Track Coach

Training High Velocity Hurdling

By Mike Thorson, Former Director of  Track and Field/Cross Country at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND

Coach Thorson examines some of leading factors that research reveals hurdle coaches should be utilizing in their training to develop “fast” sprint hurdlers

The real secret to self-evaluation is honesty and a sense of self-awareness. Admitting that there may be a better way to do something can be exceedingly difficult and oftentimes a painful process for many coaches. There are coaches who train “sprint” hurdlers (100 and 110m hurdlers) who likely need to step back and re-evaluate the training processes they are administrating. Often in the past coaches trained short hurdlers much like they did their sprint group. Not that this was all bad. But quite often another type of speed was neglected. Or perhaps not emphasized enough is perhaps a better way to put it.

The speed we are referring to is commonly known as Hurdle rhythm. It isn’t that speed is not a key ingredient in the success of a hurdler. It is critically important. Crucial. Most world class hurdlers could very well be elite sprinters if they chose that discipline. But before we get into the specifics of hurdle rhythm, coaches must ask themselves the three elementary training questions before they make any kind of changes to their training program(s). 1. What type of training will they use 2. How will they implement the training 3. Why are they doing the training they are doing. The coach must always understand why they are doing what they do and convey that to the athlete (s) if they expect a “buy in” from the athlete and training group. Communication, trust and transparency are always keys to any successful coach/athlete relationship. Knowing the X’s and the O’s are great, but coaching is about relationships.

Once a coach has arrived at the answers to the question of why, it is much, much easier to evaluate a training program and ask the following question: “How can the training program be improved?” How can the training program be elevated? Should you continue down the same path, or build on the past and make changes for the better leading into the future. Dr. Ralph Mann, one of the world’s foremost bio mechanists and a former world class 400-meter hurdler, would tell many hurdle coaches that there are three areas which should be of concern that could likely be addressed. Not that these are the only ones, but Mann has identified three major coaching issues regarding the training of sprint hurdlers:

  1. The noted bio mechanist says the importance of the start is too often ignored.
  2. He also says hurdle training has been dominated by sprint training. A notable Mann quote sums this up best: “The hurdles are not a sprint.” Sprint stride lengths are not possible in the hurdles due to standard spacing and restrictions. We have often heard of coaches referring to the men’s strides in the hurdles as a gallop or a shuffle. Not a sprint. They are not true sprinting strides. The only real opportunities to sprint in the short hurdles are the start to the first hurdle, and the sprint to the finish coming off the last hurdle. And most coaches would argue a hurdler can’t even utilize all of their speed in those areas. A hurdler can generate approximately only 75% of their sprint velocity in the hurdle race, according to analysis by Mann.
  3. The mechanics and training of the strides between hurdles and the hurdle clearance stride have been ignored, he said.

Mann’s research has revealed that coaches should address four aspects to develop successful hurdlers:

  1. Minimize the time from start to takeoff to first hurdle.
  2. Minimize hurdle clearance time
  3. Minimize time for the three steps between hurdles

Employ proper mechanics to obtain the most from the hurdle clearance

We have addressed many of the concerns in our sprint hurdle training program that Dr. Mann has outlined in his work and made changes throughout the years. Our objective for this article is to convey to coaches what has “worked” to develop “fast, maximum velocity” short hurdlers at the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND. Will it work for everyone? Likely not. Coaches should never expect to grab another coaches’ training program and copy it verbatim. It doesn’t work that way. The program that Clyde Hart devised for Michael Johnson likely won’t work in your setting with your athletes. Coaches must know the context and adapt any training program to their own environment and athletes. Too many coaches expect to open a book and discover paint by number training programs. We have always felt coaches must always individualize and customize their training programs to meet the needs of their athletes. We haven’t discovered any secrets. There are very few secrets, if any, in training. But what follows in the different sections are items on our training menu that we have used to improve and develop our 100 and 110m hurdlers. Our training is based on research, and science-based principles by some of the leading coaching minds in the world. We have added our own personal artistic touch to make it work in our setting.


Hurdling is not a sprint, as Dr. Mann will tell you. But let’s not kid ourselves. Speed is a critical, crucial factor in successful sprint hurdling. There aren’t any “slow” hurdlers who do well. But some coaches have perhaps been a little overzealous on the sprint side. Some coaching authorities would say there has been a misplaced priority on treating hurdlers as sprinters, opposed to training a substantial percentage of hurdle rhythm. It is imperative to keep this mind: Success in the hurdles is determined by the ability of the athlete to generate great amounts of explosive strength at exactly the correct time—timing is critical.

A Dr. Mann statement that coaches should always keep in mind: “The athlete that can produce the greatest amount of horizontal velocity and maintain it over and between the hurdles will be the most successful.”

To obtain the above horizontal velocity that is needed to be successful sprint hurdler, speed, strength, speed endurance and power must be trained. Much the same as a sprinter. The maximum horizontal velocity that a hurdler can produce is highly dependent on the amount of effective force that they can apply during ground contact. Just as in the sprints, force production is huge component of successful hurdling. There are obviously many commonalities between sprinting and hurdling. Consequently, a coach who does not train hurdlers using many of the sprint mechanics and components of sprint training is doing the athletes a great disservice. They are certainly not meeting the needs of hurdlers to perform at the highest levels.

A critical area that is shared by both the sprinter and the hurdler is front side mechanics. Your best elite sprinters focus their efforts on leg action that takes place in front of the body, thus the name front side mechanics. The same is true of hurdlers as it is for sprinters: Maximize front side mechanics and minimize back side mechanics. An emphasis on front side mechanics is extremely important for the hurdler due to the increased demands for the athlete to project the body over the barrier.

The bio motor qualities such as flexibility, coordination (balance), endurance, speed and explosive strength are all essentially the same for both a hurdler and a sprinter. Coaches should be mindful too, of the fact too that there is a substantial difference between hurdle heights for men and women and it should be trained accordingly. A larger percentage of training time for men in our program is devoted to hurdle rhythm due to the hurdle height than women where the 33” hurdles are much more of a nonfactor.

To answer the frequently asked question of what we train more –speed or hurdle rhythm? Our answer is two-fold. It depends on the gender, and it depends on the athlete and their needs. The reality is, we train a combination of both speed and hurdle rhythm for both males and females.


Many coaching authorities, and certainly Mann, will tell coaches that a substantial percentage of training time should be devoted to hurdle rhythm, or what some coaches term “hurdle speed. What exactly is hurdle rhythm? A definition from the late master Canadian hurdle mentor, Brent McFarlane: “Rhythm is the speed which allows hurdlers to use their techniques to the maximum.”

McFarlane always said that most hurdle authorities place rhythm ahead of sheer speed as their goal for their training programs. The goal of our program is at the University of Mary was to rehearse over and over as many quality repetitions as possible at competition speed—race speeds! The training variables must be manipulated and managed to obtain the competition speeds in every hurdle session where the objective was hurdle speed. Coaches are not meeting the demands of the race if they are not mimicking race speeds in training that their athletes will execute in competition. By no means, however, do we neglect maximum velocity speed. It is a vital component in our training program and works hand in hand with hurdle rhythm.

Some of the strategies that our program uses to achieve the goal of competition hurdle speeds in training:

  1. Speed is a product of specific, rehearsed neurological skill patterns. So are the hurdles. Most coaches will acknowledge there is a 5-10% drop off in intensity in training compared to competition. It is the coach’s job to manage and make allowances in the training environment to establish the race speed motor patterns despite the intensity decrease. One of the best methods is to use discounted spacing and reduced hurdle heights. Discounted spacing for college men can be 8.5-8.8 meters between hurdles. For college women, 7.8-8.3m. Most of our women’s hurdling is done at 30.”The men vary from 33-42 inches. We obviously at times use the standard height of 33” for women and 42” inches for men. Many coaches will argue training with the 42’s forces the male hurdler to clean up and improve their mechanics. We would agree that it can for the more talented athletes. It typically is a detriment for combined events athletes and less talented hurdlers. It is rare we use the standard spacing for either the men or women, except for the first hurdle. Unlike some programs, we rarely if ever change the first hurdle mark. We deem the first hurdle takeoff as too critical to tamper with and the resulting “mental issues” of switching and making corrections. Marks between hurdles will obviously have to be changed and re-coordinated as the season progresses and the athlete improves and becomes faster.
  2. Increased velocity between the hurdles can be trained by moving to 5 steps between hurdles. The distance for men is 13 meters between and 11.5 meters for women.
  3. We very seldom have athletes train over hurdles solo. It is exceedingly difficult train race speeds unless athletes are placed in a competitive situation where they have to compete head-to-head.
  4. Athletes should be basically fatigue free and fully recovered prior to hurdle sessions where the objective is competitive speeds and the coach is training hurdle rhythm. Touchdown times should be very, very closely monitored and the session immediately curtailed if the times begin to drop off. Fewer repetitions with large amounts of recovery that stress quality is the key. Our training philosophy is always quality over quantity. Recovery between hurdle reps can vary from 10-12 minutes or more. Our rule for recovery is 1 minute per hurdle, with the men sometimes receiving more due to the energy requirements of clearing taller hurdles. Our goal is to not exceed 90 minutes per session, with the maximum being two hours. It is always good to remember that athletes can only be stressed at the highest levels for approximately 3 minutes per training session. With that in mind, we always stressed “quality reps” with the goal of reducing velocity fatigue. The old cliché’ is certainly true: “Practice makes perfect only if practiced perfectly. Athletes who practice or learn skills incorrectly are rehearsing skills perfectly wrong. Most coaches understand how difficult and time consuming it is to “undo” poor or inadequate motor patterns.
  5. The optimal speed training environment occurs in races because you eliminate many of the limiting factors that the athlete encounters in training. Competing often and using your competitions as your ideal training ground is an excellent recipe for success. Nothing you can do in training can compare with the benefits you obtain from competition. Some coaches would say too many competitions can cause premature peaks, burnout, and cause the athlete to run fast too soon. We would say peaks and burnout are the result of outside factors other than training and competition. We would also say you can’t run too fast too soon. We would encourage coaches to get their athletes to run fast early and build on it. There is no good reason to “hold back” if the athlete is healthy.
  6. A sizeable percentage of training time is devoted to the start, acceleration training, and the teaching of the proper high velocity sprint mechanics. “Athletes are only as fast as their mechanics will allow,” was a motto we constantly used with our athletes. Our program was in a constant search for improving maximum speed because improvement in that area will enhance acceleration and sub maximal speed. Ultimately, it will improve hurdle speed. And obviously, that was our overall goal.


The challenge that faces short hurdlers is to generate and maintain horizontal velocity while clearing 10 barriers, and recovering from each effort to maximize the three steps in between each hurdle. The hurdler who can produce and maintain the greatest amount of horizontal velocity will be the most successful. The hurdles obviously will cause the athlete to deviate from normal sprint mechanics. And it is imperative that the amount of alternation be minimized, and the front side mechanics maximized.

Of all the mechanical factors, it is the decreasing of the ground time that determines elite performances, according to Mann. He also points out that it is the ground phase that is the only time that an athlete can apply force, and this is when the great hurdle results are produced. Ground time is dependent upon how quickly the hurdler can achieve the ground forces to project the body into and over the hurdle.

To sum it up, success in the hurdles is really determined by decreasing airtime over the barrier and ground contact time going into the barrier. The proper execution of the three steps between the hurdles is crucial to running fast hurdle times. The first step, termed the Fall step and the shortest of the steps, is used to recover from the clearance and control the descending body while maintaining horizontal velocity. It is the second step, called the Shuffle step, which is the longest and sets up the hurdler for the next barrier. It is the only step of the three that can regain or exceed the velocity that was lost in the hurdle clearance. Step three, commonly referred to as the Prep step, is the step that prepares the hurdler to attack the next hurdle clearance in the best possible body position.

The body position of the hurdler coming off the hurdle is extremely important. The athlete must be very balanced, very precise, and very sound mechanically if the athlete is to control the transition from vertical back to horizontal emphasis and prepare for the all-important middle step. This is the most important step and can lead to an inferior performance much more dramatically than the others.

The takeoff position and location in addition to the touchdown distance should be constantly monitored, as they dictate a great deal of success for the hurdler. The objectives of the three steps include:

1. First Step—Stop the fall of the hurdler as they come off the hurdle and prepare for the middle step while maintaining as much horizontal velocity as possible

2. Second Step—Produce the horizontal velocity to regain or exceed what was lost during the hurdle clearance, and generate sufficient vertical effort to create the stride length needed to properly prepare for step 3

3. Step Three—Maintain horizontal velocity while preparing the body position for the next hurdle stride

It is very obvious that a substantial percentage of time should be spent in developing the proper three-step model due to the likelihood of error on the part of the athlete. Some of the major mechanical flaws that we have encountered include: (1) Hurdle clearance issues—too far away or too close on takeoff (2) Balance and arm mechanic problems typically resulting in unwanted, excessive lateral movement and motion (3) Inconsistent takeoff approach (4) Athlete getting out in front of the center of gravity and causing braking effects (5) Reaching and over striding resulting from a failure to maintain horizontal velocity (6) Failure to use arms to maintain hurdle velocity and speed through the hurdle clearance (7) Failure to maintain front side mechanics. (8) Too much airtime on the hurdle clearance due to poor touchdown position, poor body position on top of hurdle, or dropping the center of gravity and one of the body segments being too low when the hurdler reaches the hurdle (9) Diving with the upper body into the hurdle, causing an over rotation of the body. We are just touching on a few of the mechanical issues. That being said, however, it is very clear that poor mechanics can be a very limiting factor. It also is very obvious that mechanics can be an immensely powerful tool if the hurdler places the body in the correct position, at the proper time, in the right direction, and at the correct speed.

There is a reason we have listed hurdle clearance issues as the number one flaw, as it is hurdle clearance that is paramount to success. Three factors coaches should note in the hurdle clearance: (1) The take-off distance affects the angle of travel (2) The angle of travel determines touchdown distance. (3) Distance in landing affects speed to the next hurdle and time to takeoff for the next barrier


Unlike the sprints where all the strides can potentially add to horizontal velocity, only about 40 percent of the total strides in a hurdle race can accomplish that. Our objectives for the start to the first hurdle:

Minimize the time from start to the first hurdle and place the hurdler in a position to have a successful hurdle race.

Reach the correct take-off spot on a very precise, consistent basis with the body in position to execute the mechanics of the hurdle clearance correctly.

Build the highest horizontal velocity possible in a very explosive, but controlled manner to the first hurdle utilizing the proper front side mechanics.

Employ the sprint start mechanics and sprint strides for the first three steps (possibly four for some athletes).

One area that should be addressed is how many steps the hurdler will use to approach the first hurdle. Should the athlete use the standard 8-step model, or the 7-step approach employed by many of the world’s best hurdlers? The 7-step model is certainly not for everyone. The candidate should be a taller, extremely talented athlete with excellent speed. It should be an athlete who is a 13.5 male hurdler or better, or a 12.7 hurdler or better for female hurdlers, according to Dr. Mann. That in itself limits the field considerably. Merely getting to the first hurdle faster should never be the end-goal. The coach should enact the model that allows the athlete a great first hurdle takeoff and clearance, and sets up the race in its entirety to be successful.


A breathing model pattern by the athlete can certainly contribute to the enhancement of sprint rhythm maintenance for the hurdler. The hurdler will establish a specific pattern of breathing in the race, with the hurdler “blowing out” on hurdles 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, and holding the breath the remaining time. The athlete should hold breath in the blocks into the set position. Many elite hurdlers use a pattern of “blowing out” on hurdles 1-4-7-10. Holding your breath creates what is known as the Valsalva maneuver, which research shows increases blood pressure in the carotid artery, facilitating motor unit availability/recruitment. It is important to “recharge the system” because studies have shown that sustained maximum motor firing can last for only approximately 2 ½ seconds and that is in very elite athletes. It also increases intra-cranial blood pressure in the carotid artery, resulting in improvement in the athlete’s ability to recruit motor units. To put it simply, holding your breath increases your ability to put great force into the track. It will likely take many rehearsals by most athletes to perfect the art of breathing to obtain the maximum effects. It is typically wise to invest in a progressive breathing plan, starting with one or two breaths in a race and progressing from there.


There are mixed feelings on the importance of drills. Some coaches feel they are essential. Others, like ourselves, would say drills can be important and immensely useful at times. But it is our feeling that there are a lot of coaches that over drill. We don’t question that drills can be vitally important, especially for men who are faced with clearing 42” barriers. But only meaningful drills that serve an actual purpose, and have the highest degree of transfer to competition should be included on the training menu. Anything else is quite senseless and actually taking away energy that the hurdler will need for far more important training. Ludwig Svoboda, a hurdle coach from the Czech Republic, said it best when he concluded that “many of the common hurdle drills develop a technique that is useless in maximal speed performance. “As Vern Gambetta, a noted training authority who is considered the “Father of Functional Training,” and one-time track and field coach, often says, “Do the things in training that you need to do. Not what is nice to do?” Maximizing energy and organizing the training to obtain the utmost benefits from the amount of energy expended should be the goal of every coach. In other words, cut out the “fluff.” Do drills that are productive and lead the athlete to be “fast.” Period. Our program emphasized a limited number of drills, and they were all fairly simple over the top of the hurdle drills. Most of the slow action drills that isolate one side were removed from our repertoire. Some of the drills that the Mary program found useful with a brief explanation include:

@@Arm Drills Any number of lower hurdles (30’ or lower for women; 36” for men or lower if needed) can be used for this drill at reduced, discounted spacing (28 feet or 8.53 meters for men and 7.0-7.5m meters for women, although spacing is not critically important because the drill is done at very controlled speeds. The drill is misnamed in that the athlete must hurdle at slower speeds without using the arms. There are three versions: 1) Regular Athlete hurdles from a standing start over 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) Medicine Ball Same as 1-3, except the athlete holds a medicine ball extended out in front of them as they clear 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, lateral motion problems. The arm drills are typically done in flats and usually involve no more than 3-4 hurdles.

@@One Step Hurdles From a standing start on the start line, hurdle any number of hurdles spaced so that the hurdler has only 1 step between hurdles. The 1st hurdle can be on the standard mark and others spaced at low heights spaced 12-13 back-to-back steps for both men and women. Coaches will likely have to experiment with the spacing depending on their individual athletes and abilities). The drill teaches athletes to lead with the knee, with a flexed lead leg, projecting the hips through the hurdle, and getting down very quickly with an active trail leg. It is also useful to eliminate the “swinging” of the lead leg. The drill should be done in spikes at controlled speeds, with an emphasis on arm speed and driving through the hurdle. We use anywhere from 4-12 hurdles, increasing the number of hurdles progressively throughout the year. The drill can also be done in shuttle fashion, with hurdles going down, and then the athlete returning in the opposite direction. The arms drills can also be done in shuttle fashion.


It can be particularly challenging for the hurdle coach to set up a program for an athlete that competes in the 100m or 110m hurdles. A lot of coaches know what should be trained. But they do not know how to put it all together into a nice, neat package that meets the needs of their athletes and their training groups. To put it another way, they have all the ingredients, but they don’t have the correct recipe to “bake the cake.”

It can be very difficult to design a training program for a sprint hurdler that includes all the different components and energy training systems that are needed to be successful. Brewing up a mixture of training that prepares the hurdler to negotiate 10 barriers outdoors, and at the same time, train the proper hurdle rhythm can be extremely difficult. Balancing training loads and building recovery into the program that allows for the hurdler to train fatigue-free hurdle rhythm and maximal velocity speed can be a difficult endeavor.

It is widely accepted that the 100m/110m hurdle events have the same energy requirements as the 200 meters. Thus, the coach will be designing and implementing training from all the different energy systems: (1) Speed (2) Speed Endurance (3) Special Endurance 1 (4) Special Endurance 2. Stephen Francis, the famous Jamaican coach, puts it in to perspective when he says, “A female athlete who is looking to run 12.90 in the short hurdles should be capable of running 38 seconds in a 300-meter time trial. That is he said, assuming the athlete can sprint 11.70-12.00 in the 100-meters. Francis went on to say that a hurdler with a goal of 12.3-12.4 should be able to negotiate 300 meters in 36.0. Those are world class times. You will likely have to be drawing from all the different energy systems to achieve those types of performances. It very likely explains why some hurdlers who do very well indoors with five hurdles are not nearly as good when they move to the longer outdoor event that requires more speed endurance. It is indeed a “tall task” to arrive at a program that blends all the needed ingredients into a successful training program for the sprint hurdler. But it is obviously very doable. One needs not look any further than the American and World performance lists to see that many coaches are doing it very well and very successfully.


A hurdler must have a great deal of strength and power to possess the “hurdle endurance” to produce the hurdle rhythm and time for each stage of the 10-hurdle race. The Mary competition in-season strength program emphasized a minimal maintenance program that was based on functional training principles and that did not detour the quality training needed on the track. It was strength training that had a high degree of transfer to the actual explosive movements that the athlete would utilize and need on the track. We also looked at the strength program as an essential tool in injury prevention. A typical week with competition would include only one traditional strength day in the weight room, and as noted, was strictly maintenance. This was supplemented with core training, balance training, resistance work, plyometrics, circuit training, and other forms of functional training. We were firm believers that not all strength and power work had to be done in the weight room. The off-season (Fall training—September through December) was the real time to build strength and power.


The purpose of this article was to share what our program at the University of Mary evolved into as far as developing “fast” hurdlers. I say evolve because it was a constant process of evaluating, adapting and changing the program to meet the needs of our athletes. We noted earlier that the program quite likely would not work for everyone. But with some personal tweaks and modifications, it will work for a lot of coaches and their hurdlers. Coaches will have to understand, as with any training program, it will take patience, time and consistency with the training to obtain high level success. That is typical of any training program that you implement. Coach Gambetta perhaps says it best: “Today everyone desires novelty and constant stimulation. Running around and constantly switching what you are doing from one day to the next is currently what is in vogue. But if what you are after is long-term growth and development, speed and switching just doesn’t work.” In other words, coaches need to develop a training plan and stick with it. Use research, science and practicality to make the necessary changes when needed, and then see it through. Coaches and athletes alike will see results. Remarkable results.


1. Francis, Stephen, Jamaica, Articles

2. Francis, Charlie, The Charlie Francis Training System (E-book)

3. Fyhre, Curtis, University of South Carolina, Clinics, Articles

4. Gambetta, Vern, Gambetta Method, 2nd Edition, 2002, Clinics, Artic les

5. Lindeman, Ralph, US Air Force Academy, Clinics, Articles

6. Mann, Ralph, The Mechanics of Sprinting and Hurdling, 2018 (Written with Amber Murphy)

7. McFarlane, Brent, The Science of Hurdling and Speed, 4th Edition, Canadian Track & Field Association, 2000

8. Vega, Reese, North Dakota State University, Conversations, Information