In the beginning, young hurdlers, like most track and field athletes, will perform a variety of drills to learn their new craft. The following drills and tips are based on a presentation by David Mitchell at the 2014 Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association’s 2014 clinic.
Go for a Walk
The first drill that most hurdlers do is walking over the hurdle. If they can get the form down while walking over the hurdle then there’s a much better chance that they’re going to get it right when they’re moving quickly. Hurdlers who never get it while walking are very unlikely to get it when they’re running at high speeds, or even at half speed. Additionally, walking over hurdles is a good strength and flexibility exercise, so coaches can have everybody on the team walk over the hurdles, as part of their fitness training.
If a new hurdler has no preference, it’s best to lead with the left leg, if possible. If they end up running a 300- or 400-meter hurdles race, leading with the left leg helps keep them on the inside of the curve. So a beginning hurdler who can go either way should be encouraged to lead with the left leg. If they’re only going to run sprint hurdles on a straightaway, it really doesn’t matter. Then it’s just a matter of the hurdler’s personal preference.
When the athletes walk over hurdles the verbal cues a coach should use for the lead leg are, “toe-up, heel-up, knee-up” – raise the toes off the track, pick up the heel and lift the knee. The old school of thought is that hurdlers should be taught to lead with the knee. You don’t want the foot out in front of the knee as the lead leg goes up. If coaches use the toe-heel-knee verbal cue, then as soon as that toe goes up that leg won’t go out in front. It’s going to naturally come up and stay under the knee.
When hurdlers do these walkovers they should really exaggerate the movements. They should use the biggest possible range of motion, to help develop the necessary strength, even if they don’t need it quite that much later. If the whole team does walkovers, the athletes should alternate their lead legs, to build their strength equally. You don’t want to emphasize one side over the other. As a side benefit, some hurdlers may find that they’re better with the opposite lead leg than the one they’re using. But coaches should emphasize that there is a good lead leg and a great lead leg. There is no such thing as a bad lead leg – coaches shouldn’t plant any negative seeds in the hurdlers’ minds. The hurdlers must remain positive and confident as they’re coming over the hurdles.
An Active Landing
Another verbal cue that coaches can teach hurdlers as they’re going over the hurdles is, “heel to the hurdle.” That reminders the hurdler to make an active landing, with the hips in front of the lead foot when the hurdler hits the track. If the athlete comes over the hurdle and lands on a flat foot, way out in front of their body, then they’ve got to recover and pull themselves back up to a proper sprinting form. You don’t see sprinters make a foot strike way in front of the body. They’re going to land on their spike plate, on the ball of their foot as they’re coming through. Hurdlers should do the same.
The hurdler’s lead heel should not touch the track. As they clear with the lead leg it should push back and down to get that spike plate down. The goal is to push the track with the first step, not to pull. Also, hurdlers should never lock up the lead knee or ankle as they clear the barriers. The ankle should be plantar flexed, as if the hurdlers are stepping on the gas pedal as they’re coming over the hurdles. The trail knee must come through high, under the arm on the same side, with the trail knee remaining higher than the ankle on the same leg. For girls with a lower hurdle, or for a really tall guy, it’s not going to be as exaggerated, but the knee still must be a little higher than the ankle, otherwise the hurdler is going to twist.
As a hurdles coach, it’s nice to stand to the side of the hurdles sometimes, but it’s also good to see the hurdlers coming right at you or to view them from behind, to get an idea of what the problems are in a different way. Additionally, you can set a hurdle down so the lane line passes through the middle of the hurdle. And then you can see if the hurdler is running straight or staggering back and forth. It’s a small, helpful thing. You can do starts on the lane line as well, for the same reason.
It’s important to make sure the athletes are comfortable doing walkovers. It shows that they know what the motion is, so coaches should work with them until they get it. But after a while there is a point of diminishing returns. It’s not good for coaches to keep beating it into the hurdlers’ heads if they’re not getting it that day. Their muscles will become fatigued and they just have to stop. That’s one reason why perfectionists may not make good hurdlers. Hurdlers who just want to do it and do it and do it – and fatigue those small muscles in their hips and thighs along the way – are not going to get it right after the 150th time if they didn’t get it right the first 149. Coaches should let them go and try to approach things a different way on another day – by giving them a lower barrier of some kind, for example.