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Seven keys to hurdling excellence. (Track & Field).

WHEN YOU OBSERVE the grace and beauty, the rhythm and quickness of the high hurdler, you cannot help but wonder about the fundamental athleticism that marks the outstanding sprinter-hurdler and what it takes to mesh all of these qualities into a stunning reality.

The seven skills and/or processes that go into the making of the successful hurdler may be broken down as follows.

1 Running on the Balls of the Feet

Being able to run high on the balls of the fret from start to finish produces a fluid movement and continuity between the various aspects of the race.

This helps the hurdler maintain a sprinter's posture that is critical to the ideal of "sprinting the hurdles." It enables the athlete to keep his back slightly arched and to maintain the "tall posture" (Photos 6-7).

It also prevents the hurdler from dropping the center of gravity before taking off over the hurdle and to maintain a smooth trajectory from take-off to touch-down.

This may be one of the beginner's most challenging tasks. Many hurdlers fail to succeed because of their inability or lack of strength to remain high on the balls of the feet.

Athletes who fail to master this skill may experience:

1. The fear of not reaching the hurdle with precise timing and rhythm.

2. Not getting to the hurdle with the preferred leg.

3. Not being able to cover the 10 yards between hurdles with three steps.

4. Not being able to make it over the hurdle without jumping, which requires the heel of the foot to touch before take-off ("flat foot").

These fears challenge the hurdler to master the skill/process of staying on the balls of the feet and asserting himself during the race.

Many hurdlers, particularly the high school/novice, and some coaches prefer the "flat-footed" approach because of a lack of training or lack of muscular strength and endurance to achieve and remain on the balls of the feet.

The consequences of this lack of skill or mastery are over-striding when approaching the hurdle, causing inconsistency, poor rhythm and timing, and a jumping action upon reaching the hurdle.

Effective hurdling, speed, and preparation for a smooth trajectory over the hurdle go hand in hand with staying high on the balls of the feet.

2 Position of the Arms

The arm action is the most critical point of focus for timing, rhythm, and tempo during the flights over the hurdle and the sprinting between hurdles as well as at the start and finish.

Too often, not enough attention is given to the positioning of the arms. They should remain bent at the elbow at approximately 90 to 120 degrees with the wrist and fingers relaxed (Photos 1-5). The arm action helps produce good balance and arm-leg rhythm. In fact, the speed and quickness of the leg action is contingent on the speed, quickness and rhythm of the arms.

The athlete has more control over the arms. He/she can more easily change or alter the leverage of the arms, and the legs tend to follow. The speed and quickness of the sprinter-hurdler is thus dictated by the arm swing and/or positioning.

The shorter the arm radius (degree of elbow bent), the faster the motion. On the other hand, the longer the radius, the slower the motion and the increase of power.

The hurdler must identify an arm radius (bent/extension) that is consistent with body lean, height, and flexibility The preferred posture is a slight off-center forward body lean while emphasizing arm action to control balance and maintain a consistent sprinting rhythm.

3 Lift-Off Over Hurdle Beginning of Flight

The effect of the flight (a smooth and agile trajectory) over the hurdle is largely determined by the body posture, control, and mastery of the lift-off from the ground (an exaggerated step up with good arms-legs coordination with focus on the arm action and body lean).

The smooth transition from the sprinting action on the ground to the exaggerated step over the hurdle is dictated by the quality and extent of the high position on the balls of the feet. To take off smoothly and maintain rhythm and balance, the athlete must place more emphasis on lifting the lead leg with a slightly bent knee (Photos 1-2) than on "pushing off the ground."

The push-off from the ground is only slightly greater than it would be in a simple sprint (no hurdles). Lifting the lead leg aggressively to the chest (Photos 1-2) with as little change as possible in the sprinting posture will be sufficient enough to clear the hurdle.

The lifting of the leg, when precisely coordinated with the speed and "sprinter push" from the ground, will provide the foundation for a smooth trajectory with minimal loss of rhythm, speed, balance, or control (Photos 1-6).

The sprinter-hurdler must, therefore, emphasize the lead leg knee lift and minimize the pushing action from the ground. Remember, a hurdler is a sprinter and must retain the sprinter's posture and behavior as much as possible. The more he resembles the sprinter, the more speed he will retain through the race.

4 Action Over the Hurdles

The action of the hurdler over the hurdle (in the air) is indigenous to the sprinting off the hurdle that begins the sprint between hurdles.

The action over the hurdle is dictated and controlled by the arm action. The speed of the arm action is directly related to the lifting of the lead leg. With every action of the arms, there is an equal and opposite action of the legs. When the arm on the lead-leg side swings back, the lead leg is lifted. The speed of the backswing dictates the speed of the lead-leg lift.

Conversely, the action of the trail arm dictates the speed and action of the trail leg. The faster the trail arm swings back, the quicker the trail leg will "come through" (Photos 2-6).

The athlete's focus over the hurdle is on his arm action in forcing the lead leg down and the trail leg through. A precise arm action is also critical in maintaining balance, control, rhythm, and speed in sprinting the hurdles.

5 Lead-Leg Action

Lead-leg action is critical to "sprinting off the hurdle" (shortening the radius by slightly bending the lead-leg at the knee from the beginning of the process to the end or touch-down).

The natural slight bend in the lead leg when it is lifted is fundamental to the lead-leg action (Photos 1-3). It is necessary to flex the thigh muscle but relax the leg from the knee down.

Conversely, a straight lead leg is consistent with slower touch-down action, loss of balance, and control because of the longer radius of the lead leg and a deviation from a sprinter rhythm.

Keep in mind that the opposite arm is bent for faster motion, just as the lead leg must be slightly bent for faster motion (quicker touch-down). When an athlete bends the lead leg, there is less stress on the hamstring (reducing the probability of injuries).

Remember, the sprinter-hurdler must maintain the sprinter's posture -- (not dive or use an exaggerated lean into the hurdle). He must bring the top part of the thigh up to or near the chest with the knee slightly and naturally bent (Photos 1-3). The arm action will control the quickness of the process.

As a rule of thumb, the nose should always be kept over the lead knee to obtain and sustain the appropriate lean (Photos 1-4). This process helps the athlete maintain a sprinter's posture while the lead leg is completing the process for the touchdown sprinting action off the hurdle.

6 Touch-Down Action and Consequences

The lead-leg touch-down must be a sprint off the hurdle, with the emphasis on aggressive action off, NOT into the hurdle. The sprint off the hurdle is initiated by a quick backward swing of the trail leg arm.

The touch-down is critical in maintaining the speed and continuity of the sprinting action and rhythm. Once the heel of the lead-leg foot clears the top of the hurdle (Photo 2), the touch-down process begins.

It is initiated by the swing-back action of the trail-leg arm. The quicker this action, the quicker the trail leg will come through and the quicker the lead leg will touch-down.

Keep in mind that the hurdler's center of gravity must remain in front of the hurdle ("nose in front of the knees") when this process begins.

The position of the center of gravity ("nose over the knees") places the hurdler in a slightly off-center forward position (Photos 2-6). Many hurdlers fear hitting the hurdle whenever they begin the touch-down process at the moment the heel of the lead leg clears the top of the barrier (Photo 2).

They tend to delay the backward swing of the trail-leg arm, thus floating the hurdle and causing a disruption of the natural timing, rhythm, and balance, as well as a waste of precious time.

Keeping the nose over the knees, the hurdler will touch down on the ball of the foot (very important), with the center of gravity in front of the touch-down foot (Photos 1, 4-6).

At touch-down, the ankle, knee, and hip are slightly flexed to generate power off the hurdle (sprinting action off the hurdle).

The arm on the trail-leg side must swing back vigorously and quickly, initiating the touch-down action by causing a quick reaction of the trail-leg, as demonstrated in Photos 3-6 (drive the trail leg through), and bringing the athlete back to the sprinter's posture.

The arm action and body posture determine the speed with which the athlete touches down off the hurdle and his/her sprinting speed between hurdles.

7 Running Between Hurdles

Between the hurdles is where the athlete must possess all of the qualities of a sprinter -- the concept of sprinting the hurdles.

The speed between hurdles is influenced by the athlete's balance, control, and rhythm upon touching down off the hurdle (Photos 4-7). These factors are related to the position of the center of gravity (slightly in front on the touch-down foot and the nose over the knees), whether the athlete is on the balls of the feet, the position and speed of the arms, and whether the athlete maintained the sprinter's posture during the take-off phase from the ground, the clearance phase, and the touch-down phase.

Summary & Key Points

Staying High on the balls of the feet enables the hurdler to obtain a body position that will enable him/her to maintain continuity throughout the race and contribute to a smooth trajectory through the various phases of the race.

The Arm Action is critical to the speed, rhythm, balance and control of the sprinter-hurdler. It is also important for initiating the hurdling action and the quickness of the touch-down off the hurdle as well as the quickness of the sprinter-hurdler between the hurdles.

Step-Up Action over the hurdle is not an emphasis on pushing off the ground, but an emphasis on lifting the lead leg. By emphasizing this action, the hurdler will avoid dropping (lowering) the center of gravity and/or becoming more flat-footed. A flat-foot action will induce a greater jumping action over the hurdle that will hamper the fluid trajectory over the hurdle.

By emphasizing the lifting action, the hurdler will maintain a closer resemblance to the sprinter's posture of good rhythm, timing, control and speed.

Action Over the Hurdle is extremely important because the hurdler is no longer in contact with the ground. The arm action before leaving the ground is critical to what can happen over the hurdle.

Over the hurdle is where the trail-leg arm must extend to a degree that will accommodate the lead-leg lifting action (Photos 1-3) and the immediate swing back of the trail-leg arm. This must be done quickly and vigorously to drive the trail leg through, which, in turn, will contribute to a quick and sprinter-like touch-down of the lead leg.

The action over the hurdle will also put the hurdler's trail leg into position to push off (sprint off) toward the next hurdle.

Lead-Leg Action is dictated by the quickness of the arm-action, which initiates the lead-leg lift. This lift is critical to the step-up action that is necessary to make the smooth trajectory over the hurdle.

The lead-leg in combination with the backward swing of the lead-leg arm, therefore, must be vigorous. It must be slightly bent at the knee to shorten the radius for a faster lifting action.

The trail-leg arm is slightly extended to accommodate the slightly extended lead-leg. The emphasis is on the lifting, or step-up, action, not on a push off the ground.

The Touch-Down is one of the most critical aspects of the process. Once again, the action of the arms plays a fundamental role. The touch is initiated by the action of the trail-leg arm. The quality of the touch down and sprint off the hurdle is dictated by the effectiveness and efficiency of the trail leg's backward swing.

The emphasis must be a sprinting action off the hurdle, which is initiated and controlled by the speed of the arm action, particularly the trail-leg arm swinging backward.

Touching Down Off the Hurdle must be characterized by sprinting and a clawing back action of the lead leg (Photos 4-7) to a point where the ball of the lead foot touches the ground, with the center of gravity out in front of the contact point.

The sprinting off the hurdle (Photos 6-7) must be emphasized. Efficient sprinting is fundamental to fast times. Point: Leg speed is controlled by the speed and control of the arm action and the position of the center of gravity.

We advocate a slight off-center forward body posture with the athlete high on the balls of his/her feet and the focus on arm action. The sprint up to, between hurdles, and after the last hurdle is contingent on the quality of the touch-down off the hurdle.

Whenever the touch-down action becomes a sprint off the hurdle with good sprinter's posture, the legs will be in position to accelerate with good rhythm, control, and balance.

The seven basic phases of hurdling can only be mastered by intensive drills and reps that fully integrate all the fundamentals and niceties of the art. The final product will be an efficient and winning hurdler.

A felicitous collaboration between former world-class hurdlers. Tommie Lee White coached the hurdlers at USC for two years and at UCLA for five years, served as a sport psychologist for several U.S. national track teams, and has held his current position at Cal State-Northridge since 1970. George Gordan has been coaching and teaching at James Lick High School in San Jose since 1972.

Author Tommie Lee White doing his thing in a major pre-Olympic race in 1972. Practically everything stressed by he and his collaborator in their fine article may be discerned in this high-speed photo sequence over a single hurdle.
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Author:Carty, George G.
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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