Let’s look at three more hurdle qualities I believe can assist coaches in making them better able to make your “Newbie” hurdlers fast and your experienced hurdlers faster. I had a community college guy who was competition in his first decathlon, and was terrified of the high hurdles. The hurdle height did not scare him since he’s 6’4. He still thought he had to reach in order to make it to the next hurdle. Once I was able to give him a lead arm “cue” to concentrate on he took two seconds off his hurdle time in two weeks. I have talked before about the hurdle distance (9.14 and 8.50) and the running distance (5.94 and 5.50), in addition to the hurdle rhythmic unit (the time it takes to run from one touchdown to the next touchdown).
Now for a little math about where we should be the most concerned about when your kids run hurdles. Let’s say your boy or girl runs a rhythmic unit in 1.25 seconds. Since the average high school hurdler spends 0.30-0.40 seconds in the air (girls quicker with the lower hurdle), we subtract that time from the R.U. of 1.25. This leaves us with a running time of 0.85-0.95 seconds representing 68-75% of the rhythmic unit. So where do you want to spend most of your time when it comes to teaching your hurdler to hurdle? I am not saying that the hurdle clearance is not important, but everything in any technical event is built on what happens before that moment. In part one I spent most of the paper getting to the proper take-off so that touchdown and the run between the hurdles are as quick as possible.
The 32-25% of the R.U. spent in the air is set up by the proper take-off mechanics: so you ask yourself, how do I do that?
The Lead Action:
This is an aggressive step action, (combining arm and leg movements) where the hurdler must allow the cut step and take-off extension to naturally occur. There is a tendency for hurdlers (young and experienced alike) to hurry the take-off causing them to “jump over” the hurdle which invokes more of a vertical projection. The take-off is more of an extended push off toward the hurdle allowing the take-off foot to fall behind the hurdlers center of mass. By staying on the ground as long as possible, the hurdler takes full advantage of the power (and stretch-shortening) generated from the aggressive take-off, splitting the legs. You should see the take-off toe pointing in the opposite direction getting triple extension from the ankle, knee and hip joints. The powerful push off on the backside of the body allows the lead knee to attack the hurdle on the front side of the hurdler’s body (sometimes you will see the lead knee rise above your hurdler’s navel). The combination of take-off and lead action gives the hurdler a flatter parabola over the hurdle and actually starts the lead foot toward the ground not more than inches past the top of the hurdle. If you video your hurdler, a good cue to watch for is whether or not the lead foot clears and drops off the hurdle cross bar. If the foot stays above the crossbar or even continues to rise as the lead foot passes over the cross bar, indicates a real take-off problem. But when some coaches see this error, they merely tell their hurdler to “snap their lead leg down faster.” They can’t do anything to change the touchdown once they have left the ground.
The lead foot is held back (under the lead knee) and once the take-off is complete the lead foot then hinges forward and stretches the hamstring. This is why the push off the ground must be patient.
The more efficient the push off the more aggressive the lead action can be. The human body is like a teeter totter and must maintain equilibrium. If you “jump” off the ground instead of “pushing off”, the opposite action of the lead leg will shorten and floating the hurdle will likely occur (or a hurdle hit). Jumping off the ground is a premature action and will force the lead leg to swing around the hurdle, or flick toward the hurdle (that flicking toward the hurdle makes the lead foot continue to rise pass the hurdle cross bar, making you float over the hurdle). If the lead leg is given the time to extend in a bent knee flexion, this facilitates a nice step over action and makes for a well balanced touchdown as the lead moves down into the track.
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The Trail Action:
The trail leg works in concert with the lead leg and trail arm actions. The trail action is enhanced if you leave the take-off foot behind you. By pushing off the ground at take-off, the lead and trail legs split causes the “stretch-shorten” to occur appearing like an elongated sprint stride. Any hesitation will float the trail and allows it to slide off the side of the hurdle rather than moving in front of the body to start running. If the cut step is executed correctly the take-off foot appears to be pulled off the ground and begins the “trail leg circle” movement we drill so diligently as hurdle coaches. This movement tucks the trail heel close to the butt and shortens the trail leg as a lever (allowing the trail to pass over the hurdle to a front-side position). The trail is kept folded tightly until it reaches the front of the body. At this moment, the trail leg should be unfolded toward the ground under the center of mass. The problem for most young hurdlers is their lack of feel for this action. There is a tendency for the trail leg to unfold allowing the lower leg to extend causing the trail foot to land in front of the body and braking. Do this three times between every hurdle and you can why young hurdlers slow down and feel they are not fast enough to run three steps for ten hurdlers.
The Lead Hand Action:
The cuing of the lead hand as you leave the ground must be a fast and continuous movement. Hurdlers feel they must wait for the body (hips) to clear the hurdle before they can actively attack the ground. But the ground attack must happen as soon cut-step leaves the ground. The hurdler is at their highest above the hurdle before the hurdle which means the hurdler’s body begins to descend as soon as the hips approach the hurdle. As soon as the lead hand hits the front (as soon as you see it), it should start to move backward. The lead hand reaches or presses forward with the thumb pronated down in a freestyle swim movement. A swimmer pulls the lead hand down and arm backward allowing the arm to stretch into the shoulder. The hurdler using this same movement sweeps the hand back in the same motion allowing the trail knee to sweep under the swim action. This movement is primarily a technique used by the men since their hurdle is higher and needs arm extension near shoulder height (so don’t allow your young people to become “hurdle clones” copying a technique – ala Aires Merritt/Rodney Milburn). Your young women will use a slightly different lead arm technique since their hurdle is lower, thus needing a lower lead hand action. The lead hand for the girls extends navel height allowing the lead arm to rip back behind the hurdler and firing the trail around and into the ground.
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