to the third hurdle (Acceleration)
2. Fourth hurdle to seventh hurdle (Top speed)
3. Eighth hurdle to finish line (Deceleration)

Starting Line to Third Hurdle:
This is the phase of the race in which the athlete is accelerating toward full speed. Often, we think of the “start” as being the approach from the starting blocks to the first hurdle. But the athlete is still accelerating well after the first hurdle. He or she continues to accelerate through the second and third hurdle, and doesn’t reach full speed until the fourth hurdle. Likewise, it is ideal that the hurdler not reach full height until the third hurdle as well. If a hurdler is too tall too early, he or she will reach top speed too soon, and therefore begin to decelerate after the fifth hurdle or sixth hurdle instead of after the seventh hurdle.

Fourth Hurdle to Seventh Hurdle:
Here, the hurdler has reached top speed – has shifted gears, so to speak. If the first phase of the race has gone well, the hurdler now feels like he or she is “rolling,” and the greatest danger lies in the possibility of running up on hurdles and getting too crowded. To master this phase of the race, it’s important to practice over five or six hurdles in practice to get used to the increased speed in order to learn to “dance” between the hurdles. No more than six reps would be advised, because too many reps will decrease the speed and ruin the point of the workout. A lot of the time, this phase of the race is where the better hurdlers pull away from the pack. Their sprinting speed is part of the reason why, as well as their ability to attack the hurdles aggressively without compromising their speed, which is a matter of courage and discipline. Inexperienced hurdlers will slow down to avoid crashing. Hurdlers who lack foot speed and have to stretch their strides to reach the hurdle will generally begin to lose ground in this stage of the race. The lack of foot speed makes it impossible to keep pace, regardless of how good their technique may be. Such hurdlers need to either focus on the long hurdles or do a lot of quickness drills to improve their leg turnover.

Eighth Hurdle to Finish Line:
This is the “uh-oh” stage of the race, when mental breakdowns can occur and technical flaws will be exposed. Reflexes slow down, and hurdlers may lose their ability to react to the barriers. It also becomes more difficult to recover when hitting hurdles. But for the well-prepred hurdler, “uh-oh” doesn’t have to come into the equation. There is no way to avoid decelerating in this stage of the race. The key is to stay relaxed in the uppoer body, to maintain efficient sprinting form between the hurdles, and to maintain efficient hurdling form over the hurdles. Coming off the last hurdle to the finish line, it’s important to make sure you clear the last hurdle before dashing to the finish line. We all know what happened to Gail Devers in 1992, but she’s not the only one that has happened to. With automatic timing and photo finishes, it’s essential to lean into the finish line at the precisely correct moment. I’ll never forget how Terrence Trammell’s lean in the 2004 Olympics earned him a silver medal when he could’ve finished as far back as fourth if he had leaned too late or had ducked down his head instead of pushing his torso forward.

The best hurdlers don’t have a “weak” phase of their race. They get out well, they maintain their speed, they stay in attack mode even when the hurdles are rushing up at them, and they stay relaxed and focused when fatigue sets in. Running a good hurdle race is very, very difficult. It requires constant practice of all the race’s phases. When all the phases come together in a fluid, seamless manner, oh, what a beautiful feeling.

© 2007 Steve McGill

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