To 4-Step or not to 4-Step in the High School Girls 100m Hurdles

For the high school coach, not every girl who tries out for the hurdles is a 5’7”, 12-flat sprinter. Sometimes, the best coaching doesn’t produce champions, but, instead, comes in the form of helping a less talented athlete to get the most out of her ability. Coaching a hard-working athlete who lacks the tremendous physical gifts can sometimes be the most rewarding experience a coach can have. I have found this to be true in my years as a coach, and I’m sure that many other coaches out there feel the same way. One of the decisions that must be made regarding girls who are just beginning to learn how to hurdle is whether to teach them to switch lead legs and take four steps between the hurdles, or to try to get them to 3-step between the hurdles. For girls with marginal speed and/or height, this decision can be very difficult. In this article I will discuss the pros and cons of 4-stepping, and I will include some of my personal insights based on memories of girls that I have coached.

Pros of 4-stepping:
1. It’s not difficult for a beginning hurdler to learn to lead with either leg. The difficulty of leading with either leg is more common in experienced hurdlers who never learned how to lead with their weaker leg. Once an athlete gets used to leading with the same leg all the time, it is very hard to teach her to use the other leg as the lead leg, and to truly gain confidence in using that weaker leg as the lead leg in a race. But for beginning hurdlers who have yet to establish which leg is their lead, they generally can use both with equal proficiency.
2. The athlete can race sooner by 4-stepping than by waiting until she can 3-step with confidence. Again, a girl with marginal speed and/or height is better off learning to 4-step so that she can get in races and compete. Not everybody is fast enough or tall enough to 3-step as soon as they start hurdling. Avoiding races until the 3-step comes can damage confidence significantly, and trying to race 5-stepping can downright destroy confidence, so, in such cases, 4-stepping is a very reasonable alternative. It gets the girl out there on the track, running against other hurdlers.
3. Four-stepping can be a key first step on the way to 3-stepping. I don’t know of any girl who has been able to go from 5-stepping to 3-stepping. The drastic difference in stride length pretty much negates the possibility. With a four-stepper, however, the difference in stride length is not nearly as drastic.
4. The confidence that the athlete develops in both legs as a 4-stepper naturally carries over to the longer hurdle race – the 300m or 400m hurdles. The ability to switch legs with such confidence enables the athlete to run aggressively between the hurdles without concerning herself with how many steps she is taking. Instead, she can run hard and lead with which ever leg is there when the hurdle comes up. Many coaches advise that all hurdlers should learn to lead with either leg for this very reason. Although I do not totally agree with this point of view, I definitely see the logic behind it.

Cons of 4-Stepping:
1. A 4-stepping hurdler won’t be able to run any faster than 16.0 at best. Most 4-steppers run in the 17.0 range. So, a girl who wants to run sub-16.0 and compete against the faster 3-steppers will have no choice but to learn to 3-step herself.
2. I have found that girls who 4-step have much difficulty switching to 3-stepping because they get so used to the rhythm of 4-stepping. Hurdling is so much about rhythm that getting used to one rhythm can make it virtually impossible to adjust to a new one. Girls who 4-step will want to quickly drop their trail leg as soon as they land off a hurdle, whereas a 3-stepper will want to keep that trail leg high and drive for a long first step toward the next hurdle. A girl who has grown accustomed to quickly dropping her trail leg will continually revert back to that habit simply because it feels right.
3. Unfortunately, a four-stepper who wants to switch to 3-stepping almost has to do so during the off-season. During the season, there are too many meets in the way to allow for any major technical adjustments. The off-season allows the time to get in enough repetitions for the athlete’s muscles to learn new motions, new rhythms, and to internalize them. I’ve had plenty of girls who could 3-step in practice, but reverted back to 4-stepping as soon as the gun went off in a race. Why? Because, in races, there is no time to think. The muscles have to know what to do without needing the mind to inform them. If the athlete plays other sports in the off-season, or isn’t willing to put the work in during the off-season, the coach is probably better off sticking to the 4-step pattern and making the best of it.

Other Observations, Advice:
· My experience has been that 3-steppers can 3-step very early in their hurdle training, even before their technique is sharp. The smallest girl I’ve coached who could 3-step a whole race was 5’6”. All the girls I’ve coached who could 3-step the whole race had very little trouble 3-stepping within the first week of their hurdle training. The cold, hard truth is that, in the hurdles, height does matter.
· Coaches should know their girls’ open 100m time, or have a good idea of what it would be, especially for girls 5’4” and shorter. If her 100m time isn’t at least in the 13.0 range, then chances are she won’t be able to 3-step an entire race unless she has nearly flawless technique. Taller girls with longer legs can 3-step based on their stride length, even if they are relatively slow.
· It’s a good idea for coaches, during practice, to mark the take-off distance from the hurdle. Once a 4-stepping girl is taking off four feet from the hurdle, she is ready to make the transition to 3-stepping. Still, as I said before, trying to switch to 3-stepping during the season is very difficult because of the race factor. Only the coach can gauge if the athlete is capable of making such a transition during the season. If you feel she is ready, then go for it. But be aware, a lot of 3-stepping in practice will increase stride length. So, when the athlete unintentionally reverts back to 4-stepping during a race, she might get so crowded that she crashes. In some cases, that’s a risk worth taking; in others, it is not. Only the coach, with the athlete’s input, can make that decision. If athlete and coach are on the same page, and have a mutual trust in each other, then the impossible can be accomplished.
· I once coached a girl who was 5’2” who could run in the 47’s in the 300 hurdles. She could run a 16.5 in the 100 hurdles, 4-stepping the whole way. She was the type of athlete who could focus very well during a race, so we worked on her 3-stepping during the season. By the end of the season, she was able to 3-step the first five hurdles, then, as 3-stepping became too much of a stretch, she would switch to 4-stepping throughout the second half of the race. Doing this, she was able to get her time down to 16.0. She is the only girl I’ve ever coached who could switch stride pattern during a race. She was also the only girl I’ve ever coached who learned to 3-step during the season. Again, she was only 5’2” and could 3-step half the race. So, height does matter, but the small girl who is truly a hurdler will only look at height as another hurdle to clear.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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