Trail Arm

Just when you think you know everything there is to know, just when you think you have a solution to every possible technical problem in the hurdles, something happens to make you wonder, What have I been doing all these years? Sometimes genius is accidental. But that doesn’t make it any less valid. Like when I was making apple crisp and accidentally melted the butter, making the topping gooey instead of crumbly. Everybody who ate the dessert said they loved it and that they especially loved the gooey topping. Ever since then, whenever I make apple crisp, I make sure to melt the butter, even if the recipe says not to. Another moment of accidental genius occurred to me this past weekend while working with one of my hurdlers in youth track.

I had always been taught that balance problems in hurdling are often caused by the lead arm. When the lead arm swings across the body, it pushes the trail arm back too far, which causes the shoulders and hips to go off-line, which causes the lead leg to hang in the air even if you’re trying to snap it down. Landing off of the hurdle is therefore often awkward, and the first step after landing is usually a lateral stumble step, a recovery step, instead of a driving step forward. So, whenever I try to fix arm motion, I begin by focusing on the lead arm, on making sure it doesn’t swing across the body.

Until now. My athlete, David, has been hurdling for only a few months. He is thirteen years old, running the 100 meter hurdles over 33’s on the USATF Junior Olympic schedule. His technique has improved steadily over the past couple months, to the point where, after our meet this past weekend, I felt he was ready to start focusing specifically on his arm motion, as he was no longer running flat-footed and swinging his lead leg up from the hip. He now was at the point where, if he really wanted to snap down and drive between the hurdles, he needed to get the arms right. So I set up three hurdles on the grass, about six yards apart for a quick three-step. Since there are a lot more details to worry about with the lead arm than there are with the trail arm, I decided to start off by having him concentrate on correcting his trail arm. Just put the hand on the hip, I told him, when the lead leg is on top of the hurdle, then punch the hand up as the lead leg snaps down. David’s habit had been to bring the trail arm back too far, and too high. Just put it on the hip, I told him, and punch it back up. Concentrating on this mistake, he was able to correct it rather quickly with the hurdles close together. First I had him do some lead leg drills, and then over the top.

I started noticing, after a few reps over the top, that his lead arm looked much better as well. It was no longer going all the way across his body, but was stopping at his nose and pulling straight back, just like you want it to. That’s when I asked him, “Are you thinking about your lead arm at all?” He answered by saying, “No. Why?” I told him I was just curious, and to do a couple more reps. I then started looking at his trail leg, which always had a tendency to come around a bit wide – a problem obviously caused by the lead arm swinging wide on the way back into running position. Well, his trail leg motion was much tighter now as well, and I knew he wasn’t thinking about his trail leg at all. That’s when it hit me: putting the trail arm on the hip during hurdle clearance fixes the problem of the lead arm coming across the body too far; it also fixes the problem of the lead arm swinging too wide on the way back; and it also fixes the problem of the trail leg swinging too wide on its way up.

I’ve never been one to place much emphasis on the trail arm, and now I’m realizing that I have probably been underestimating the importance of this arm in regards to the whole balance factor of hurdle clearance. Usually, I’ll only have an athlete focus on correcting trail arm issues if the elbow of the arm is locking on the way back during hurdle clearance, throwing the shoulders and hips off-line. David’s problem was less severe – the arm would stay bent at the elbow, but would swing back farther than it needed to. What I saw as the real problem was that the lead arm was coming too far across the body. With David, I decided to focus first on the trail arm first only because it would be quicker to fix and I felt it would be productive to make some progress without doing a lot of work on a very hot day. But it turns out that I hit on something significant.

Wanting to see if my discovery with David could apply to other hurdlers, I did the same workout, with more hurdles set up, a couple days later, with Wayne – another one of my hurdlers. I told him, too, to focus on keeping the hand of the trail arm on the hip during hurdle clearance. I explained to him first that I felt this adjustment could help him with his lead arm problems, as it did with David. With Wayne, I saw a similar improvement in the lead arm and trail leg. Later, I set the hurdles further apart and had Wayne go at them full speed, and to not just focus on keeping the hand on the hip, but also to really punch the hand back up with some thrust when snapping down the lead leg. At that pace, Wayne felt crowded between the hurdles due to the increased propulsion of the trail leg, which means that punching up the hand was enabling to sprint faster between the hurdles.

If you’re a coach who, like me, has neglected to see the potential of problems with the trail arm to cause other technical problems in hurdle clearance, hopefully this article has given you something to think about that will help your hurdlers to run faster.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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