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Teaching Beginners To Hurdle

By Ron Parker


    The following article is an excerpted chapter from the new book, Getting Started in Track & Field: A Coaching Manual, by Canadian coach Ron Parker. This book was originally written by Parker in the 1970's, but he has rewritten it completely and provided all-new illustrations and photo sequences (all in color in the book). For coaches of youngsters, this is "must" reading. The book is available from Tafnews Press (Book Division of Track & Field News), 2570 El Camino Real, Suite 606, Mountain View, CA 94040 USA. $20.00, plus $2.50 postage/handling.


    The objective in the hurdles is to sprint the distance between the starting line and the finish line as fast as possible while clearing 8 to 10 barriers. Hurdling is sprinting over small barriers.
    The most important motor skill to learn in order to hurdle well is the sequence of clearing first the lead leg and then the trailing leg over the hurdle. This sequence must be done very quickly and with a minimum of clearance height over the barriers so the hurdlers can return their feet to the track to continue sprinting.



    The key to teaching hurdling to young athletes is repetition. Constant repetition over a few hurdles, day after day, gives the best results.

A. Beginning
    Using non-weighted or scissors hurdles that can adjust down to 46 cm. (1 ft., 6 in.) in height, set up four lanes of hurdles with the following heights and spacing (Table 1).
Each flight should have three or four hurdles. As many as 20 or more hurdlers can be training at the same time using this method.

lane 3 46 cm. height 11 m. to first hurdle 8 m. between hurdles
lane 4 53 cm. height 11 m. to first hurdle 8.7 m. between hurdles
lane 5 61 cm. height 11 m. to first hurdle 9.5 m. between hurdles
lane 6 69 cm. height 12 m. to first hurdle 10.2 m. between hurdles

Table 1

    Instruct the athletes to run with an exaggerated knee lift over the lane 3 hurdles taking five steps between the hurdles. It doesn't matter how big or small the athlete is, they start with lane 3. If the athlete is already familiar with hurdling then he would go on to a more difficult lane.
    In all likelihood, the athletes will initially run and jump, run and jump. Therefore constant emphasis must be placed on stepping over the hurdles and running with high knees over the hurdles.
    Also, instruct the athletes to clear the trailing leg by lifting the knee high and out to the side under the arm with the knee in a higher position than the foot. The action of the lead leg is quite different; the knee is driven high in front of the chest toward the hurdle with the foot being snapped up just high enough to clear the hurdle.
    Stride length at this time should be fairly short (five steps between the hurdles) concentrating on rhythm and not speed. As the athletes warm up and are able to do the first lane with ease, instruct them to move to the next lane, progressively running faster.
    The athletes also are likely to stop in front of each hurdle and hop over with considerably diminished speed. Correct this by instructing them to go forward not up over the hurdles.
    The hurdlers should do six to twelve flights of hurdles at each workout. As they improve, they can progress to the next higher hurdle flight. Most hurdlers do well to warm up with a couple of flights with the smallest hurdles even though they may have progressed to the higher heights.
    In this way, the rhythm is easily learned and the tendency to jump over the hurdles is diminished, especially by the sixth or eighth flight when the hurdler's legs are too tired to jump. It is also important for the hurdler to run 10 meters past the last hurdle to get used to the finish of the race.
    The hurdlers will probably begin running over the hurdles slowly to start with but should start running faster as they gain confidence and rhythm. They should be encouraged to run fast or sprint over the hurdles as the objective of the event is to get to the finish line as fast as possible. Even when warming up over the smaller hurdles, the hurdler should move his feet very fast. The hurdle race is basically a sprint race and this should be continually emphasized.
    Once the hurdlers have gained confidence and speed running over the hurdles, taking five steps between the hurdles, rearrange the spacing of the hurdles to enable them to run with three steps between the hurdles (Table 2).


lane 3 61 cm. height 13 m. to first hurdle 6.5 m. between hurdles
lane 4 69 cm. height 12 m. to first hurdle 7 m. between hurdles
lane 5 76 cm. height 12 m. to first hurdle 7.5 m. between hurdles
lane 6 76 cm. height 12 m. to first hurdle 8 m. between hurdles

Table 2

    There is a great tendency for athletes to swing the lead leg up over the hurdle, much as a high jumper gets extra lift by vigorously swinging up his lead leg. The effect is the same. The athlete will lift up into the air and float over the hurdle thereby interrupting the running rhythm and slowing the athlete down. If this is a problem, have the athlete temporarily use one hurdle and concentrate on driving the knee of the lead leg towards the hurdle using a fast, flicking action of the lead foot to clear the hurdle and snap the foot back down to the track.
    This must be constantly repeated until the action is learned and then have the athlete return to running hurdle flights. Also continually emphasize the use of a very high knee action to clear the trail leg. If there is a lot of difficulty teaching these two points, use the lead leg and trail leg exercises as described in Single-Leg Exercises below.
    Driving quickly forward over the hurdles should be emphasized as should stepping not jumping over the hurdles

B. Improvement
    After a few weeks of practice, the hurdlers should be ready for two actions necessary to increase the speed of hurdle clearance: leaning towards the hurdles and driving away from the hurdles.
    The lean towards the hurdle and off the hurdle is necessary to counteract the upward, lifting action of the lead leg. If the action of the lead leg is allowed to lift the athlete's center of gravity above the horizontal plane of normal running, horizontal speed will be lost.
    To teach the lean, instruct the athletes to lean towards the hurdles with their whole body, hips and chest, and not to merely duck the head and shoulders over the hurdle. The hurdler should drive his chest over the thigh of the lead leg and, to further counteract the thrust of the lead leg, drive the opposite arm in an overemphasized sprinting action, forward and up.
    The drive away from the hurdle with the body and knee of the trail leg is probably the one feature that distinguishes a good hurdler from a mediocre hurdler. An aggressive drive away from the hurdle could be considered the secret to good hurdling. Too many athletes float after clearing the hurdle and thereby add costly time to their hurdle races.
Instruct the hurdlers to drive the trail knee forward into the stride off the hurdle. The knee should already be in a high position and should be driven forward at this point. It may also be beneficial to instruct the hurdlers to lean slightly forward off the hurdle as the lead foot touches the track so that their hips do not accelerate ahead of their shoulders.
    At this time, also, the arm action during hurdle clearance should be watched. Often hurdlers will use a sideways action of the arm, introducing a detrimental lateral movement. For a hurdler leading over the hurdle with his right foot, the left arm should be driven forward and up in a bent position, thereby forcing the upper body forward and down. As the right foot is snapped down to the track, the left arm also moves downward and back into sprinting action and is not flung out to the side. Lateral movement in hurdling should be avoided and concentration placed on forward movement of the body and vertical movements of the arms and legs.

C. Rhythm
    The object in all technique coaching in hurdles is to get the athletes sprinting, spending as little time as possible in the air over the hurdles. The athletes themselves can listen to their footfalls and judge if their rhythm is good or not. A constant, fast rhythm of footfalls is to be strived for, not a fast patter with a pause at each hurdle.

D. Starts
    For the average hurdler, an eight-stride runup to the first hurdle is normal. For a crouch start, the hurdler's lead foot over the hurdle should be the back foot in the blocks. For a standing start, the foot of the trail leg should be directly behind the starting line. For an unusually fast, tall and strong sprinter, the runup !o the first hurdle may be able to be one stride shorter, therefore making the positions of the feet opposite in the starting position.
    A common fault among hurdlers is to take one step out of the blocks and then lift the head to look at the first hurdle and come to an erect running position too soon. The start for a hurdler should be almost the same as that for a sprinter: shoulders low, knees and legs driving hard to propel the body forward. The hurdler should not look up to the hurdle crossbar until third or fourth stride and should try to skim over the hurdle as low as possible in order not to lose the acceleration of a fast sprint start.



Lead Leg
    To teach the proper movement of the lead leg, have the athlete stand four (of their) feet from a solid wall. Instruct them to stand on the takeoff foot and lean forward toward the wall from the toes, then drive the knee of the lead leg towards the wall quickly snapping up the foot of the lead leg to contact the wall at a point 75 to 110 cm (2 - 3 ft.) from the ground-depending upon the height of the hurdles to be cleared plus 25 cm. (ca. 10 inches).
    The athlete returns to the starting position and does it again repeatedly, trying to get the chest forward and down towards the thigh of the lead leg. Look to make sure he is driving the knee towards the wall and not a straight leg. The arm opposite to the lead foot should be driven forward and up in an exaggerated sprinting action to balance the high drive of the lead foot.


Trail Leg
    To teach the correct movement of the trail leg, instruct the athletes to stand with their toes five (of their own) feet from the wall and then lean against the wall with both hands a little above shoulder height. They then place the toes of their trail leg on the ground as far away from the wall as possible and pull the knee of the trail leg forward and up out to the side in a circular motion with the foot following and then pawing the ground slightly ahead of and to the side of the lead-leg foot on the ground. They should do three circular motions with the trail leg, stop, then repeat several times to learn the rhythm.

    These two exercises should be incorporated into the warm-up of every workout for beginners in their first year of hurdling.



    Hurdlers are sprinters and should always do sprint training coupled with hurdle practicing. They should always include flexibility and stretching exercises in their warm-ups with special attention to the hamstrings, hips and trunk. During the spring and summer, one workout per week at least should include full-out sprints over flights of four or more hurdles from the blocks.
    If possible, these practices should be run with competition. If another hurdler of the same ability is not available, run them against a sprinter. To improve stamina, the hurdler should do interval training with the sprinters.



    Often coaches are presented with the task of re-teaching proper hurdle technique to an athlete who is hurdling incorrectly, whether that athlete is jumping the hurdles, over-striding, swinging the lead leg up, sitting on top of the hurdle, pulling the trail knee through low or a myriad of other faults. Generally the athlete will spend too much time in the air over the hurdles and the following three steps have a dum-da-dum rhythm instead of a quick da-da-da or 1-2-3 action-in other words, a quick, even three-stride action between the hurdles.
    To remedy the problem, first reduce the height of the hurdles to a height easily cleared without jumping and reduce the distance between the hurdles so that the athlete does not have to overstride but can run relaxed and quickly. At this point, work on the technique corrections needed.
    Once the athlete is sprinting over the hurdles with the correct technique, gradually increase the distance between the hurdles to approach the specified distance for the age group of the athlete. Use four hurdles. Keep looking for relaxed, fast sprinting between the hurdles. Then gradually raise the height of the hurdles (1.5" at a time) until the athlete is hurdling at the specified height for racing.
    Be alert to any changes away from a sprinting rhythm. If problems occur with the clearance technique while doing the increases, revert to hurdling over three hurdles set to allow five steps between the hurdles. In this way, the athlete has more time between hurdles to concentrate on the clearance technique for each hurdle.


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