This article is guest blogged by Lee Ness, a UKA qualified Event Group Coach for Sprints and Hurdles, the Head Coach/Sprint Coach at City of Salisbury Athletics, and Running Club and Track and Field Team Manager for Wiltshire Athletics Association.
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Developing a 400m Hurdler
Setting aside the specific technical model development for hurdlers, there are particular stages I use for developing a 400m hurdler. It is worth pointing out that I will usually start this process when the athlete is around 15 years old, but I’m currently working with a 17 year old who has dabbled with hurdling and is about to start this process.
First and foremost a hurdler is a sprinter, and proper sprint mechanics must be the basis of building a hurdler. A minimum of half of all training time should be spent on flat sprinting. 400m hurdlers need to be very efficient in their sprint technique. Before I even start on hurdling, I will make sure that sprinting technique is good.
2. Basic hurdling
Once I have my sprinter, I will then start on hurdling. I will focus on dominant fast leg first and on the first hurdle only. The rhythm for 400m hurdlers is less important than for sprint hurdles, but I will come back to that in the next stage. Although the hurdles are lower, this does not compromise the hurdle technique. The time loss over the hurdle must be minimized as much as possible, and momentum must be maintained. We will spend every second session learning to take the first hurdle correctly from various run-ins. With most hurdlers, there are two stages to learning to hurdle. First, the technique, which is learned from drills. Second, is the take-off position, which almost invariably starts off at about half the distance from the hurdle that it should.
3. Attacking the hurdles
The next stage is to increase the attack of the hurdles once basic hurdle technique is mastered. I was taught, on my event group coach training with British Athletics, that the speed over the hurdle in the 400m hurdles is faster than in a sprint hurdle. I didn’t check this, but the source was good, and it makes sense. In a sprint hurdle, although your average speed is higher, the hurdle is higher and the stride length going into the hurdle is shorter, whereas in 400m hurdles, the athlete can accelerate into the hurdle. But to increase the actual hurdle attack, I have my hurdlers race indoors in the 60m hurdles for a winter. I find racing is a great focal point for training modalities and really adds emphasis. Running 60m hurdles is a great way of increasing the attack and getting the speed and range of movement increased. It is a brute force approach, using racing to force a training adaptation, but for 16-year olds I find it works, so I make no apology.
4. Flow over the hurdles
In my opinion, there is only one way to flow smoothly over the hurdles in the 400m and that is to be able to hurdle with either lead leg. I know some people work on strides between the hurdles and strides to the first hurdle, but I’ve never counted that. There are too many variables such as fatigue, wind/weather, the difference between races and training, that affect how many strides might be necessary, and I want my athletes relaxed, not counting their steps. I want my hurdlers to be able to make minor adjustments to their stride in take off approach, not to try and takeout a whole stride to change legs. To this end, once I’m happy with how they hurdle with the preferred leg, I then get them to work on their other leg. When I ask my sprinters (whether for hurdles or when I am talking to any sprinters about starts for example) “Which is your weak leg?” They always answer, “I don’t have one!”
To get them hurdling with their weak leg, I repeat the basic hurdling training, focusing on hurdle 1, but they only hurdle with their alternate leg – for months. We don’t work on the preferred lead leg at all in this stage until they have nailed the alternate. They don’t lose the ability with the preferred leg. The neural pathways are there and won’t disappear.
5. Take off judgement
The penultimate stage of development is to work on takeoff. I like them to be able to judge, from approximately 15m out, where their takeoff is and make micro adjustments in the run in. Any adjustments to stride should be unnoticeable. Once they have a position, they then accelerate into the hurdle. This is why being able to hurdle from either leg is so important. You can’t accelerate if you’re stuttering to make major step adjustments. To do this, I start with markers indicating take off position then another marker further out based on where the run-in ‘starts.’ We’ll practise this with either leg from different starting points.
Once this is locked in, we will then use variable hurdle spacings to force the adjustments. It takes time to embed, but is definitely worth it.
6. Final stage
Once the hurdling techniques above are achieved, I then go back to stage 1, the sprinting. If I know we are losing little time to the hurdles themselves, then the constraint is now flat speed. I will always expect my hurdlers to sprint on the flat over the course of the season, but the focus will be to improve their times. The hurdles time improvements will inevitably follow. To that end, I will limit the amount of hurdle work we do to about one session in 4 now (not including drills which are done most sessions).
Developing a 400m hurdler takes a long time. I like to build them in stages as shown above but because I have them for a good few years; I can take the time to embed each stage. Assuming the athlete already has good sprinting mechanics and speed then stages 2 to 5 above will take about two years, roughly summer-winter-summer-winter. There may be quicker ways to achieve good hurdling, but I believe for very good hurdling, if you have the time, this is the most effective.
About the Author
My name is Lee Ness. I am a UKA qualified Event Group Coach for Sprints and Hurdles, the Head Coach/Sprint Coach at City of Salisbury Athletics and Running Club and Track and Field Team Manager for Wiltshire Athletics Association. I’ve been coaching track and filed for around 7 years. I coach all the sprints, from 60m to 400m plus the long and sprint hurdles. In my sprint group I have 36 sprinters and 10 hurdlers of various ages, starting from 13. In my group I have three athletes in the UK top 10 rankings for their event.
I write about sports performance in general and have written a book called The Sports Motivation Masterplan which will be released on September 1, 2014 by December House. The book is a support guide for athletes and parents, helping them with the role of mentor through their journey from young aspiring athlete, to elite performer.