By Roger White
Developmental education aimed at youth and high school coaches is rare. Often, the only place to obtain this information is at state-level coaches’ clinics. However, it seems that many sessions at these big clinics feature highly successful coaches at the collegiate and professional levels. Many people would argue that training like collegiate and professional athletes is not a good idea for younger competitors. Further, higher-level athletes are likely to have different social, personal, and environmental stressors in their lives, which can alter their training loads compared to teenage competitors.
With this in mind, I tracked down two coaches with tremendous track records working with youth and high school hurdlers. In this article, they share three of their most useful tips.
Introducing the Coaches
Steve McGill hails from Raleigh, North Carolina and has 20 years of coaching experience. Founder of the Hurdles First website and publisher of The Hurdle magazine, Steve’s name is likely to be familiar to many coaches looking for hurdle drills and workouts via Google. Many of his hurdlers have achieved considerable success:
Notable male high school hurdlers he has coached include:
- Johnny Dutch (13.46, 36.09, 50.07, eventual NCAA national champion)
- Wayne Davis II (13.08, eventual NCAA national champion)
- Booker Nunley (13.41, 37.99, 53.14)
- Malcolm Nunley (14.26, 37.64, 53.53)
- Cameron Akers (14.21, 38.74)
His notable female high school hurdlers include:
- Keni Harrison (13.49, 41.41, 59.08, eventual NCAA national champion).
- Jacklyn Howell (13.68, 42.94, 1:01.07, currently at the University of Kentucky)
- Victoria Robinson (43.23)
- Summer Knowles (14.32)
- Allie Johnson (14.71, 43.41, 1:01.18)
Richard Holmes is based in in Claremont, California and owns Holmes Hurdle Tech. HHT is also a part of the Academy of Speed, a nonprofit training group located in Rancho Cucamonga with over 100 track and field-specific athletes. Hurdlers from throughout the United States have worked with Coach Holmes and he is appreciative of their trust in his hurdle knowledge. Over the past six years in the high school hurdle arena, Coach Holmes has coached:
- Kori Carter, five-time California state hurdles titlist (13.33 & 40.44), who went to Stanford and became a 9-time All American and 2013 NCAA 400mH national champ.
- Jasmyne Graham, who arguably had one of the finest days in high school hurdle history at the 2015 California CIF State Championships, winning the 100mH (13.17) and 300mH (40.73). She’s headed to the University of Southern California this fall.
- Jordie Munford, who had two second-place finishes in the California CIF State meet (13.58, 40.96) and now runs for Texas Tech.
Tip #1: Creating the ideal technical model
At the youth and high school level, the best hurdlers likely have the best technique. So what should coaches look for as their athletes hurdle, and how should their techniques be evaluated and improved?
Steve McGill: Most kids who come to Steve have some hurdle experience and background. On day one, they go through his evaluation, a 3-step drill at seven yards apart. His technical position checklist includes four elements:
(1) Looking at the trail leg at pushoff on the ball of the foot. A common fault is stomping the foot down, which can cause them to sail high. An athlete who lands in a poor position might go through a series of A Skips to address foot contact before takeoff.
Video 1. Trail Leg Push.
(2) The lead knee angle, and preferably bent knee, should move downward, not flat. A flat angle will cause knee lock and excessive flight times. Here’s a three-video sequence of Steve teaching the lead leg and knee progressions:
Video 2. Teaching Lead Leg Part 1.
Video 3. Teaching Lead Leg Part 2.
Video 4. Teaching Lead Leg Part 3.
(3) A bend from the waist (not the chin or neck area).
Video 5. Forward Lean.
(4) Lead arm elbow bent with the hand moving up and down. Below are two videos of Steve going through lead arm technique.
Video 6. Lead Arm Cycle.
Video 7. Lead Arm Trail Leg.
One of the most common faults in hurdlers is the arm cross, where the lead arm hand is positioned across the torso at takeoff. Steve uses the phrase “hurdle mechanics are sprint mechanics magnified.” For the arm cross error, he looks at how they are sprinting, as the fault is likely found within the elbows going out during the sprint stride. If so, he will work on the arm action at the sprinting level first, then moving on to the hurdle level.
From these four areas, Steve will focus on one area to correct that is likely to fix others. There isn’t a set rule on what areas are best used first, as each athlete is different. Also important in the evaluation is the timing in flight to see how the body is working together. For example, faults arising in flight might include a long sweeping trail leg that can’t keep up with the lead leg. He doesn’t look at limbs as separate entities, but rather how everything works together. His advice is simple: “Don’t hurdle, RUN over the hurdles.”
Richard Holmes: As his athletes go over the hurdles, Richard looks at eight elements:
- How do the arms work with the legs over the hurdle? Each athlete is taught to hurdle differently due to the variations in body length proportions everyone has.
- Head: The chin should be slightly down, as the body will follow the head.
- Shoulders and hips squared: If they are not squared, Richard checks the lead arm as it’s likely crossing the body.
- Lead arm: Today, especially in high-level hurdlers, there are various styles of lead arms (Aries and Richardson high-lead arm, for example) and hurdlers all have their own style. A common fault is the arm cross position, which causes rotation of the shoulders and hips. Richard feels the “look at your watch” cue is a cause of this. Although potentially helpful, it can easily be misused. He prefers to see the arm slightly bent and a “pull down and back with the wrist” motion, as pulling with the elbow likely causes the shoulders to open.
- Lead knee: Knee drive occurs, and the knee begins to bend slightly over the top of the hurdle. This bent-knee position was influenced by a Roger Kingdom article years ago, in which he explained how easy this position is to get into compared to a straight knee. Richard prefers to use a “chest over the knee” cue, a “step down” cue leading to touchdown, and later on in the athlete’s development, a “step down drive and pull back” cue. Overall, he cues an aggressive step down. An interesting note regarding Jasmyne Graham: Her shorter stature led Richard to coach her more like a male, based on how high the hurdles were relative to her hip height. Prior to working with Richard, her body positions going into and over the hurdle were too high, and this became a major focus in training.
- Takeoff: Butt back and lean at the hips. The butt-back action creates a buck that in turn creates more torque on the trail leg. A cue that works well is “Lean from the hips.”
- Trail leg: Look for a “tight V” and does the heel come to the butt? The knee should be higher than the ankle and toes pointed up, techniques that come from the Wilbur Ross book The Hurdlers Bible. At this point of the flight, be patient and don’t come up until touchdown. Keeping the knee higher than the ankle throughout the entire flight requires flexibility to achieve this position.
- Touchdown: Shin and knee facing forward with a step-down action. Roger cites Dominique Arnold as someone who influenced his thinking, when Dominique mentioned that rushing the trail leg and coming out of the drive too early is one of the bigest flaws in beginners.
Tip #2: Use modified hurdle heights and spacing in practice
It’s common to see hurdlers practicing with hurdles set at race heights and spacing, but that isn’t always a good thing.
Richard Holmes: Richard uses mini-hurdles (12″) to start, and may also use them in hill sprints throughout the early part of the training year. He often uses random heights to work on being able to adjust to different situations that might occur in races. Spacing in training is generally one shoe in from race distance marks, with a focus on proper rhythm. Because Richard is a private coach in a one-on-one setting, he can’t simulate the race environment, so he must move the hurdles in. Girls typically use 30″ heights, high school boys 36″, and college males 39″.
Another benefit to using shorter hurdle spacing is improving hurdle split times. Richard uses a modified Zone Drill (discussed in Wilbur Ross’ The Hurdlers Bible). He feels the Zone Drill is really for advanced hurdlers. As an example, he uses modified spacing to work on rhythm. It’s the key to everything. His athletes Kori, Jasmyne and Jordie sometimes used 80% distance with 80% effort, 50% distance with 50% effort, and so on. This allows for the same frequency but not the intensity. This thinking is similar to how jumpers and vaulters do short approach jumps.
Holmes’ favorite session is called “Quick 3s” and he does it one day per week. Women use eight 30″ hurdles 13′ apart (Other heights can be used and adjusted accordingly: 33″=14′ spacing, 36″=15′ spacing, 39″=16′ spacing). Timing starts when the lead knee is over the first hurdle, and ends when the lead leg touches down over the last hurdle. He found that an athlete who can do it in, for example, 7.2 seconds, has the ability to run around 13.7. In this video, you will see Jasymne performing this drill in her early days of working with Holmes.
Video 8. Quick 3 over 33″.
Video 9. Kori Carter Quick 3 Drill.
Steve McGill: In training, Steve rarely uses competition heights and spacings, and almost never combines them. The adrenaline of races cannot be matched in training sessions. Many technique drills are done with reduced spacings and heights.
Rhythm development is crucial for hurdlers. You want the rhythm of the race to be what the hurdler feels in the training session. Using regular spacing in practice often leads to hurdlers getting crowded during races due to the rhythm differences.
The Quick Step drill is one of his favorites. Hurdlers use 5-10 hurdles with 7-yard spacing. This would be done on a volume day, with walk-back recoveries.
In speed workouts, hurdlers perform all-out efforts from blocks over race heights and approximately 1-foot spacing. Due to the fast nature of the runs, athletes do a minimal number of reps.
Regular spacing may also lead to “reaching” for the novice hurdler, when in actuality they do not need to. Steve recommends never to allow the younger, inexperienced athlete to reach for hurdles, even if they “3-step,” but ensure that they 3-step with proper rhythm in training as they continue to develop their speed. This creates a solid foundation for later on.
Tip #3: Setting up your training week
There are numerous ways to set up a training week for hurdlers. Each athlete and team has its own unique circumstances. Both coaches provide a general outline of sample weeks for high school hurdlers. Keep in mind that daily training elements may be modified as the training year progresses and accounting for the age and ability of the hurdlers.
- Monday: Typically a “killer” day of fast speed endurance work. Sessions might include 3×400, or 2x(500+150).
- Tuesday: Hurdle-focused day of drills and more volume.
- Fence drill 3 sets x 10 reps (with ankle weights) for both lead and trail legs
- Marching popovers: March the 3 step and pop over the hurdle
- Sprinting 5-step drill at 12 yard spacing for males (approximately a 6 shoe add-on from the hurdle marks for the female equivalent)
- Quick 3s: high knee approach to the first hurdle and then a quick 3 steps over 8 hurdles 6 yards apart
- Wednesday: Non-hurdle day. Fairly fast day with sprinters and might include a 150 to 300 meter ladder, or something like 5×200 in 25-26 for a 40-second 300m hurdler. In the off-season, more volume and less recovery would be used (8-10×200, for example).
- Thursday: Fast block starts, preferably with a teammate. For the indoor season, 6 starts to 3 hurdles, and for outdoors, 6 starts to 5-6 hurdles. This session may also include video analysis with long rest periods.
- Friday: Optional day. Might include a warmup and 2-3 starts
- Saturday: Race day
Richard Holmes: As a private coach, Richard may encounter issues issues working with the athlete’s high school coach and school schedule. His three elite female hurdlers over the past six years saw him throughout the entire year. For athletes with less-flexible coaches, he works around their schedules, but that situation isn’t ideal.
His athletes hurdle two days a week, typically Tuesday and Thursday. During these hurdle sessions, if the athlete has a huge performance in practice, the session might be called. If the athlete looks sluggish, the session might be called as well.
The weekly themes below stay the same but intensity tends to rise as the year progresses.
- Monday: Harder run, longer speed endurance work around 80-85% with short rest, totaling about 1200-1400 meters over distances 200-350 meters depending on ability level.
- Tuesday: Short acceleration work before hurdle technique. Technique based on their skill level and focus (example: trail arm focus). Acceleration session might be 3x10m, 3x20m, 3x30m (Roger is a big believer in year-round acceleration work).
- Wednesday: He has recently used this day as a rest day and found that athletes respond better on the other days.
- Thursday: Faster hurdle day. The session might include 1×8 hurdles, 1×5 hurdles, 2×3 hurdles.
- Friday: Tempo run day.
- Saturday: Early fall until middle January—long hills the first few weeks, then later in the year do shorter hill stop-and-start burst work to develop lactate threshold capacity. Sometimes athletes do mini-hurdles up the hills, though the hills are not steep. Roger isn’t a fan of really steep hills due to the increased stress on the lower leg and Achilles areas. Spring and summer—the usual time when competitions occur.
For the 300/400H types, both events are worked on the assigned hurdle days. Combo hurdlers often do one or both relays in addition to their individual events and can likely handle higher workloads.
Two recurring themes emerged in interviewing these coaches. First, their constant desire to learn more about the event and study video of hurdlers. Second, a focus on the fundamentals. With consistent and progressive training, they believe, hurdlers can reach their full potential.
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to coach McGill and coach Holmes for making available the hurdle drill video clips.
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