In higher levels of track and field, hurdlers typically specialize in either the high-hurdle sprint events (60, 100 or 110 meters), or the longer, low-hurdles races (300 or 400 meters). On youth, high school or even college teams, however, some athletes run both the sprint and longer hurdles events. It’s important for those hurdlers to remember that sprint hurdles technique is different from 300- or 400-meter hurdles technique. The following contrast between the two hurdles events is based on a presentation given by Olympic hurdler Tonie Campbell, given at the 2015 Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association’s annual coaching clinic.
Hurdlers must understand the rhythm of the dance – in other words, the required pace of their event. The rhythm of the high hurdles is very quick. With a shorter race – whether it’s 60, 100 or 110 meters – and with only three steps between the hurdles, you must get you feet back on the track quickly after each hurdle, and push as hard as you can for the entire race.
Read more about sprint hurdles technique
The rhythm for the 300- or 400-meter hurdles is totally different than the sprint hurdles. In the longer hurdles races, the pace is slower, and you don’t snap your feet back to the track as quickly as possible after clearing each hurdle. Why wouldn't you want to get up and down in the long hurdles races as quickly as possible? Because you'd tire out. Also, a quick pace affects your ability to have long strides. The least amount of steps you can take in the 400 hurdles race is probably best. If you come down quickly off of the hurdles, using the sprint hurdles technique, you’re going to probably take 17, 18 or 19 steps in between the hurdles, when you probably could be at 15, 16 or 17 steps.
Obviously, with nine spaces between the barriers, you’re adding an awful lot of steps. So in the longer hurdles events, it's all about maximizing your stride potential, maximizing your stride length. In the short hurdles, it's getting the battle to the ground. The battle is won on the ground, by sprinting quickly.
To expand on the dance metaphor, you don't bring a waltz tempo to a hip-hop dance, or vice versa. You'll look kind of funny out there. It’s the same thing in the hurdles. You don't bring that slow rhythm to the sprint hurdles, and you don't take the fast rhythm to the longer hurdles.
Practice Different Hurdles Events on Separate Days
With these different rhythms in mind, you don’t want to practice the shorter and longer hurdles races on the same day. This is what coaches call “contamination theory.” In the hurdles, coaches must teach athletes to have two separate personalities, two separate thought patterns. There is a whole different style of running in the long hurdles than there is in running the short hurdles. When you're talking about takeoff and landing distances, for example, in the long hurdles, it’s long – takeoff is longer and landing is longer. And the peak of the hurdle flight is longer. In the high hurdles, you take a steeper path – you rise quickly and descend quickly. And that applies to both women and men.
Also, a hurdler may use a high attack – raising the knee of the trail leg higher than the ankle – in the sprint hurdles, but might sweep the trail leg – keeping the knee and the ankle about even – in the long hurdles. Athletes must learn that there are two different ways of going over a hurdle. Hurdlers can still use a high attack in the longer races, but should understand that the knee is likely to drop at the later hurdles, due to fatigue. That’s all right, as long as the hurdler doesn’t take a dangerous, low attack, with the trail leg’s knee dropping lower than the ankle.