When starting a new track season, many coaches and athletes alike busy themselves setting goals based on performances from the previous year. Getting faster, stronger, tougher, and more powerful are among the many attributes that when increased can lead to new personal bests. But sometimes the new goals are still a ways off due to a lack of technical competency, such as needed in the sprint hurdles. In this article, I hope to address some of the reasons why things go wrong and how the coach and athlete can go about solving the problems.
Fault: The approach to the hurdle is too passive. This often occurs during the run to the first hurdle and the successive runs between the hurdles because of poor acceleration skill, poor sprint mechanics, or when you have one hurdler who is better than the other hurdlers in your group and can easily get to the first hurdles without putting out maximum effort.
Correction: The coach can improve their hurdler’s sense of urgency by running start work with the sprinters. Now this is not a novel idea and has been used by coaches for decades. The initial reason to do this is to force your hurdler to run as fast and powerfully as you can for the 13.00/13.72 meters to the first hurdle. The drawback to this drill comes when after 5-8 meters your sprinters bury the hurdler as they ease off getting ready for the first hurdle. Changing the drill slightly, have a 20 meter zone for your sprinters to accelerate through. Your hurdler will then start seven (7) meters ahead of the sprinters so when the sprinter reaches 20 meters your sprint hurdler should be attacking the first hurdle. The sense of urgency comes from the desire to get to the first hurdle before the sprinters get to the 20 meter zone. Runs covering 29-38 and 47 meters with a seven (7) meter stagger can give your hurdles up to four (4) hurdle clearances with the knowledge the sprinters are coming after them.
Fault: Holding back: Often the hesitation (even with enough speed) comes from the fear of a hurdle hit on the first barrier.
Correction: Lower the first hurdle 10-20% so the hurdler can focus on the barriers in front of you rather than just focusing on the first hurdle. The hurdle hit does not come from not being fast enough. The hurdle hit comes from the hesitation itself that slows you down can causes the problems. If you can get your hurdler off the first hurdle fast the fear of the hurdles to come decreases with every hurdle you clear. Place hurdle #1 adjacent to your lane and pretend to run over it which will give you the speed you need to blast through the next hurdles.
Fault: Poor take off due to faulty steering before the hurdle.
Correction: The ability to steer, or pick up the hurdle before you get there is similar to what long jumper’s sense prior to take-off. Unlike long jumpers, the hurdler has to possess repeatable steering for ten (10) take-off and clearances. Because of the repeatable movements in the long jump, the jumper can “sense” when they should hit the take-off. Placing pieces of tape 1.90-2.00m (women) and 2.00-2.20m (men) for all of your hurdle runs will ingrain the take-off rhythm so it will be second nature to you during the completion.
Fault: First strides from the blocks are too short and the last strides are too long in the approach to the first hurdle.
Correction: With the sprint hurdles, teaching the pattern of the eight (8) step approach emphasizing power in the early strides is critical. The first three (3) steps are like running uphill (or dragging a sled). The next two (2) steps find the hurdler adjusting to a slightly shorter frequency (like you have crested the hill). The last three (3) step are similar to a downhill run as you get quicker with the eight (8th) step is shorter than the seventh (7th) (so the last step fires under the hips and launches you up, over and off the hurdle). Putting down pieces of tape to simulate the acceleration pattern can greatly assist in this area.
Fault: Passive landing off the hurdle. Pausing or propping up on the touchdown.
Correction: Body position is very important here for the take-off by maintaining a good forward lean (keeping the head and shoulders ahead of the hips, but not bent at the waist). Everything that we see coming off the hurdle is created by what happens on the hurdle take-off. So a good hurdle take-off with an active take-off will result in an active touchdown with the foot underneath the hips, ensuring a fast run-off to the next hurdle.
Fault: Poor trail leg angle. Often the trail is either slow to respond to the take-off, or cheats around the hurdle trying to hurry into the ground.
Correction: A good trail leg is again the product of a good take-off before the hurdle clearance. Most poor trail mechanics come from a poor take-off that does not drive through the hurdle. The trail leg (or take-off leg) must stay on the ground as long as possible allowing the head and shoulders and the lead leg to attack the hurdle. Leaving the take-off leg behind creates a big elastic stretch and once the take-off foot leaves the ground, the trail fires around and into the ground. Hopping off the ground shortens the take-off and this causes the trail to swing around the hurdle instead of under the armpit. In addition, instead of the trail firing over and into the ground under the hips, the trail leg sweeps around and away from the body causing a braking action as the trail foot lands in front of the body. This is why some hurdlers feel they are not fast enough in the sprint hurdles because each hurdle clearance is met with greater and greater deceleration.
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Tony Veney is the head track and field coach at Ventura Community College in Ventura, CA.