A good overview of 400-meter hurdling, with training routines and special drills.
By Mike Thorson, Assistant Coach (Hurdles) at the University of Mary (Former Director of Track & Field/Cross Country at the University of Mary)
The 400-meter hurdle race for men and women is the most demanding of the hurdle-sprint events. It requires a combination of speed endurance and hurdling skills to go along with a planned and unique stride pattern that demands a very special focus throughout the one-lap race. The race consists of 10 hurdles placed 35 meters apart with a 45-meter run to the first barrier and a 40-meter run-in. The hurdle heights are 91.5 cm (36”) for men and 76.0 cm (30”) for women. The difficulty in the race comes from a large margin for error which is minimized by adopting and rehearsing a specific race plan that meets all situations.
The necessary qualities for a successful, elite 400-meter hurdler include:
1. KINESTHETIC ABILITY—The athlete must have the ability to modify and adapt the race plan due to weather, lane assignment and prior technical issues during the course of the race.
2. RACE PLAN—A definite race plan with the correct pattern, pace, and 200-meter differentials must be trained.
3. SKILL—The required hurdling skills must be trained, with the hurdler training to competently hurdle with either leg.
4. SPECIAL ENDURANCE 1 AND 2—The athlete must be trained as a sprinter with the ability to perform very well in the flat 200- and 400-meter events. There are also elite 400 hurdlers who are very competent in the 600 meters and above and carry out a modified middle distance training schedule.
The 400-meter hurdles can be broken down into four distinct areas:
1. Start and approach to the first hurdle
2. Hurdle Clearance
3. Stride Pattern/Running Between the Hurdles
START AND APPROACH TO THE FIRST HURDLE
• Elite male hurdlers will use 20-22 strides to the first hurdle.
• Elite female hurdlers will typically employ 22-25 strides to the first hurdle.
• The lead leg will be in the back block if the hurdler uses even number of strides to the first hurdle. The trail leg will be in the back block if the hurdler uses an uneven or odd number of strides.
• The athlete must be prepared to make adjustments in block placement to overcome and deal with adverse weather, track conditions and the various demands of running in different lanes.
• The acceleration and stride patterns to the first hurdle are critically important in order to establish the proper rhythm and stride pattern between hurdles.
• The number of strides to the first hurdle must be predetermined through practice and rehearsed repeatedly in training.
• A 21-step approach to the first hurdle will typically result in a desired 13-step stride pattern between hurdles.
• A 22-step approach to the first hurdle will likely lead to the hurdler elongating or “reaching” for a 13-step stride pattern due to a slightly shorter stride length between hurdles one and two.
• A 20-step approach by males will usually require a hurdler to “chop” his step to get an effective 13-stride pattern to the second hurdle.
• A 23-stride approach will normally result in a 15-step pattern.
• The following chart can be used to determine the optimal number of strides to the first hurdle and the resulting stride pattern between the barriers:
21 Strides to First hurdle—13 Strides Between
22 Strides to First Hurdle—14 Strides Between
23 Strides to First Hurdle—15 Strides Between
24 Strides to First Hurdle—16 Strides Between
25 Strides to First Hurdle—17 Strides Between
• The acceleration pattern (approach) for the first 30 meters of the 45-meter distance to the first hurdle will be very similar to that of an open 400-meter sprinter.
• The hurdler must begin to focus on the adjustments that need to be made for an effective hurdle one clearance at approximately 30 meters.
• Touchdown times will range from 5.8 to 6.2 for men and 6.1 to 7.0 for women for the first hurdle. Coaches and athletes should make use of the touchdown charts and time first hurdle touchdown times on a regular basis. It is critical that a hurdler be very, very confident in his or her first hurdle clearance because that sets the tone and stride pattern for the race.
• It is very useful to count the number of strides to the first hurdle, counting the trail contacts only to ease the counting difficulties. For 21, 23 and 25 strides the trail leg will contact the track 11, 12 and 13 times, and for 22 and 24 strides it will make contact 11 and 12 times respectively.
• It is very useful to both coach and athlete to make use of video and touchdown times to analyze not only the first hurdle clearance and approach, but the entire stride pattern for the race.
• A useful tool to determine the number of strides to the first hurdle is to put a mark on the track at approximately 43.40 meters from the start and have the athlete attempt to hit it with the desired takeoff without a first hurdle present. Tape or some other item can mark the location of the first hurdle at the 45 meter mark.
• Some corrections that can be made: If a hurdler is too close to hurdle one, he or she can take a short step from the blocks, obtain the upright sprint position quickly and take five or more shorter strides. This will typically solve the problem of running up on the hurdle. If the hurdler is too far away from the first hurdle (which is more often the problem), the athlete should add a stride by driving from the blocks with 4-5 short strides. The coach will have to experiment to determine the number of short strides.
The basic mechanics of hurdling apply in the 400 Hurdles. It is a serious mistake to neglect the technical aspects of intermediate hurdling because of the lower heights. Although the hurdles are lower, the fatigue factor the hurdler faces will magnify the technical errors.
Points of emphasis in the 400 Hurdles clearance:
• The hurdler, leading with the knee, with an erect “hips tall” posture, should strive to accelerate the last few strides into the hurdle. A loss of speed, braking and increased number of strides typically results if the center of mass drops and the athlete does not accelerate into the hurdle.
• The last stride to the hurdle should be quicker and shorter, with a quick lead knee initiating the takeoff. The quick lead knee results in a delayed trail leg where it basically obtains full extension at the takeoff.
• The low hurdle height requires less body lean and the hurdler does not need to raise the center of mass as high. The trail leg will clear the hurdle in a lower plane, but it must continue to drive forward and upward for the hurdler to return to good sprint action/form off of the hurdle.
• The goal of the hurdle clearance stride is to “make it another sprint stride” with a slight deviation to negotiate the hurdle. The 400 hurdler does not need to be nearly as aggressive in attacking the hurdle as a sprint hurdler.
• A complete recovery of the trail leg and the continuation of the knee drive forward and upward will ensure an active landing and continue efficient sprint action.
• Rotation problems are often caused by reaching too far with the lead arm, a problem certainly magnified on the curve. The trail leg arm should deviate as little as possible from normal sprint mechanics.
• The athlete should be instructed to hold breath for three strides before and after each hurdle.
STRIDE PATTERN/RUNNING BETWEEN HURDLES
There is no substitute for actual experience and race simulation for the training of the stride pattern between hurdles. The more frequently the athlete can compete in an actual race, the more efficient the stride pattern will become. Some considerations in the training of the stride pattern:
• The ideal stride pattern would be an odd number of steps between all hurdles. The 13, 15, 17, 19 stride pattern assures that the hurdler will take all the hurdles with the same left leg.
• The even number stride pattern will force the hurdler to alternate consecutive hurdles.
• The hurdler who leads with the left leg will have a definite advantage, with less distance to run and the fact that no adjustment needs to be made with the hurdler “squaring up” to the hurdle. A right leg lead will require the athlete to run further out in the lane and can create undesirable rotation upon landing. Thus, all developing hurdlers should be taught to use the left leg lead and have the ability to alternate when factors such as weather dictate that. That being said, there have been a number of great world class hurdlers who have employed a right leg lead.
• It will be very rare that an athlete will be able to take an “odd” number of strides for the entire race. Nearly all hurdlers will be forced to make a transition to a greater number of strides between the hurdles due to fatigue. This transition takes place when fatigue causes the hurdler to change to a shorter stride length resulting in the addition of one or two more steps between hurdles.
• This transition will, according to most authorities, occur at the seventh hurdle, but earlier obviously for less experienced hurdlers (Hurdles 5 or 6).
• There are three forms of transition according to most coaches:
The best transition is called single alternate, where the left leg lead hurdler switches from 13 to 14 strides, requiring the hurdler to hurdle with a right leg lead over every other hurdle for the duration of the race.
Paired Alternate Transition—In this transition, the left leg lead hurdler who is using 13 strides would take 14 and use the right leg, and then switch back to 14 to return to the left lead leg. The race would be finished with 15 strides, thus enabling the hurdler to return to the left leg lead.
Double Stepdown—typically used by inexperienced hurdlers who cannot alternate, the hurdler who is using 13 strides would switch to 15 and thus avoid hurdling with the right leg. The biggest disadvantage of this is that the stride length has to be greatly reduced and certainly adds fuel to the argument that all intermediate hurdlers should be taught to alternate.
• A hurdler must have a race plan and understand where the transition will take place. It is much better to have a planned transition than to have it forced upon the hurdler because of fatigue.
• The hurdler must be able to make late race adjustments due to fatigue and this will be much more readily possible if the hurdler can successfully alternate lead legs.
• Adjustments should be made well in advance of the hurdle. Minor step adjustments can be made by the hurdler by moving slightly in or out on the turn, or by even consciously shortening the stride during the last few strides coming off or into a hurdle.
• Only experience will develop the ability to make adjustments in stride length and frequency and hopefully eliminate the “chopping” and “reaching” that often occurs with less experienced 400 Hurdlers.
• Below are the strides between hurdles and the required stride length to achieve them:
• Elite hurdlers are able to maintain the initial rhythm to the first hurdle, between hurdles, and through to the finish. All possible situations should be rehearsed. Great hurdlers will be able to adjust to all different factors, including wind (headwind, crosswind, tailwind), lane draw, weather conditions (cold, heat and rain) and track surface.
• Consistency between hurdles is the obvious goal of the intermediate hurdler, and a coach can check and record this through the use of touchdown times and charts.
• The last 2-3 strides before and after the clearance must be exact, precise and consistent. Adjustments must be made between the hurdles and not at the hurdles. There is very little margin for error in the stride pattern and hurdle clearance!
Many 400 Hurdle races are won and lost in the 40-meter run-in. The necessary ingredients to solve the last 40 meters include special endurance 1 and 2, excellent running mechanics (especially when fatigued) and just plain old mental toughness. Many hurdlers make the mistake of finishing the race at the 10th hurdle and the race is far from over at that point.
The preparation for the run-in needs to begin well in advance of the 10th barrier when the required adjustments in stride length and stride frequency come into play to efficiently clear the last hurdle and drive to the finish.
There is no question that a high volume of speed endurance training is needed to produce a strong, fast run-in!
Most coaches will agree that an even-paced race model is the most efficient manner to run the intermediate hurdle race. A coach can effectively measure this by the use of touchdown times. These can be recorded and then reviewed and analyzed with the athlete with the assistance of video to correct errors and to determine late-race adjustments.
• An excellent “tool” for the coach is to use 200-meter split times. Ideally, according to most coaches, the difference in times for the first and second half of the race should be no more than 5%. As an example, that would be approximately 2.5 seconds in a 50-second 400 hurdle race.
• One of the keys to a successful race plan is to control the energy distribution the first 150 meters of the race. Hurdle 4 is the 150-meter mark in the 400 hurdles.
BASIC INTERMEDIATE HURDLING MECHANICS
1. The most fundamental mechanic in hurdling is leading with a flexed knee.
2. The shoulders and hips, which should always stay “tall,” should be square with the hurdle and a quick lead knee will lead to a desired delayed trail leg.
3. Developing intermediate hurdlers should always be taught to lead with the left leg.
4. The most valuable technique a coach can teach an intermediate hurdler is the ability to alternate lead legs over consecutive hurdles.
5. The lower heights in the intermediate hurdles require less body lean than the high hurdles and the hips must project forward with a lower center of mass.
6. Hurdlers who have a tendency to land on the heel should be instructed to use more body lean, staying on the ball of the foot as much as possible.
7. Intermediate hurdlers are basically asked to “run through the barrier” employing sprint mechanics.
Intermediate hurdle training
Coaches of intermediate hurdlers have the very difficult job of designing and implementing training. They must not only train pure speed, but speed endurance and speed endurance 1 and 2 as well. It is a very fine balancing act to implement a complete and comprehensive training program. One of the ingredients that coaches often forsake in favor of speed endurance is the pure speed component. And that is a serious mistake. According to studies, the intermediate hurdler is actually sprinting at faster velocities than the high hurdler when you look at the average velocities of athletes in both races.
A brief explanation of the training that will be needed by the intermediate hurdler with examples of proven workouts included:
SPEED—Runs of 95-100% intensity over 30-60 meters or up to six seconds of running with full recovery.
6 x 40 meter blasts with spikes from blocks @ 100% intensity with 6-7 minutes recovery per rep.
- 1 x 40m with spikes from blocks @ 100% intensity with 6 minutes recovery
- 2 X flying 30 meters with spikes @ 100% intensity with 6 minutes recovery
- 2 x 20 meters with spikes from 4-point @ 100% intensity with 5 minutes recovery
- 2 x flying 30 meters with spikes @ 100% intensity with 6 minutes recovery
SPEED ENDURANCE—Runs of 95-100% of maximum over 60-150 meters or 7-20 seconds of running with full recovery or very close to it.
- 3 x Hurdles 1 and 2 from blocks @ race pace with 5 minutes recovery (Time touchdown times)
- 3 x 150 meters with spikes @ 98-100% intensity with 6 minutes recovery.
- 1 x 150 meters with spikes @ 100% intensity with 10 minutes recovery.
- 2 x Hurdles 4-5-6 with spikes @ race pace with 2-3 minutes recovery (This will simulate the fatigue factor with the reduced rest). Hurdles can also be reduced in height and the coach can determine the amount of rest depending on the desired training outcome.
- 4 x 150 meters with spikes @ 98-100% intensity with 5-6 minutes recovery (each one progressively faster).
SPEED ENDURANCE 1—Runs of 95-100% of maximum over 150-300 meters or 20-40 seconds of running with full recovery.
- 3 x 300 meters with spikes @ 98-100% intensity without hurdles with 10 minutes recovery.
- 3 x Hurdles 1-2-3-4 with spikes from blocks @ race pace with 8-10 minutes recovery (Time touchdown times and reduce hurdle heights if needed).
- 3 x Hurdles 7-8-9 and finish @ race pace with spikes with 8-10 minutes rest.
- 2 x 250 meters with spikes @ 98-100% intensity with 10-12 minutes rest.
SPEED ENDURANCE 2—Runs of 95-100% of maximum over 300-600 meters or 40 seconds of running or over with full recovery.
- 2 x 300 meters with no hurdles and finish with 3 hurdles at regular spacing @ race pace with full recovery (up to 12 minutes).
- 3 x 300 meters with hurdles from start at regular spacing, then to finish @ 400 meters with spikes @ race pace with full recovery (Record touchdown times and use reduced hurdle heights if needed). Recovery can be 12-15 minutes.
- 1 x 600 meters @ 85 -88% with spikes with full recovery (12-15 minutes).
- 2-3 x Hurdles 1-6 @ race pace with spikes with 10-15 minutes recovery.
NOTE: To obtain the desired training effects, often the training sessions will combine elements of all the different energy systems. Most intermediate hurdlers will train with the long sprint group and some even with the middle distance runners, depending on their strengths.
INTERMEDIATE HURDLE DRILLS
Drills that work!!
Most of the drills that 100- and 110-meter hurdlers utilize are applicable to intermediate hurdlers. Technical skills should never be neglected in favor of training other training components for intermediate hurdlers because the mechanical flaws in hurdle clearance will be compounded when you add the fatigue factor. Do not, however, over-drill, as many coaches do. Many coaches drill and use technique work at slow speeds to seek mastery of skills only to have their athletes falter when they are asked to replicate the skill at race speeds. There is no substitute for “the real thing.” It is critically important to train the proper rhythms and stride patterns. But with that being said, drills are important.
FOLLOWING ARE DRILLS THAT WORK:
1. Lead Leg-Trail Leg Drill. Any number of hurdles set at very short spacing with drills done on the side of the hurdles at low heights. Athletes rehearse the lead and trail leg mechanics at different speeds ranging from walking to running at 75-80%. The drill can be done walking, marching, skipping or running. Another version of the lead leg-trail leg drill is to march through the hurdles with even shorter distances employing fast feet, fast arms, with an emphasis on the arm speed. The drill can be done with spikes, but preferably flats.
2. Arm Drills. Any number of lower hurdles (30’ or lower for women; 33”-36” for men) can be used for this drill at reduced, discounted spacing (28 feet for men and women, although spacing is not critically important because the drill is done at slower, controlled speeds). The drill is misnamed in that the athlete must hurdle at slower speeds (75-80%) without using the arms. There are four versions: 1) Regular: Athlete hurdles from a standing start any number of hurdles with the arms extended out in front of the body in a locked position. 2) Fly: Same as #1 except arms are extended like wings 3) Chest: Same as 1 and 2 except arms are held tightly folded to the chest (Helpful if the athlete grabs shirt). 4) Ball: Same as 1-3 except the athlete holds a med ball extended out in front of them as he goes over the hurdle. Women use a 2k ball and men 3k. Coaching cues: Emphasize leading with the knee, squaring up hips and shoulders to the hurdles and letting the body balance itself without the use of the arms. It is a great drill to teach body awareness and balance to eliminate rotational problems. The arm drills are typically done in flats.
3. One-Step Hurdles. From a standing start on the start line, hurdle any amount of hurdles spaced so that the hurdler has only one step to clear the hurdle. The first hurdle can be on the mark and others spaced at low heights, 8-13 back-to-back steps for both men and women. The spacing will be determined by the speed that the drill is done by the athlete. The drill teaches athletes to lead with the knee, flexed lead leg, projecting hips through the hurdle and getting down very quickly with an active trail leg. It is also useful to eliminate a “swinging” of the lead leg. The drill should be done in spikes at controlled speeds, with an emphasis on arm speed and projecting hips through the hurdle.
4. Tempo Hurdles. Set(s) of any number of hurdles done in spikes with regular hurdle form at race pace. Example: 2 X 2 X 4 hurdles. Athletes should be given lower recovery time between reps and sets to simulate the fatigue factor that the athlete will face in competition. The intermediate hurdler must learn to hurdle in a fatigued state! Spacing for the drill can be irregular and can be changed throughout the drill to force the athlete to alternate and learn to make adjustments. Hurdles are typically set 20-25 meters apart and are often lowered in height, depending on the number of repetitions and fatigue (lower heights require less energy and force).
5. Shuttle Hurdles. Athlete hurdles one lane of barriers in one direction and turns around and returns in another lane of hurdles, doing a series of loops/reps. The hurdles can be set at any height, although lower heights would typically be used as less energy and force is required for the lower heights in a drill that can be very demanding. The drill should be done in spikes with sets of different recovery times, depending on the objective. It is obviously a great drill for the intermediate hurdler in terms of teaching alternating legs, making adjustments (steering) and simulating the demands of the hurdle race in terms of fatigue/energy systems. It teaches the athlete to hurdle in a fatigued state.
6. Lead Leg/Trail Leg Wall Attack Drill. With a low hurdle against wall, fall forward into wall and attack with the lead leg, stressing a flexed lead leg with a cocked foot and leading with the knee. The opposite arm also drives into the wall. Another version of this drill is to take one step and then fall forward into wall. The hurdle can be moved out too and trail legs can be done on the side of the hurdle. Another version is to place hands on wall and go back and forth in in a stationary position alternating the trail leg movement over the top of the hurdle. The drill should be done in flats.
7. Curve Drill. 1 Hurdle or a series of hurdles set on the marks or at irregular spacing (15-20 meters) with the athlete attempting to negotiate the hurdles at race pace. A left lead leg should be encouraged along with alternating. Athletes can do a series of reps, typically with small amounts of recovery to simulate race conditions. The drill should be done in spikes and touchdown times recorded.
Actual Training Week — Julia Hammerschmidt
Week 31—April 17-23 (Competition Week)
Monday, April 17—3pm—1 x 350m-300m @ 95% with spikes (12 minutes recovery), Strength training.
Tuesday, April 18—3:30 pm—400 hurdle techinque session. Med ball circuit. 15 throws.
Wednesday, April 19—3:30 pm—1 x 300m @ 95% with spikes (10 minutes recovery) 2 x 150m @ race pace with spikes with hurdles 1-2-3 from blocks (6 minutes recovery). Time touchdown times, Strength training.
Thursday, April 20—3:30 pm—recovery-stationary bike 15 minutes, Warmup, Accels with spikes, Med ball circuit 2 x 15 reps.
Friday, April 21—Pre-meet warmup, starts to hurdles 1-2 @ race pace with spikes, exchanges.
Saturday, April 22—North Dakota State University Invitational, Fargo ND 11 am.
Sunday, April 23—20 minutes Elliptical (Recovery).
Actual 400 Hurdle Techinque Session — Josh Wulfekuhle
April 21 (Competition Week)
2. 2 accelerations with flats (40 meters).
3. Lead leg-trail leg drill (3 hurdles).
4. 2 accelerations with spikes 40 meters.
5. Tempo hurdles—3 hurdles x 2 x 2 with spikes @ race pace @ 36” first set, 33” second set (1 minute recovery per rep/3 minutes per set), hurdles 20-25 meters apart—change distances between reps.
6. 2 hurdles from start x 2 with spikes @ race pace (36”). 5 minutes recovery. Time touchdowns.
7. Hurdles 7-8-9 x 2 @ race pace with spikes (Very little recovery—jog back), hurdles @ 36”.
1. Lindemann, Ralph, US Air Force Academy, Clinics, Articles
2. McFarlane, Brent, The Science of Hurdling and Speed, 4th Edition, Canadian Track & Field Association, 2000
3. Silvey, Steve, World Class Elite Hurdling Training Program, 1999, Clinics
4. Winckler, Gary, University of Illinois, Clinics, Conversations, Articles