Hurdles are a beautifully explosive ballet of strength and rhythm in which runners seem to clear the obstacles effortlessly, the way a metronome casually ticks back and forth. Any athlete can appreciate the kinetic grace of the event, (especially if Lolo Jones is running), but hurdles suffer from one PR problem: The athletes make it look too easy.
Every time the Summer Olympics comes on the television, an army of armchair runners watch the hurdles and think, “I can do that.” But take one of those guys to a high school track and he’ll quickly change his tune to: “Those look a lot higher in real life.”
The arsenal of athletic skills that an elite hurdler possesses rivals those of NFL players. (In fact, USA Track & Field has suffered from some of its best athletes leaving the sport to pursue the big dollars in pro football.) “Speed, flexibility and body awareness are the critical components,” says Tim Moore, Ph.D., a health-and-fitness consultant who is a Level II-certified sprint and hurdle coach through USA Track & Field and former track coach at the University of Maryland.
A high rate of speed is necessary for clearing the hurdles. The difference between the world record in the 110-meter hurdles and 100-meter sprint is only about three seconds. Olympic hurdles are 42 inches high, while high school hurdles stand only 39 inches tall, but both demand significant flexibility through the hip girdle to clear. Body awareness is crucial for any sport in which you must maintain control when both feet leave the ground.
If you find yourself at a track and staring at the business end of 100 meters of hurdles, here are a few things to remember.
The Start: Experts like to point out that the hurdles is a sprint race, not a jumping event. Just like any sprint, you want to hit your top speed as quickly as possible. However, because the first hurdle is only 15 meters from the starting blocks, hurdlers have to come into an upright position sooner than a traditional sprinter.
The Jump: Right-foot dominant runners will typically lead with their left leg, Moore says. As you begin the first jump, drive with the left knee, not with the toe. The lead leg should have a slight bend, which will minimize your time in the air. The trail leg folds up horizontally, with the right knee pulled underneath the right armpit. And don’t forget the arms. “The left hand should be relaxed at your side at about hip level,” Moore says. “The right hand goes out toward the left lead leg and helps move that center of mass forward. The motion of the right hand gets that leg to cycle through quicker.”
The Landing: Hurdlers try to clear each obstacle by the narrowest margin in order to keep fast cadence in their stride. (There is no penalty for knocking over a hurdle unless it falls into the next lane and interferes with that runner.) The left foot should land on the ball rather than the heel. Think of a horse pawing the ground; that’s the motion you want to make instead of a hard, momentum-stopping landing.
The Next Jump: You want to clear every hurdle with the same lead leg. It’s 30 feet to the next hurdle, so runners will take three steps before jumping again. Many beginning hurdlers will be tempted to increase their stride length, but this is not a good idea, Moore says. “Opening up the stride will often work against the athlete,” he says. “If you lengthen your stride too much, it will put your lead foot too far in front of you with your center of mass behind you. That will break your rhythm every time.”
Training: While it’s doubtful you’ll actually find yourself training for hurdles (you’ll try it on a bet, most likely), a few things you do in the gym can give you a better chance of not embarrassing yourself. These tips apply to any explosive sport, from Brazilian jiu-jitsu to CrossFit to racquetball. First, make sure to develop your posterior kinetic chain (glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors) with deadlifts, squats and reverse hamstring extensions. Next, work on your hip mobility and hamstring flexibility. Before you actually try the hurdles, perform a dynamic warm-up that includes side-to-side leg swings and forward-and-back leg swings.