Hurdling Mechanics

Before learning correct mechanics for hurdling, one must be flexible and have some degree of coordination. Once that is in place, they can be taught the right movement patterns.

The Approach
  • Acceleration into the barrier is critical for steeplechasers. However, the faster the race pace, the less important increasing horizontal velocity becomes.  The faster the approach, the lower the athlete needs to jump since they will be above the barrier for a shorter time.
  • Appropriate placement of the foot at takeoff (about 4-5 feet from the barrier for women and 5-6 feet for men depending upon race pace) will lead to the following benefits:
    • The athlete will not crowd the barrier (Figure 1a). This causes braking since the athlete must transfer some of their forward velocity to upward velocity.
    • The athlete will not leave the ground too far from the barrier (Figure 1b). This requires a large energy expenditure to gain the height and horizontal velocity needed to clear the barrier
    • The athlete will be able to downhill hurdle (Figure 1c). Since the lead leg is "longer" than the trail leg, it is ideal to reach the high point of the jump slightly before the barrier. This is called downhill hurlding.

Appropriate placement of the foot at takeoff

Figure 1a,1b, & 1c
  • Making early adjustments allows the athlete to lose less horizontal velocity during the approach since the adjustment of each approach step is more subtle.
    • Most elite steeplechasers begin making adjustments 5 steps from the barrier.
    • Steeplechasers that lead with the same leg on every jump make adjustments that are twice as large as those that can lead with either leg. Those who can lead with either leg will be much more successful in maintaining horizontal velocity and conserving energy.

Step Lengths Around the Barrier

Step Lengths Definitions Around the Barrier
Figure 2 - Step definitions
  • The 2003 USATF Nationals provided us the opportunity to film and measure the length of all the above steps over every non-water jump barrier on every lap for the top 7 men and top 7 women. There were three main findings
    • There is no difference in the step lengths between any of the four barriers. Athletes handle each barrier exactly the same, in terms of step lengths, no matter whether they are on a turn, a straight, or before or after the water jump. Thus, there is no need to train differently for any of the barriers.
    • We divided the length of the landing step by the penultimate step and found that the landing step is typically around 70 to 80% the length of the penultimate. Concern should be given to those whose landing step is less than 73% for men and 77% for women of the length of their penultimate. If that is the case, they probably need to adjust the takeoff to barrier distance or work on body positioning and flexibility above the barrier. On average, women lost less step distance throughout each jump than men. This is mostly due to the low barrier height relative to body height for women.
    • Throughout the race, there is a gradual increase in the length of all steps even when race pace is maintained (Figure 3). This follows the trend many distance runners display in running stride lengths. While some maintain stride length in running, a gradual increase in stride length is often seen among distance runners throughout long races when race pace remains unchanged. It appears elite steeplechasers follow this same trend in the steps around barriers. I would not recommend forcing stride lengths near the end of races to be closer to the earlier stride lengths since the body is in a different condition near the end of the race. Since muscles are fatigued near the end of a race, the body makes adjustments in how activated muscles become with each step to run economically. This has an effect on stride length for some runners.
Hurdling Graph
Figure 3 - Distance from the start of the penultimate step to the end of the landing step throughout the 2003 USATF Nationals. Notice there is a gradual increase in these steps throughout the race.

Body positioning

  • It is very important to realize steeplechase hurdling is not sprint hurdling. While similar movements should be used, steeplechase hurdling is much less aggressive (a smaller range of motion and speed of movement is more appropriate for a steeplechaser). A steeplechaser utiziling sprint technique might make it through the barrier faster, but would use too much energy. Sprint hurlding technique is very fast, but takes a huge amount of energy. The steeplechaser needs to hurdle with a good balance of speed and economy.
  • Flexibility is critical for optimal hurlding technique
    • The steeplechaser must have good hamstring and hip abductor flexibility to hurdle economically.  The should be able to sit in the "L7" position (Figure 4) comforably with no sideways leaning of the hips or trunk.
The L7 position
Figure 4 - The "L7" position. In steeplechase hurdling, this position is more extreme than the movement requires. So, an athlete who can maintain this position on the ground without leaning to one side with the trunk or hips has good flexibility for steeplechase hurdling.
  • At takeoff, the lead knee should drive forward with the ankle dorsiflexed (toe-up).
    • This helps keep the lead foot from hitting the barrier on the way up.
  • Shoot the Heel: The heel should be shot forwards with the knee nearly straight before the foot reaches the plane of the barrier.
    • This decreases the need for such a high jump.
  • Less forward body lean is required for the steeplechaser.
    • While leaning foward allows a hurdler to jump lower, thus losing less horizontal velocity, it requires too much energy for a steeplechaser to perform this move as pronounced as a sprint hurlder.
    • Steeplechasers should lean forward to about the degree shown in Figure 5.
Steeplechaser leaning forward
Figure 5 - Forward lean in steeplechase hurdling is important, but less than sprint hurlding.
  • Tuck the Heel: The trail leg should have the heel tucked in (knee flexed) during the flight over the barrier.
    • This will allow the steeplechaser to keep from hitting the barrier on the way down.
    • The steeplechaser can swing the trail leg through faster at landing with the heel tucked since the mass of the leg is closer to the hip (similar to the concept of choking up on a baseball bat).
  • Athletes who are tall relative to the barrier can use a less flat L7 position above the barrier.
    • Since their center of mass is already quite high compared with others, the do not need to jump as high to clear the barrer.
    • Relatively short athletes must be very flexible and position themselves very well to be effective.