To Count or Not to Count in the 300m and 400m Hurdles

One of the most prominent questions that comes up regarding the longer hurdle race is the question of how to establish and maintain an effective, comfortable, yet challenging stride pattern that will enable the athlete to get the most out of his or her running and hurdling ability. How many strides to the first hurdle? How many strides between the hurdles early in the race? How many strides between the hurdles on the curve? How many strides between the hurdles late in the race? Is it even worth it to count strides; does counting inhibit the athlete’s natural aggression? Since curve hurdling is an issue separate unto itself, I will address that problem in full elsewhere. This article will focus on the question of whether or not it is beneficial to count strides between hurdles, and, if so, how one should go about doing so.

The Moses Factor
Edwin Moses, undoubtedly the greatest intermediate hurdler who ever lived, dominated the men’s 400m hurdles in the late 1970’s and throughout the ‘80’s. Moses was the first long hurdler to master a scientific, mathematical approach to running the hurdles. He knew exactly how many steps he wanted to take between each hurdle, exactly where he wanted each step to land, and exactly how far he wanted to take off from each hurdle. It should be noted, however, that Moses was not the first hurdler to take thirteen strides between all hurdles after the first one. The first Was Wes Williams of San Diego State University, who did it at the 1969 Division I Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee. Williams finished second in that race to Ralph Mann — 49.2 to 49.3. By adding to the technical mastery of his hurdling predecessors, Moses showed us all the benefits of paying close attention to precise details. By knowing his stride pattern, he knew that all he would have to do to run faster was quicken his tempo. So he never panicked, never over-strided when another hurdler came up on his shoulder. He stayed relaxed, quickened his tempo, maintained his stride length, and, much more often than not, came out on top. Due to Moses’ success, no long hurdler can assume that just “going as hard as you can” can produce optimal results. Moses was an engineering major in college, so he had a mathematical mind; consequently, he found an approach to hurdling that suited the way his mind worked. I don’t think that Moses’ approach would work for everyone, but its benefits, as proven by his unequaled success and his subsequent influence on the event, are undeniable.

Alternating Lead Legs
It seems to me that the only hurdlers who could potentially not need to count their steps at all are those few who can alternate lead legs with complete confidence in either one. My observation has been that even hurdlers who can alternate legs have one that they “prefer” over the other. Therefore, even if it happens subconsciously, they will, come race day, adjust their stride pattern to ensure that the favored lead leg is the one that drives at the crossbar. With that being said, there still could be the possibility for exceptions. Last year I spoke with a collegiate hurdler whose 400H personal best was in the 51.0 range. He told me that he never counts his strides, that he can lead with either leg so well that there really is no need to. He argued that the key to achieving maximum results in the long hurdles does not lie in knowing how many strides you’re going to take, but in not needing to know how many strides you’re going to take. That way, you can run without thinking, and let the body react to the varying conditions of wind, etc. This approach pretty much represents a 180 degree turn-around from the Moses approach, and it obviously has worked for this athlete. I do feel, however, that without absolute confidence in both lead legs, this approach can only have limited success.

The Bershawn Jackson Factor
In the 2004 United States Olympic trials, Bershawn Jackson of St. Augustine’s College finished fourth, although he was arguably the best hurdler in the field. His race in the finals serves as a good argument for the scientists of the event (like Edwin Moses) as well as for the more intuitive athletes (like the college athlete I spoke to). Jackson was in the pack coming off the last curve, approached the ninth hurdle with perfect timing and began to surge ahead. Approaching the tenth hurdle, he felt some competitors closing the gap. As he neared the hurdle, he opened up his stride in an attempt to pull away. Doing so, however, threw him off his rhythm, so he had to chop his steps right in front of the hurdle in order to lead with his preferred lead leg. The combination of over-striding and chopping led him to sail over the hurdle, smack it with his trail leg on the way down, and lose velocity, which enabled the other three hurdlers to slip past him on the run-in to the finish line. Proponents of the Moses school would say that if Jackson had established a specific stride pattern prior to the race, he would’ve been able to run within himself, maintain his stride pattern, and finish in the top three quite easily. Those of the alternating-lead-leg school would say that if he trusted his other lead leg enough, then he wouldn’t have had to chop after over-striding, but could have maintained his speed just by leading with the other leg. My personal belief is that he probably did have a specific stride pattern in mind, but that the magnitude of the moment – being on the verge of fulfilling a lifelong dream – got the better of him, and he made a mental mistake. Anyone who has ever run the 400 hurdles knows how easy it is to make a late-race mental mistake.

Practice, Practice, Practice
The time for counting strides is during practice. Both the scientific hurdlers and the intuitive hurdlers have the same goal – to get to a point where, in a race, the body knows what to do without needing to be told what to do. All athletic participation aspires to this state of “thoughtless thought;” it’s what is referred to as being “in the zone,” or “feelin’ it.” But neither the scientific approach nor the intuitive approach can lead an athlete to this place of peace without practice, practice, practice. For those who count their strides, just knowing how many strides you want to take between the hurdles doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it in a race. You have to do reps over four hurdles, over five hurdles, over six hurdles, etc. You have to do reps into a headwind, with a tailwind behind you, in rainy conditions, in cold weather, in hot weather. You have to do enough reps so that you not only know intellectually how many strides to take between hurdles, but so that your body knows how many strides to take. In addition, you have to do enough over-distance training so that you’re not intimidated by the length of the race. For the first-year hurdler, the coach might be better off letting him or her develop a stride pattern on his or her own, as beginning hurdlers can be overwhelmed by thinking too much, and they don’t have enough experience to get a feel for how stride length relates to stride pattern. By the second year, however, as the hurdler becomes increasingly aware of how over-striding and/or chopping his or her steps causes slower times and more losses, the need to be more technically specific increases. In some cases, it helps if the coach does the counting while the athlete does the running. I personally feel, however, that the athlete should count in his or her mind as well. That’s the only way to teach the body the rhythm of the race. Or, to put it another way, that’s the only way to build the level of muscle memory necessary to execute a race strategy under pressure-filled conditions. It does indeed require a good amount of mental energy to run and think at the same time, but the only way to get to a point where you don’t have to do it in a race is to do it all the time in practice. After a while, even in practice, you won’t feel the need to consciously count your strides; the cadence of the strides themselves will inform you as to whether or not your rhythm is where you want it to be.

For the hurdler who prefers not to concern him or herself with counting strides, but prefers instead to lead with the leg that is there when the hurdle comes up, the hard work in practice comes in the form of mastering lead-leg efficiency with both legs, which again means lots and lots of reps. Hurdlers who run both the 110’s/100’s and the 300’s/400’s will generally tend to want to lead with the leg they lead with in the sprint hurdles, even if the other lead leg is functional. For this reason, I feel it is essential that even those who alternate lead legs count their strides between hurdles, so that they know when they want to alternate. In the final analysis, there is no one way to run the long hurdles. No matter what, you’re going to be exhausted by the time you cross the finish line, and you’re going to feel upset about a mistake or two you made along the way. It’s up to the coach and athlete to work together to develop a race strategy, and the athlete must have the inner resolve and the emotional stamina to employ it.

Race Strategy
Let’s take it back to the days of Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Roberto Duran. In their first bout, Leonard tried to battle Duran blow for blow instead of using his superior footwork and hand speed. It was an act of bravado that ultimately cost him the fight. By playing to Duran’s strength, he allowed Duran to dictate the tempo of the fight. In their second bout, the famous “no mas” contest, Leonard changed his strategy. This time, he stayed mobile, coming at Duran from different angles, using his superior footwork and hand speed to his advantage, frustrating and embarrassing Duran to the point where he finally just quit. In both the first and second bouts, it wasn’t necessarily the best fighter who won, but the fighter who employed the most effective strategy. Intermediate hurdlers, take note: in big races, strategy matters. In early season meets, experiment, try different things. For instance, try to take fifteen strides between hurdles for the whole race. In the next meet, try to get thirteen through the first three hurdles, then switch to fifteen the rest of the way. If you’re capable of alternating leads, maybe start with thirteen, switch to fourteen, and finish with fifteen. Try different things so you know what works best, what feels most comfortable, and what produces the fastest times. Dual meets, etc. are a time to experiment, to develop the strategy that you will use in the championship meets at the end of the year. Race strategy cannot be developed in practice, as the necessary level of adrenaline and competitive drive that races induce cannot be duplicated in practice.

Although you want to base your strategy on your own strengths, it is important, in big races, to be aware of the tendencies of your competitors. For instance, if you know that one of your rivals likes to take control of the race early by being the first one to clear the first hurdle, that doesn’t mean you should try to beat him to the first hurdle if that’s not your style. What it does mean is that, when he does pass you early in the race, don’t panic, because you know you’re a strong finisher. Now let’s flip that around. If you know that one of your rivals is a strong finisher, don’t assume you’ve got him or her whipped if you pass him or her at the first hurdle. Neither should you conserve energy early in order to be able to match his or her strong finish. Run your own race, believe in your strengths, in your training, and in your strategy. As is always the case, developing a race strategy for big meets should be a combined effort of coach and athlete, with neither having the majority of the input. A coach knows what he or she sees, and an athlete knows what he or she feels. So, a day or two before a big meet, coach and athlete should, in essence, compare notes, and come up with a plan of attack.

Is Less More?
Ever since Edwin Moses’ dominance in the ‘80’s, conventional wisdom has been that the less strides you take between the hurdles, the faster your time will be. Some elite athletes have been known to take as few as twelve strides between hurdles for part of the race. Call me crazy, but anyone capable of twelve-stepping the intermediates needs to be long-jumping, triple-jumping, or taking off from the foul line like Michael Jordan. But anyway, to me, the most important factor in determining stride pattern in the long hurdles is conditioning. You can’t do what you’re not in shape to do. Even the most brilliant strategy cannot work if you’re not physically capable of putting it into action. For Edwin Moses, for example, thirteen-stepping all the way around the track would’ve been nothing but a good idea if he hadn’t done the rigorous training necessary to do it on the day of a race. So, obviously, less is indeed more in the sense that, all other things being equal, a well-conditioned thirteen-stepper will probably beat a well-conditioned fifteen-stepper. But again, turnover is another factor to consider. In the open 400, Michael Johnson had the shortest stride length and quickest turnover of any quarter-miler in the world. The amount of strides he took per race, I would assume, was significantly higher than that of any of his competitors. Which means that he had to work harder than any of them to get from the starting line to the finish line. Yet he beat all of them, time and time again. From this example we can conclude that turnover matters more than stride length. Or, considering the tremendous condition Johnson was in, we can conclude that conditioning matters more than stride length and turnover. Therefore, the advice for the intermediate hurdler would be to get yourself in shape to deal with the physical and psychological demands of the event, and trust that your natural stride length will enable you to reach your ultimate potential. Personally, I don’t try to get an athlete to take less strides between the hurdles unless I see flaws in his or her running form that need to be addressed. In such cases, we’ll work on refining the running form. If the corrections result in less strides, so be it; if not, I know that that they will still result in faster times because the athlete will be running more efficiently. In regards to stride length, my experience has been that I don’t have to impose my will very much at all. By the late part of the season, my athletes know how they want to run the race. I don’t like telling my athletes how many strides they “should” take between the hurdles, as I feel that doing so would inhibit their creativity and prevent them from listening to their own bodies. I give suggestions, based on my observations and past experiences. On the whole, I think that the “less is more” philosophy is a dangerous one because it can lead to over-striding, which can lead to insurmountable, humiliating late-race fatigue. So, I return to what I said before: run your own race, but do the work you need to do to know what “your race” is.

© 2004 Steve McGill

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