Track Coach

Training Top Level 400-meter Hurdlers

By Mike Thorson, Former Director of Track & Field/Cross Country @ the University of Mary (ND)

Some tips for training 400m hurdlers.

The 400-meter hurdles are considered one of the more demanding, difficult, and challenging events in track & field. There is no other event that requires an athlete to perform difficult technical skills while in anaerobic distress like the 400-meter hurdles. It is also an event that has a huge margin for error. Curtis Frye, the University of South Carolina coach, characterized the 400-meter hurdles best when he said, “To compete in the event, you have to be a long jumper, a high jumper, with the ability to train like an 800-meter runner, and have enough fast twitch to train like a sprinter.” With that thought in mind, it is only natural that it can be quite demanding for a coach to design and implement successful training programs for top level 400-meter hurdlers.

The objective of this article is to illustrate the training, techniques and concepts that led to success for our long hurdlers at U Mary. Our training program was designed and customized to meet the needs of the Mary one-lap hurdlers in their own particular setting and training environment. Although many of the concepts and components will work in nearly all programs, it would most certainly need to be tailored (as all training programs do) to meet the demands of other athletes, programs, and environments. This article will specifically detail our 400-meter hurdle training principles. It will also include other training considerations, as well as key workouts and a sample training week.

1. The long hurdler must be trained to run an excellent open 400 meters. The race management skills that a 400-meter runner utilizes also must be employed by the 400-meter hurdler.

#The best way to improve performance in the 400 hurdles is to improve fatigue velocity.

#The coach and athlete must understand that the one lap hurdle race is a 400 meter sprint that includes 10 hurdles. Adding the hurdles to the 400-meter equation totally changes the dynamic, but it is still a one-lap race and athletes must be prepared accordingly.

2. Technical hurdle skills and mechanics must be trained using both legs.

# The hurdler must be trained to alternate legs. “The most valuable skill you can teach a developing hurdler is the ability to alternate lead legs over consecutive hurdles,” according to the late Ralph Lindeman from the Air Force Academy, a coach who was a noted hurdle authority.

# The hurdler should be directed to hurdle in training with the non-preferred or secondary leg, so that they are prepared to execute both in competition. Too many coaches allow their hurdlers to rely on the preferred leg in training, and it typically comes back to haunt them in competition.

# Inefficient hurdle mechanics waste valuable energy resources that are needed in the event and are responsible for unneeded braking forces. Technical hurdle skills should be trained on a consistent basis throughout the year.

# One of our basic coaching cues to our 400 hurdlers was to lead with the knee and accelerate the last several strides into the hurdle. The goal is to negotiate the hurdle with the least amount of deviation from the sprint stride.

3. The 400-hurdler must be trained as a sprinter and there must be a steady diet of sprint mechanics.

# Front-side mechanics should be maximized, and back-side mechanics minimized. Just as in the sprints and short hurdle races, an excellent indicator of how well the athlete is shifting his movements toward the front of the body is the amount of knee separation on touchdown.

# One of the best methods to improve non-fatigue velocity for long hurdlers is to improve maximum velocity in the short sprints. Enhancing maximum speed improves both sub-maximum speed and acceleration. As hurdle/sprint coach Gary Winckler always said, “A 400-hurdle coach should be consistently building a better sprinter.”

# Acceleration mechanics and drills should be a fixture on the training menu for 400 hurdlers.

# A large percentage of training time should be devoted to sprint mechanics. This is an area that is under-coached at all levels, according to Winckler. The former University of Illinois and Florida State coach goes on to say that the longer the event, the more steps it will require to cover the distance. It stands to reason, he says, that the more efficient the runner can be with each step, there will be a higher likelihood of improvement, efficiency and performance.

# Minimizing ground time is a major factor in producing fast 400-hurdle times and maintaining the needed higher levels of horizontal velocity. This obviously requires a large amount of strength and energy and results in a compromise between balancing speed in the 400-meter race with available speed endurance.

4. The athlete must be trained to hurdle and maintain focus in a fatigued state.

#  Hurdling in a fatigued state can be extremely challenging and the athlete must experience this in training to develop the coping skills that will be needed in competition.

# A sizable portion of the fatigue-based training should be completed over combinations of hurdles at hurdle tempo pace instead of sprint tempo. Fatigue-based training should include a great deal of training over different combinations of hurdles that include the athlete running not only at the desired stride pattern, but making the transition to the alternate stride patterns as well. Replicating in training the stride patterns that will be enacted in competition is central to success in the long hurdle race.

# The 400 hurdler must be trained to make adjustments/ decisions and not be distracted by forced changes in stride pattern due to any number of uncontrollable factors. Concentration and the ability to maintain focus are characteristics of great intermediate hurdlers.

5. Athletes must have a prearranged, rehearsed race plan and strategies for how they will manage the race and make the needed transitions.

# 400 hurdlers must possess excellent kinesthetic abilities in order to modify and adapt their stride pattern based on weather, lane assignment and technical issues.

# There are many types of race models and stride patterns that can be implemented. A stride pattern of 13 strides between hurdles for men and 15 for women is commonly used by elite long hurdlers. The pattern typically transitions to 14 and 16, respectively, as the athlete fatigues and the hurdler begins to alternate, normally between the sixth and seventh hurdlers for high level performers. The transition could be hurdle 5 or 6 for less experienced hurdlers. It is certainly better to have a planned program transition than a “forced” transition. There are many types of patterns and race models that can be used by elite hurdlers. Several examples that demonstrate this: former world record holder Kevin Young used the following pattern when he ran 46.78 to win the 1992 Olympic gold: 20 strides to the first hurdle, 13 strides to 2-3, 12 strides to 4-5, and 13 strides to 6-10. Olympic silver medalist, Rai Benjamin of the USA uses a right-leg lead 13-stride pattern. As does Karsten Warholm, the men’s world record holder at 45.94. Dalilah Muhammad of the USA, the gold medalist in the 400 hurdles at Rio, used 15 strides for hurdles 1-8 and 16 strides for 9 and 10 when she set a women’s world record in 2019.

# 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 barriers with the same left leg.

# An 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 on the corners 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 a left leg lead and have the ability to alternate when factors such as fatigue and weather dictate.

# The following information 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

# Race Distribution: A relatively even-paced race model is the most efficient manner to run the intermediate hurdle race. Both the athlete and coach must understand this. A coach can effectively monitor this using touchdown times. These can be recorded and then reviewed and analyzed in a debriefing with the athlete, using 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. We always advocate, however, a fairly fast start. But with a healthy dose of realism. There is no need to go out in 24.25 for the first 200 meters like Sydney McLaughlin did in her world record 50.68 clocking at the World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, if you are a female running 61 second 400-meter hurdle times. Hurdle 4 is the 150-meter mark in the 400-hurdle race and an excellent checkmark.

# A hurdler must make stride adjustments well in advance of the hurdle and not in the last few strides to the barrier. Last second adjustments and modifications typically result in poor hurdle clearance and a failure to maintain a smooth running rhythm and the correct stride pattern.

6. A very consistent approach and stride pattern to the first hurdle is vitally important and must be rehearsed repeatedly.

# The acceleration and stride pattern to the first hurdle is important to establish the proper rhythm and stride pattern between hurdles. The first hurdle approach and clearance sets the tone for the entire race. We always emphasize to our hurdlers the importance of establishing the proper rhythm to hurdles 1-2, with success over the first two hurdles typically resulting in an excellent performance for a well prepared athlete.

# 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 an even number of strides to the first hurdle. The lead leg will be in the front block if the hurdler uses an uneven or odd number of strides.

# Both the coach and the athlete should be alert to the fact that a well-rested athlete can eliminate an entire stride to the first hurdle. A wind at the back of the hurdler or an athlete who is very energized and “highly aroused” in a high-level competition can also eliminate a stride. I have also seen athletes that had to add a stride due to wind or a poor start.

# 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.

Key Workouts

We are always reluctant to share training because of “monkey-see, monkey-do” coaches and their lack of context, but we have listed several workouts that have worked well for our 400 hurdlers throughout the years. The goal for all our training sessions is to have a positive experience; a positive outcome that leads to success in competitions.

  1. 1 x 350m @ Race Pace w/ spikes with Hurdles 1-4 (15 minutes recovery); 2 x 300m @ 98% w/spikes (10-12 minutes recovery)
  2. Flying 30’s w/spikes followed by 1 x 300m @ 98% w/spikes (10 minutes recovery) 2 x 3 x 200m w/flats@ 85% (2 minutes recovery/4 minutes recovery for set) High Volume Workout (High for our program because we are very low volume): 1500m (Should likely be done in a period where there are no meets to prepare for)
  3. Flying 30’s w/spikes followed by 1 x 300m @ Race Pace w/spikes with Hurdles 1-5 or random if indoors (12-15 minutes recovery) 2 x 300m @ 85% w/flats (5 minutes recovery)
  4. 1 x 350m @ 90% w/spikes (12 minutes recovery) 1 x 200m @ 95% w/spikes (10 minutes recovery) 1 x 200m w/spikes @ Race Pace w /Hurdles 1-2
  5. In & Outs w/spikes followed by 1 x 350m @98% w/spikes (12-15 minutes recovery) 3 x 150m @ Race Pace w/ Hurdles 1-2 (4-5 minutes recovery) Workout can be done by running hurdles 8-9-10 and finish as well instead of running Hurdles 1-2
  6. 1 x 300m @ Race Pace w/spikes w/ Hurdles 1-5 (12-15 minutes recovery) 1 x 300m @ 98% w/spikes
  7. Hurdle 1 x 3 from start@ Race Pace followed by 1 x 350m @ 90% w/spikes(12 minutes recovery) 1 x 250m @ 95% w/spikes (10 minutes ) 1 x 150m @ 98% (Progressive Workout where intensity increases each interval)
  8. Flying 30’s w/spikes followed by 1 x 350 @ Race Pace w/spikes w/ Hurdles 1-6 (15 minutes recovery) 1 x 300m @98% w/spikes (12 minutes recovery) 2 x 150m @ Race Pace w/spikes w/ Hurdles 1-2 or hurdles 8 & 9 (5-6 minutes recovery)
  9. 1 x 150m @ Race Pace w/spikes w/ Hurdles 1-2 (6 minutes recovery) 1 x 200m @ Race Pace w/spikes w/ Hurdles 1-3 (10 minutes recovery) 1 x 300m @ Race Pace w/spikes w/ Hurdles 1. Can modify and do Hurdles 6-10

Sample Training Week 29—April 3-9

Although training should always be viewed in context, customized, and tailored to meet the individual needs of the athlete, we have offered a glimpse into one of our actual training weeks used in the competition portion of the season. It is an outdoor weekly schedule for a female who competed in both hurdle events.

Monday, April 3—1 x 350m w/spikes @98% (15 minutes recovery) 2 x 200m w/spikes @ 98% (8-10 minutes recovery ) 1 x 150m w/spikes @ 98%

Tuesday, April 4—100m Hurdle Technique w/Flying 20’s incorporated into session

Wednesday, April 5—1 x 350m-300m w/spikes @ 98% (15 minutes recovery ) 350m w/ Hurdles 1-2 & 8 @ race pace

Thursday, April 6—100m and 400m hurdle technique work (light)

Friday, April 7—Pre-Meet Warm-up, Relay Exchanges

Saturday, April 8Bortke Open, Bismarck ND (Bowl)

Sunday, April 9—Recovery– Warmup on own, Stationary Bike or Elliptical —15 minutes steady pace


1. As stated earlier, one of the best ways to improve the 400-meter hurdler is to improve maximum velocity. The ability to generate short sprint velocity is critical to success in the 400 hurdles. Unfortunately, pure speed training is often neglected in the training of long hurdlers, especially if the hurdler does not do the sprint hurdles. We certainly didn’t require our hurdlers to do both hurdle events like some coaches do. Regardless, the goal of coaches should be to train absolute speed and activate the CNS as frequently as possible. We have always emphasized in our training programs that speed should always be trained concurrently with the other energy systems. Although some coaches hesitate to combine energy systems, there is no reason to not train different energy systems in one session if you want to utilize time and energy to the utmost. We did that very successfully for many years. Some examples of combined energy system training: 1. 4 x Flying 30m w/spikes (4-5 minutes recovery between 30’s) (8-10 minutes recovery following 30’s) 3 x 150m w/spikes @ 98% (6 minutes recovery) 2. 3 x 40m from Blocks (4-5 minutes recovery /rep) (10 minutes recovery) 1 x 350m @ 98% w/spikes. I was guilty of not training enough pure speed until midway through my career. Coaches are reminded too that acceleration is not pure speed. That was another mistake I made as a young coach—mistaking acceleration work for absolute speed.

2. 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 any technical errors. Long hurdlers who do not compete in the sprint hurdles can and should train most of the same drills as 100m/110m hurdlers. We had a lot of long hurdlers who did not do the sprint hurdles at Mary, but they certainly were trained with many of the same drills and principles as the hurdlers in the 100 and 110m hurdles. It has long been our belief, however, that many coaches overdrill. Not that some drills can’t be critically important, but needless hurdle drills that do not transfer to competition should not be included.

3. Hurdle volumes can be much higher in weeks when there are no competitions scheduled. They should decrease as the season progresses, especially as the training cycle moves into the championship season.

4. The number of hurdles to be included in the interval sessions can be increased or decreased depending on the needs of the individual athlete and the training area—indoors or outdoors. The spacing can also be altered depending on the training facility and size of the indoor track. The standard spacing of 35 meters should obviously, however, be employed as much as possible and is certainly very doable with many facilities now having a 300-meter track. Coaches who maintain it is nearly impossible to train on a 200-meter track need to be more creative. Our 400 hurdlers were faced with training on a tight 160-meter indoor oval for most of my tenure at Mary.

5. Train all segments of the race. Many coaches stress the first hurdle and first 200 meters, but neglect the all-important second half of the race.

6. There is no substitute for actual experience for the athlete who competes in the 400-hurdles. Most coaches can agree it is exceedingly difficult to mimic the 400-hurdle race in training. Thus, the more frequently the athlete can compete in an actual race, the more efficient the stride pattern will become and more comfortable the hurdler will be with the overall race model. The best training for the 400 hurdles is competition. The biggest limiting factor for our 400 hurdlers was the weather that they faced in the Upper Midwest. We often did not move outdoors until the end of March, sometimes later. Several times we arrived in California for an early spring meet the first part of April without having been outdoors and our hurdlers were faced with competing over the full 10 hurdles for the first time. We did, however, do a great more 400-hurdle work indoors than most programs.

7. Recovery is a critical component that coaches need to address for the 400 hurdler, especially if the athlete is a dual hurdler. The training demands for the hurdler require built-in recovery in the athlete’s training schedule.

8. Post-race analysis between the athlete and coach, video and the use of touchdown times and charts are of paramount importance in the success of the 400-meter hurdler.

9. Flexibility is a component that must be trained. Increased flexibility will decrease muscle resistance and allow easier movement throughout the range of motion. Often as coaches we engage in training that decreases flexibility and elasticity. Flexibility must be trained on a consistent basis.

10. I am often asked about strength training and what we did during my tenure at the University of Mary. We had a remarkably simple program. So, an easy, simple answer. We had a very traditional strength program administered by our strength and conditioning staff in the fall and through December and the beginning of meets. A minimal maintenance program based on functional strength and personalized to meet the needs of the individual athlete, emphasizing plyometrics, medicine ball circuits, etc. was the primary focus in-season. The end goal for our strength training: Strength must translate to power for the hurdler!

11. Speaking of simple, simplicity is something we always advocated in our training programs. Many coaches make the 400 hurdles much more complicated than needs be. I have seen the long hurdles both under-coached and over-coached. Over-coached may be worse, as it typically overwhelms the athlete. I like a quote from Curtis Tyrone Jones, the author of “Guru in the Grass.” He says, “Wise is the one who learns to dumb it down.” Well said. Keep it simple! The same can be said for coaches who feel everything has to be hard. “It doesn’t have to be hard to be good,” says Vern Gambetta, a former track and field coach and one of the leading training authorities in the world.

12. Long-term planning of an athlete’s development in the training process is one of the most difficult tasks a coach will face. Coaches are always seeking the optimal training plan for their athlete, but it is critical to keep the big picture in mind. Reece Vega, a highly successful sprint/hurdle coach from North Dakota State University and a coach I worked with at Mary, had a good reply when I asked him if he coached men and women 400 hurdlers differently. “I wouldn’t say I coach women differently than men, but I coach freshmen differently than I coach seniors,” said the third- year NDSU coach. We always told our Mary athletes if they are still doing the same training as a senior as they did as a freshman, we have a serious problem, either with the coach or the athlete. An athlete must evolve and progress in their training as they mature if they are to be truly successful. A Vern Gambetta quote that is very appropriate here: “Training needs to be progressive, sequential and systematic.”

13. One of our primary goals for 400-meter hurdle training: Training should mirror performance. A great quote from retired, legendary Texas A & M coach Vince Anderson: “Training should look like the performance.”


A recurring theme throughout my coaching career was a constant search for new training methodologies that would propel our athletes to be faster and allow them to continue to improve. I like the phrase coined by former Colorado distance coach and author Jay Johnson when he talks about improving: “If you want to do things you’ve never done before, you have to do things you have never done before.” There was always something right around the corner that we felt could do. No big, deep, dark secrets. But something concrete and tangible in the training world. We just had to find it, and more importantly, be open to change. Meaningful change, or “purposeful change,” as Vern Gambetta says. That isn’t always easy. Change can be painful. Uncomfortable. Not just in coaching, but in all walks of life.

Change wasn’t easy for me, but it is a must if a coach is to continue to evolve and improve and optimize training programs for his athletes. Ongoing learning and improvement as a coach never really stops. Not for the great coaches anyway. James Clear, the author of a best-selling book entitled Atomic Habits, sheds some light on this with the following thought: “The gift of a beginner is fresh eyes. The longer you are in a field, the harder it is to perceive new truths. Your mind is biased toward refining what you already are doing instead of exploring new terrain. Take your expertise and apply it to something else.”

We understand that all coaches have their own unique methods and ways of training one-lap hurdlers. This article has offered our perspective as to what has worked for our program and our hurdlers at our university. We hope it will provide useful information, insight, guidance, and invoke coaches to challenge themselves in their quest and continuing journey to enhance and refine their training regimens for their 400-meter hurdlers.


1. Anderson, Vince, formerly of Texas A & M, articles, clinics

2. Frye, Curtis, University of South Carolina, clinics, articles

3. Gambetta, Vern, Vern Gambetta Blogs, Gambetta Sports Training Systems

4. Lindemann, Ralph, US Air Force Academy, Clinics, Articles

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

6. Sherman, Amelia, former assistant coach at the University of Mary, editing, conversations, information

7. Silvey, Steve, World Class Elite Hurdling Training Program, 1999, Clinics

8. Vega, Reece, North Dakota State University, Conversations

9. Winckler, Gary, University of Illinois, Clinics, Conversations, Articles