Track Coach

“Ideal” Training for The Sprint Hurdler

A perspective on how the coach can manipulate and mimic the training environment
to create “ideal” training” for the sprint hurdler.

By Mike Thorson, University of Mary Hurdle Coach (Former Director of Track & Field/Cross Country at the University of Mary, Bismarck, North Dakota)

Our top level sprint/hurdle coaches are frequently asked an assortment of difficult and challenging questions concerning training in today’s track & field world. What is the best training? What are the best drills that should be used? What are some of the “secrets” that enable top-level sprinters and hurdlers to be successful…to be elite?

Everyone wants the “magic” formula. Everyone is looking for that little, extra edge. Unfortunately, there isn’t any such thing. Most coaches will tell you there are no real secrets or shortcuts to success…no quick fixes. The basics are the foundation of their coaching and they coach the fundamentals each and every day. The leading, elite coaches employ sound, science-based training developed from years of research and proven results.

A lot of young coaches (and some not so young) may be surprised when they learn that the best or “ideal” training for sprinters and hurdlers is competition—actual meet competition! Success in the sprint hurdles is largely determined by the ability of the hurdler to generate very large amounts of power and strength at exactly the right time! There is no better way of training than in competition. None.

The greatest speed training environment occurs in actual races, according to Ralph Mann and Amber Murphy in a book entitled, The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling. Competing often and using competitions as your optimal training ground is a recipe for success, as many high school and collegiate athletes have discovered. Usually discovered, we might add, by accident. Many high school athletes compete in two to three competitions a week and do multiple events. It is the same with many collegiate sprinters and hurdlers. They compete every weekend in a lengthy indoor and outdoor season, sometimes competing in back-to-back days of preliminary and final rounds. It makes for a lot of competitions and “optimal” training as a result.

That likely explains why some of America’s top professional sprinters and hurdlers see their performances diminish after their collegiate careers come to an end. They simply do not obtain the consistent, optimal training that frequent competition affords them. This article will examine the challenges that coaches of sprint hurdlers have in replicating the training for their athletes that competition provides.


It is certainly no easy task. To say that it is problematic is an understatement. It is very clear, however, that many coaches do not have their hurdlers doing the correct training to meet the demands of the women’s 100-meter and the men’s 110-meter hurdle events. The coaches are not meeting the requirements of stride rate, stride length and tempo (rhythm) that the hurdler will face in competition. Coaches are often misguided in what really needs to be trained and this will typically lead to long-term problems and errors. Consistently training incorrectly really compounds the problems. The old saying about practice making permanent and not perfect certainly rings true in this case. If it is true that it takes 25-30,000 repetitions to undo an incorrect motor pattern, as Arizona Cardinals strength coach Buddy Morris believes, and suggests this becomes very troubling indeed.

Another aspect that is very concerning is the emphasis that many coaches place on drills. Former Illinois and Florida State Coach Gary Winckler, a Hall of Fame sprint/hurdle coach, presented a clinic at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota in 1997. After he talked very little about drill work in two days of speaking, the author questioned him about drills at the conclusion of the seminar. Winckler responded, chuckling, “We don’t do a lot of drills. If you want to be a good hurdler, hurdle. And hurdle correctly,” he added.

We are certainly not advocating that hurdle coaches shouldn’t do drills. Quite the contrary. One of our favorite slogans that we frequently employ with our athletes is: “You are only as fast as your mechanics and technique will allow.” Great technique maximizes speed and minimizes a lot of wasted effort that can lead to late-race fatigue. You do need drills to teach the mechanics, and drills are a method of teaching this, especially with the men’s hurdles. Many authorities would agree the men’s 110-meter hurdles are the most challenging technical event on the track. But coaches are often disappointed that their athletes can’t replicate the skills and mechanics in competition that they master in the slower drill work. And there is really no question; mechanical flaws will be amplified at the higher competition speeds.

Another challenge for the hurdle coach will be balancing every component that needs to be trained without overloading and stressing the athlete. The noted author Malcolm Gladwell sums it up best: “Practice isn’t the thing you do once you’re good. It’s the thing that makes you good.” You obviously have to practice and train. But coaches would be wise to keep in mind that it is a very delicate balancing act. Once an athlete is overtrained, there is no going back and the season is basically over.

When you consider that it can take up to 500 hours to refine a skill and establish a proper motor pattern, it is quite easy to see that a big part of the job description of a hurdle coach is time management. Gladwell, in a book entitled “Outliers,” claims it takes 10,000 hours and approximately 10 years to achieve top-level expertise. Another critical factor: athletes are capable of handling only approximately three minutes of high-stress activity/intensity per workout session, according to biomechanist Ralph Mann. This is certainly a challenge, but the goal of training the hurdler to replicate, simulate and mimic the competition motor patterns/rhythm is certainly obtainable and is currently being done by many sprint hurdle mentors.

So…how does the coach go about this task? One of the first considerations that a coach has to be aware of is the fact that the stride rate for a hurdler is quite different than for a sprinter. The standard spacing in the hurdle races dictates this. The spacing simply doesn’t allow for the hurdler to take a normal sprint stride. The sprint hurdle coach is constantly faced with the question of how do you adjust sprinting to sprinting between the hurdles? A hurdler can generate only about 75% of his horizontal sprint velocity in the hurdle race, again per Ralph Mann.

Mann goes on to say that only approximately 40% of the steps in a hurdle race can contribute to horizontal velocity. He also says 20% lose velocity and 40% are neutral. With that being said, it is very clear that you can’t just train speed and expect success in the 100 and 110-meter hurdle races.

Train speed,” was the common answer the author would receive when, as a young coach, he would ask the elite hurdle coaches what was the most important component to train. No one ever really elaborated as to “what kind of speed.”

What we really need to say when we talk about speed in the sprint hurdles is hurdle speed. Or more accurately, hurdle rhythm, as the late Brent McFarlane always talked about when he spoke about training your short hurdlers. It is about establishing and “etching in” the correct motor patterns, the correct hurdle rhythm that replicates what the hurdler will actually employ in competition. Not that speed development isn’t critically important. It is essential…crucial! The sprint hurdles are speed events and you obviously want your hurdlers to be as fast as possible. Nearly all coaches will agree that improving maximum speed is the best way to improve your hurdle performance. Improving your maximum speed will improve your acceleration and the sprint hurdles are basically a series of accelerations. So there is no question that a large percentage of your training time should be devoted to speed development and speed enhancement.

Another factor that coaches should remember: neuro-muscular motor patterns don’t work like the old Etch-A-Sketch toys. You can’t just the flip the Etch-A-Sketch over and start again. It doesn’t work that way with motor patterns. Coaches must be cautious and not create movement stereotypes where the motor pattern or muscle memory becomes programmed and “fixed” and you establish barriers to speed development and hurdle rhythms.

Authorities acknowledge that there is a 5-10% drop-off in training compared to competition. Taking all this into account, how does the sprint hurdle coach manipulate the environment to obtain competition level speeds in training? We are doing a combination of things at the University at Mary to accomplish this goal:

1. Reducing Hurdle Heights: Most of our women’s hurdling is done using 30” hurdles or shorter, compared to the normal height of 33”. Men hurdle at 39” and even 36”. Not that the men don’t hurdle at the normal 42” height on occasion, but it is infrequent. Miniature hurdles, scissor hurdles, speed hurdles and even cones can be employed to accomplish the lower training heights. The author removed the hurdle tops and placed pre-wrap at the desired height on the hurdle as a high school coach on a very limited budget years ago.

2. Discount Hurdle Spacing: Our women never hurdle at the standard spacing of 8.5 meters. Our training distance is typically 8.0 meters. The men normally train at 29 feet or 8.84 meters (one foot shorter than normal race spacing). Unlike some coaches, we rarely alter the first hurdle distances (unless attempting to correct a serious first hurdle flaw), preferring not to mess with the first hurdle stride pattern and the resulting mental issues. The discounted spacing measurements can and will vary depending on the athlete and individual coaches preference. The spacing will also change as the season progresses and the hurdler becomes faster and stronger.

3. Place Hurdlers in Competitive Situations: Coaches, especially high school coaches, may be surprised to hear that we very seldom train our hurdlers in solo situations. A very large percentage of our training is done with our hurdlers competing head to head with teammates. Just having a teammate alongside “gets the competitive juices flowing,” leading to increased speeds and hurdle rhythm and accomplishing our training goal. Another exercise that accomplishes much the same is where a hurdler races a sprinter, who is handicapped at the start and starts from a 3 or 4-point stance opposed to blocks. This obviously only works for short distances, but aids in setting up the opening tempo speeds for the hurdler.

4. 7.5 Craig Poole Drill: Competitive hurdling from blocks with the hurdles placed at 7.5 meters for the women and 28 feet (8.53m) for the men. This is a lead-in “drill” with hurdling immediately following at the training distances of 8.0 meters for women and 29 feet (8.84m) for men. This exercise, modified for our use, was taken from Craig Poole, the Hall of Fame coach who was a long-time mentor at BYU and who is now at San Diego State.

5. Tempo Hurdles: Tempo hurdles are done as a preliminary activity leading up to actual hurdling from blocks. Spacing is 7.5-7.7 meters for women and 28 feet (8.53m) for men and the hurdlers start from a 3 or 4-point stance over sets of any desired number of hurdles (the number of reps and sets should be low due to the fatigue factor and our goal of not deviating from the motor pattern that we are attempting to establish).

6. Increased Hurdle Spacing: Although we seldom employ this, many coaches successfully increase the spacing between hurdles so that the distances are further than competition marks to increase stride rate and improve hurdle rhythm. They often use a 5- or 7-step stride between hurdles. The author typically for spacing uses 11-12.0m for women and 12-13.5m for men for the 5-stride drill, depending on the state and caliber of the athlete. Ralph Lindeman, a very well-known hurdle authority from the Air Force Academy, uses 13m for men and 11.5m for women.

Other helpful considerations:

1. The coach should design the hurdle training sessions and training week days so that the athletes are basically fatigue free and rested prior to the sessions. Coaches can’t expect athletes to obtain the proper hurdle rhythms in a fatigued state. The same is true of the individual training sessions. Technique and mechanics must be closely monitored by the coach and the session should be curtailed immediately if a breakdown is detected. A helpful tool to pinpoint weaknesses in a race plan and to assist the coach in monitoring the fatigue factor is to use touchdown times and the accompanying touchdown charts. There are numerous charts to be found, but the best can be found in the book entitled, “The Science of Hurdling and Speed” by McFarlane. Stressing the importance of touchdown times, Gary Winkler once told the author that they charted every touchdown time in their practice sessions when he was at the University of Illinois.

2. Athletes can create more power and speed by using a breathing model where the breath is held in the blocks and “blown out” on hurdles 1-3-5-7-9. Elite hurdlers will use a somewhat different pattern, blowing out on hurdles 1-4-7-10. The breathing model is based on the Val Salva Manoeuver, which contends that more power and strength can be produced when holding and blowing out the breath. It is a well- known fact that athletes can only briefly hold the breath (approximately 2.5 seconds) without creating undesirable effects.

3. Arm mechanics: Coaches should stress the correct use of the arms, as it is the arms that really control front-side mechanics, balance and ultimately, the athletes’ acceleration. Keep in mind that hurdlers never reach maximum velocity in the short hurdle race. The sprint hurdles in a nutshell are essentially ten different acceleration patterns!

The following hurdle technique sessions, one indoor and one outdoor, display how the University of Mary trains speed development and replicates the competition rhythms and motor patterns in training:

Monday, January 20 Men’s and Women’s Hurdles (Indoors)

    1. Marauder Sprint-Hurdle Warm-up
    2. Cone Hops/Squares
    3. Hurdle Hops 4 Hurdles 30’ x 2 with ball 3k-W 4K-M
    4. Hurdle Hops Lateral 4 Hurdles 24” x 2
    5. Backwards Walking Lunge 2 x 10 meters
    6. Speed Bounding 2 x 30m
    7. Accels with spikes 4 x 40m
    1. 1 Step Hurdles 8 Hurdles x 2 30”
    2. 2 x 20m Flys Straightaway
    3. Tempo Hurdles 2 x 2 x 2 Hurdles Men—1st set-36” 2nd set—39-36 Women—30” both sets
    4. Start from 4-point Hurdles at 7.7m for women and 28 feet (8.53m) for men
    5. 2 x Sled Pull with hand weights 20m
    1. 4 Hurdles From Blocks x 2 W—30” @ 7.5 m M—39”-36” @ 28 feet (8.53m)
    2. 1 x 20m From Blocks
    3. 6 Hurdles From Blocks x 2 W—30’ @ 8.0m M—39” @ 29 feet (8.84m)
    4. 3 Hurdles From Blocks W—33”-30” @ 8.0m M—42”-39” @ 29 feet (8.84)

**Record touchdown times for all reps from the blocks

Monday, April 13 Men’s and Women’s Hurdles (Outdoor) Week of Mt. Sac Relays/Azusa/Long Beach

    1. Marauder Sprint Hurdle Warm-up
    2. Hurdle Hops 6 30” Hurdles x 2 w/3k ball
    3. Crane 2 x 10m
    4. Duck Walk w/3k ball Eyes Closed 2 x 10m
    5. Accels 4 x 30-40m w/spikes
    1. 1 Step Hurdles 9 Hurdles x 3 30”
    2. 1 x 20m from 4-point start
    3. 1 x 30m Fly (Straightaway)
    4. Tempo Hurdles W—3 Hurdles @ 30” x 2 @ 7.7m M—3 Hurdles @ 36” x 2 @ 28 feet (8.53m)
    5. 1 x 30m Fly (Straightaway)
    6. Tempo Hurdles W—3 Hurdles @30” x 1 @ 7.7m M—3 Hurdles @ 39”-36” x 2 @ 28 feet (8.53m)
    1. 3 Hurdles From Blocks x 2 W—30” at 7.5m M—39”-36” @ 28 feet (8.53m)
    2. 3 Hurdles From Blocks x 1 W—30” @ 8.0m M—39” @ 29 feet (8.84m)
    3. 10 Hurdles From Blocks x 2 W—30” @ 8.0m M—39” @ 29 feet (8.84m) (10-12 minutes recovery between reps)
    4. 7 Hurdles From Blocks x 1 W—33”-30” @ 8.0m Men—42”-39” @ 29 feet (8.84m)

**Record touchdown times for all reps from blocks

@@@The goal is to train approximately 3 minutes of high intensity/stress per hurdle training session


Oftentimes incorrect training on the part of coaches establishes “permanent” motor patterns that are a limiting factor in the success that a hurdler can obtain. Most authorities and coaches can recognize after viewing the research and studies that the “ideal” or “optimal” training for the 100 and 110-meter hurdler is competition—meets! But, the reality is many coaches are not training their hurdlers to meet the demands of the race. It is in many ways a disservice to the athletes.

And it is sad, because as this article has suggested, there are numerous methodologies that exist to train the correct motor patterns. They must be rehearsed over and over! But it can and is being done by many coaches. That is the challenge for the sprint hurdle coach: Design and implement TRAINING that mimics and replicates competition and translates to success for their sprint hurdlers!


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