After one of my races in college I was walking back to the starting line to pick up my sweats when I stopped to watch the next heat. Something struck me as odd in the hurdling style of the winner, who stood 6-3. He seemed to be running downhill. The hurdles seemed so low as to hardly even be in his way. I wanted to know how he hurdled that way. I found myself wishing I was 6-3 so that I too could look down on the hurdles and run downhill. In my race I had hit a lot of hurdles. It seemed like no matter how deeply I leaned, even if I put my head all the way down to my knee, I was catching hurdles with the hamstring or heel of my lead leg.
That’s when I started to experiment. I practiced on my own the next day and tried a new technique that involved jumping. In order to make myself 6-3, I reasoned, and to be able to create that feeling of running downhill, of making the hurdles small, I’d have to jump. So I set up five hurdles and gave it a shot. The key adjustment I made was to change my angle of take-off. Instead of taking off horizontally, into the hurdle, I took off more vertically, over the hurdle. To compensate for the floating that the vertical take-off caused, I found that I needed to begin the snapdown of my lead leg sooner, and I really had to push that leg down hard.
But it worked. To my surprise and elation, I wasn’t hitting hurdles anymore. Not only that, but I didn’t feel like I was in danger of hitting hurdles. I felt like I was in control. By pushing off vertically instead of horizontally, I successfully created the illusion that I was taller than the hurdle. Another unexpected benefit was that I didn’t feel like I was having as much trouble getting my trail leg to keep up with my lead leg.
At our team’s practice the following day, I told my coach of my new discovery and asked him what he thought. He quickly dismissed the concept altogether. The last thing you want to do, he said, is jump. Jumping makes you spend more time in the air. And more time in the air means less time on the track. I explained to him that it felt faster, and that I wasn’t hitting hurdles anymore, but he wasn’t trying to hear it. So I basically abandoned the idea and went back to my old way. I had no idea that I had hit on something big.
And for the next twenty-two years, I still didn’t realize it. It wasn’t until about a year and a half ago that I started to pursue that jumping hurdling style in earnest. How this new development came about is a long story that would be better told at a later time, but for the time being let me focus on breaking down the principles of this style. I’ll refer to this style as “vertical hurdling” and “downhill hurdling” since it involves a jumping element and emphasizes more of an up-down motion over the hurdle, as opposed to the traditional way of hurdling, which I’ll refer to throughout the rest of this article as “horizontal hurdling” since it involves an extension of the lead leg and emphasizes more of an out-then-down motion over the hurdle.
Elements of Vertical Hurdling (or Downhill Hurdling)
• You must jump over the hurdle by pushing off the back leg. The amount of force you apply into the track depends on how tall you are and how high the hurdle is. The higher the hurdle, and the smaller you are, the greater the force. The purpose of the push off the back leg is to put yourself in the position where you are looking down on the hurdle. So the push is a vertical push; you want to elevate. You want to “run downhill.” You don’t want to feel like the hurdles are high.
• When you push off the back leg, you must simultaneously push the hips forward. Both are very forceful yet fluid movements. The push forward with the hips prevents you from floating when you push off the back leg, prevents you from jumping too high, and speeds up your acceleration.
• An imbalance is created when you get a good push off the back leg but don’t push the hips forward. You sail and the hips twist.
• The torso should push down on the chest as soon as you push off the back leg to emphasize the “down” part of the up-down motion.
• After the back leg pushes, it must instantly whip in front, with the heel staying tucked, until the knee is facing the next hurdle. This whip motion is what gives you the feeling that you are running over the hurdle. And that’s how we want to feel – not like we are “hurdling,” but like we are running over the hurdle.
• The heel of the front leg must stay tucked close to the butt during take-off. If you extend the front leg, it becomes a lead leg, extending outward, and therefore will need to snap down. We don’t want to snap down. We want to cycle the foot back under the hip, as close to a natural sprinting stride as possible. We don’t want to “hurdle,” per se, but want to sprint over the hurdle. Also, extending the front leg takes away some of the space you need to negotiate the barrier, forces you to take off further from the hurdle, and therefore forces you to run slower, or to shuffle, to avoid hitting the hurdle.
• The lead arm must not stop moving. It is what forces the issue in regards to speed. If the lead arm pauses, everything pauses. If the lead arm whips through, both legs and the back arm will be forced to speed up in order to catch up, and they will, so that’s what you want.
• The cycling under of the front leg creates a push forward upon touchdown. If you stomp the ground without cycling under, you can’t push off the front foot when you return to sprinting. Being able to push off the front foot creates a significant acceleration coming off the hurdle.
• With this style of hurdling, you do not want to skim the crossbar with the calf and the hamstring. That’s a principle of horizontal hurdling. In vertical hurdling, or downhill hurdling, we want to be coming down on the hurdle, so there will be space between the hamstring and crossbar, but the downward slope and the cycling under ensures that you will land very close to the hurdle, even closer than you would the traditional way, and you’ll have more speed coming off the hurdle too.
• The horizontal hurdling style makes you very long while on top of the hurdle. The lead leg is kicking forward, the trail leg is kicking outward, and somewhat backward. We don’t want to be long. We want to be tight. We don’t want our legs to be in opposition to each other, going in different directions. We want them to be in harmony with each other, heading in the same direction.
• This vertical style is predicated upon speed. Your take-off distance from the hurdle will be closer than it is in the horizontal style. The horizontal style mandates that the take-off be far away to enable space for the lead leg to drive forward without the foot hitting the crossbar. But by taking off vertically, you can get closer to the hurdle without hitting it. To take off closer, you need to run faster. It takes a while to get used to that. The natural inclination is to slow down or shorten your strides so that you have room to drive the lead leg forward. With vertical hurdling, you want to take off close enough so that you don’t have room to drive the front leg forward. You want to force yourself to drive the front leg upward, keeping the heel tucked. With this style, if you take off too far away, you’ll be forced to resort to the traditional horizontal style of hurdling.
Front leg – leg that clears the hurdle first. We used to call this leg the lead leg, but we don’t want to call it that anymore because, with downhill hurdling, the front leg doesn’t really lead the way in the strictest sense. With this style, the back leg (trail leg) creates the force and speed that propels you through the hurdle motion. The role of the front leg is the same as it is in sprinting; its key role is to cycle downward (not kick outward) and then to continue to cycle so that the ball of the foot lands under the hip. For anyone who has grown accustomed to hurdling the traditional way (which would be everybody), the difficult aspect of mastering the mechanics of the front leg will be in keeping the heel tucked during take-off. With horizontal hurdling, the heel opens up, away from the butt, as the back leg pushes off the track.
Back leg – leg that clears the hurdle second. We used to call this leg the trail leg, but we don’t want to call it that anymore because, with downhill hurdling, the back leg doesn’t really trail behind the front leg. It would be more appropriate to say that neither leg leads and neither leg trails, but that both legs are running, both legs are cycling over the hurdle. The back leg provides the propulsion and the elevation necessary to make you feel like you’re running downhill. That’s the feeling you want to have – that you are tall and the hurdle is small. So the vertical push off the back leg is the most important aspect of this technique. Without the needed amount of force, and without the correct angle, none of the other aspects of this technique will work. This leg also serves another function. After pushing off the track, it whips in front. One of the most frustrating elements of the traditional style is that the trail leg always lags behind, creating width in the groin, disrupting the running motion. With the traditional style, the back leg pushes off on more of a horizontal angle, which causes the leg to hang low, and the heel to drift away from the butt, both of which cause the leg to lag, and to swing around in a wider arc. The best hurdlers are still able to whip the leg in front, but after the lag. With the vertical style, there is no lag. The leg runs.
Horizontal hips – The hips move in a horizontal motion during hurdle clearance. The legs and arms go up and down, but the hips drive forward. You want to provide horizontal thrust with the hips at the same time that you provide vertical thrust with the back leg. Remember that the only way to get to the finish line first is to move forward, so the horizontal element of the vertical hurdling style lies in the hips. If the hips elevate along with the rest of the body when you push off the back leg, you’ll sail and lose balance. This problem is the reason that, for so many years, we’ve been saying that you don’t want to “jump” over the hurdle. The word “jump” itself implies floating and sailing. But the only jumping aspect of this style lies in the vertical push off the back leg.
Torso – The torso serves as the “down” component of the up-down motion. Immediately after pushing off the back leg, the torso pushes down in the traditional chest-over-thigh method. It’s like you’re literally trying to push yourself back to the ground. The torso is key in creating a boom-boom! effect in the clearance of the hurdle – a sense of power and explosiveness, not just fluidity.
Lead arm – The arm opposite the front leg can still be called the lead arm, as it is in traditional hurdling. The reason being, the arm does lead the way in the vertical hurdling style, arguably even more than it does with the horizontal way. Any pause in the lead arm creates a pause in the entire motion. The lead arm must force the issue. You have to trust that if it continues moving, the legs will catch up. With the old way, the lead arm would pause after the trail leg left the ground, and then speed up again when the lead leg snapped down and the trail leg whipped through. Styles that encourage bringing the arm across the body actually create a pause, which again creates a pause in the entire motion. The lead arm should move in an up-and-down motion. Because the back leg will be much tighter with this vertical style, the lead arm barely has to open up at all to give the back leg room to whip through. Continuing the mantra of “run over the hurdle,” the lead arm should stay as close as possible to the same angles as during the sprinting strides.
Back arm – the arm opposite the back leg. This arm used to be called the trail arm, but we don’t want to call it that anymore. We don’t want to think of anything as “trailing,” because that terminology implies a lag, a pause, a waiting effect. We want to always keep in mind that all limbs are constantly in motion. So the back arm pulls back as the back leg pushes off. It may pull back higher than it does in the sprinting strides, which means you don’t necessarily need to just put it on the back pocket like you do in the horizontal style. Let it lift higher because that’s what it should do naturally as a result of the increased elevation. Just don’t let it go outward, away from the body, where it would serve more as a rudder for balance. Our hips provide our balance by thrusting us forward. Our arms provide force, speed, and momentum. The back arm swings upward to the front as the back leg whips in front and the front leg cycles under the hip.
Basic Goals of Downhill Hurdling:
• To create an up-down motion that takes up less space and creates more speed and acceleration before, during, and after hurdle clearance.
• To minimize the horizontal element in hurdling.
• To create more space to sprint, since sprinting faster is the key to dropping time.
• To feel more in control; to feel like you know you won’t hit hurdles.
• If you’re not fast enough, this style of hurdling won’t work. If you try to take off vertically from too far away, you’ll have to sail, or you’ll have to kick out the front leg, and that’ll kill your speed and probably your balance.
• It is possible to get too close. Even though you’re taking off vertically, the front leg still needs room to execute the motion. And the faster you’re sprinting, the more danger you create because you have less time to react. So, the higher the hurdle, the greater the danger. Which means you have to do a lot of drills to train your body to get used to the danger factor and to execute the motions effectively.
• One-steps to get in the habit of pushing off the back leg. That leg needs to get strong. Also, the whip after the push needs to be perfected. Push/whip, push/whip. A lot of one-steps isolating the back leg.
• Quick-steps over lower heights to ensure that you learn how to develop the proper mechanics of the technique.
• Plyo bounds mimicking the vertical hurdling motion.
• Quick-steps over heights higher than race height to force yourself to push off the back leg and create elevation. I’ve had high school girls do quick-steps over 36” and even 39”. The idea is that the height of the hurdle should not prevent you from being able to execute the technique. The higher the hurdle, the more forceful the push off the back leg. In the traditional way, you’re trying to lift the lead leg higher, trying to bring the chest further down over the thigh. That takes too much time and way too much effort. With this way, the only increased effort comes in the push off the back leg.
• Can this style work in the 300/400h? Yes. And it can be very beneficial. If you can take off close enough to the hurdle to execute the vertical hurdling style, you can save a lot of energy that is spent taking off far away and gliding over hurdles. I think that even taking an extra stride in order to shorten the take-off distance will enable you to conserve energy for the latter part of the race; you lose more energy with a long, horizontal hurdle motion than you do by taking an extra sprinting stride. Time-wise, whatever you gain with the old way by taking less strides between the hurdles, you lose even more with the longer, slower hurdle clearance. With either style, being able to alternate is important.
• Can the downhill style work for women? Yes. It’s actually easier for women. With the hurdles lower, women have more margin for error. With men over 42’s, there’s always going to be a horizontal element, but women have the potential to virtually eliminate the horizontal element altogether.
• Should you employ the cut step with this style? Ideally, yes. It would work the same as it does for long-jumpers. The cut step enables you to take off vertically. Again, your speed and courage have to put you in a position where you can cut that last step.
• Take-off distance, with this style, should be closer than with the traditional style. Whereas before the optimal take-off distance for a male might’ve been in the 7-foot range, and in the 6-foot range for a female, I would say that with downhill hurdling you’d want to take off about a foot closer. Maybe even a a foot and a half or two feet depending on the athlete’s ability to adjust and willingness to live on the edge.
• To the untrained eye, it should like you’re just running over the hurdle. It should look weirdly easy.
• Proper sprint mechanics are essential for this style to be effective. If the ankles aren’t flexed, for example, you’ll clobber hurdles with your back leg. If you don’t tuck the heel of either leg, you won’t have enough room to take off real close to the hurdle. When I coach athletes how to execute this vertical, downhill style, I constantly remind them to refer to their sprint mechanics when they get confused. “The way you run between the hurdles,” I tell them, “is how you want to run over the hurdles.”
• The downhill element of this hurdling style can’t be emphasized enough. The feeling of being in control, that you are looking down on the hurdles and that the hurdles are small, is essential to effective hurdling. I didn’t always think this to be the case; I thought that running downhill was a luxury available only to tall hurdlers. Now I realize that it’s not a luxury at all, but a necessity.
• While I’ve yet to have an athlete employ the vertical style in a race (I just started teaching it this past fall), I have found that it has been surprisingly easy to teach, and my athletes agree that it has been surprisingly easy to learn, even those whom I’ve been coaching for a while, who had grown accustomed to the old way. One of my athletes mentioned that it’s easy to learn because jumping over hurdles is natural – it’s what we do when we don’t know what we’re doing. But we’ll see how things go when we put the rubber to the road in competitive situations.
• My mantra as a coach has always, been “Be willing to change.” If there’s a way to run over hurdles that is faster than the way I’ve been teaching, then I want to study that method and explore its effectiveness, even if it means going against my own traditional beliefs.
• The hurdling events need something new. Look at it this way – the men’s 110m record has dropped only .06 in 27 years, and the women’s 100h record hasn’t been touched in twenty years. Is this stagnation due to a lack of speed? Are the men not fast enough to run 110 meters in 12.5 or 12.4 seconds? Are the women not fast enough to run 100 meters in 12.0 or 11.9? No, lack of speed is not the issue, but the inability to negotiate the barriers in such a way that enables them to maximize their speed. I believe that the vertical/downhill style will enable hurdlers to come closer to maximizing their speed than the horizontal hurdling style does.
© 2009 Steve McGill