Youth and high school intermediate hurdles events are generally 300 yards (or meters) long, as opposed to the 400 meters run in college and world-class competitions. Despite the shorter distance, the event is not easy to learn.
Beginning hurdlers – particularly very young beginners – will naturally be afraid of the hurdle. Without coaching, they’ll likely run up to the hurdle, slow down, then jump over it. At worst, they’ll strike a hurdle and fall, and may not want to attempt the hurdles again.
So beginning hurdlers shouldn’t start by trying to leap actual hurdles. Instead, place two cardboard boxes, about two feet high, on the track and lay a stick across them. Put some tape down to mark the proper takeoff point for first “hurdle” (generally about six feet from the hurdle). Have new hurdlers run hard and try to get their push-off leg (generally the left leg, for right-handers) to hit the mark as they clear the stick in stride. Continue to practice this drill, adjusting the runners’ strides until their push-off leg hits the mark consistently. When they have this drill down, repeat it with a real hurdle, but, initially, set it lower than the proper intermediate hurdles height.
The first hurdle sets up the whole race, so beginners should practice starting and leaping just one hurdle until their technique is solid. Their technique doesn’t have to be perfect, but should be pretty good before they begin practicing with more than one hurdle, at which time coaches should again employ boxes and a stick in place of hurdle number two.
New hurdlers should get into a fast pace out of the blocks, with coaches counting the runners’ steps from the blocks to the initial hurdle, and see which leg comes up first. Ideally, at first, their power leg should be their lead leg. But they must be taught not to simply sprint out of the blocks. The start of the race is a tricky time, when a competitor’s adrenaline will be pumping. Hurdlers must maintain their rhythm and set up the first hurdle properly, in order to maintain momentum going into the second hurdle, or it throws off the rest of the race.
From the beginning, coaches shouldn’t let their hurdlers land on their heels. When hurdlers land on their heels they’re jumping, not striding, over the hurdle, which will slow their momentum.
Setting up the next hurdle
Additionally, watch for new hurdlers slowing way down to set up a hurdle. Once hurdlers get their stride patterns set they must keep running hard into, and out of, each hurdle, to avoid losing momentum.
At the same time, you don’t want young hurdlers either hitting, or jumping, the hurdles, do to a poor set-up. Even experienced hurdlers will occasionally cut a few inches off each step if they see that they’re going to be too close to the next hurdle. Slowing down slightly to set up a hurdle is preferable to slowing way down in the final few steps and then jumping over the hurdle.
If a new hurdler’s stride is off, in general, coaches should have them lengthen their stride. Again, mark the proper take off spot with tape, then have their hurdlers adjust their strides until their left foot hits the tape (or the right foot, for left-handers).
Once hurdlers get some experience they should, ideally, use the left leg as their lead leg for the 300. In the 100 hurdles, which is run on a straightaway, it doesn’t matter which lead leg a hurdler employs. But the 300 race contains a turn. When hurdlers lead with their right leg, the left trails. If they try to remain on the inside of a lane around a turn, a trailing left leg can drift outside the lane, or outside the hurdle, resulting in disqualification. By leading with the left leg, a hurdler can stay tight to the inside of the lane around the turns without worrying so much about leaving the lane and being disqualified.
It’s also important to be able to alternate legs. Even if the hurdler’s stride pattern employs the same lead leg throughout the race, a young runner’s stride pattern will change as the hurdler grows, or improves. The stride pattern can also change in windy conditions. If hurdlers can alternate lead legs, they can adapt better to a changed stride pattern. The alternate leg will not be as strong as the hurdler’s natural leg. Ideally, however, the gains they receive from alternating legs will offset a bit of lost time over the hurdle.
Intermediate hurdles practice
Competitors can’t practice the 300 intermediate hurdles slowly. Once hurdlers have established a stride pattern, they must maintain that pattern at practice. And you can’t maintain a stride pattern unless you practice at full speed.
Once hurdlers get tired they can’t practice an entire race, because they can’t maintain their stride patterns. As workouts progress, coaches can extend the amount of practice their hurdlers can do, however. Instead of running a full 300, have tiring hurdlers run fewer hurdles, with several repetitions. For example, they can clear five hurdles once, or run the first three hurdles twice, or the first two hurdles three times.
Of course, hurdlers can still run straight sprints, or even do 800-meter workouts, following the hurdles workout, to increase their strength, speed and stamina.
Occasionally, however, coaches can have tired hurdlers run a full 300 hurdles race, to teach them how to compete while tired. Tell them to simply clear all the hurdles any way they can – whether they jump the hurdles, run a 21-step pattern, whatever. Then, in an actual competition, if they feel themselves tiring after the seventh or eighth or ninth hurdle, they’ll be better prepared to push through to the finish.
But coaches shouldn’t try this too often.