16 January, 2017

Revisiting the 400 m hurdles with a crazy proposal

"Hurdles are there in order to trip you". This aphorism is due to the greek, world junior 1998, and european 2006, 400 m hurdles champion, P. Iakovakis. And it is perfectly true. I do not think that there is any serious hurdler who has never fallen after inadvertently hitting some hurdle. I have already discussed the problems with the high hurdles and how the rules could be modified. In this post I will go back to the question of the 400 m hurdles. On several occasions I did write about the 400 m hurdles devoting a whole post to their special attraction to combined events specialists. Here I will address the thorny question of the proper number of strides. In order to attack all hurdles with the same leading foot the athletes must take an odd number of steps between hurdles. Coming down from the jump of a hurdle does not count, so we are talking about the strides in between including the final one taking the athlete over the hurdle. Commenting the 1932 Olympic final, D. Templeton, athletics coach at Stanford, talks about 17, 16 or 15 strides. Since that time things have evolved.

The typical number of strides for men is 13-15 (and for women 15-17). The magical number for men is 13. For years it was a kind of sacred graal for the men's low hurdles. The first athlete who tried seriously to run the whole 400 m race in 13 strides was the russian athlete (then soviet) Yuriy Lituyev. (He was also a successful decathlete, there is definitely a trend here). He obtained an olympic silver in 1952 behind C. Moore who was using 13 strides up to the 5th hurdle. Observing Moore, Lituyev got the idea to go for 13 strides from start to end. This turned out to be a good choice since in 1953 Lituyev broke G. Hardin's world record with 50.4 s (a record that was only beaten in 1956 by G. Davis with 49.5 s). However Lituyev's technique did not catch on since even a tall athlete like him could not avoid an occasional stumble. It was thus that he lost a european title in 1954 stumbling between the 7th and 8th hurdles, in a race where a below 50" time was possible. (Lituyev finally obtained the european gold in 1958 at the age of 34).    

Yuri Lituyev was also an excellent decathlete

The world had to wait for the arrival of E. Moses in order to celebrate an accomplished 13-strider. In fact, analysing his races one is impressed by the extreme consistency of Moses. He was always running with 19 strides to the first hurdle and 13 strides from 2 to 10. Given his basic speed (he had run an, unofficial, 44.1 in a 4x400 m relay race) it is no wonder that he could dominate the intermediate hurdles arena for over a decade. 

The great Edwin Moses

Of course, not everybody can do what Moses was doing. F. Sanchez won the 2004 olympics (he went on to win the 2012 ones as well) in 47.63 s using 21 strides to the first hurdle, 13 strides from 2 to 5, 14 strides from 6 to 7 and finally 15 strides from 8 to 10. Using an even number of strides means that he had to alternate his leading leg something that asks for special preparation. But Sanchez is a rather short hurdler, just 1.75 m as compared to Moses 1.88 m, and even the fact that he manages part of the race with 13 strides is in itself impressive. An even shorter hurdler is the 2005 world champion B. Jackson, who measures just 1.72 m. His preferred pattern is 21 strides to the first hurdle and 15 strides after that. Running like this he managed an impressive 47.30 s (under awful weather conditions), showing that the outcome of the race does not depend only on the stride length but also on the stride rate. 

Felix Sanchez after his victory in the 2012 Olympics

But perhaps the more astonishing stride pattern is that of the current world record holder K. Young, who ran a blistering 46.78 s to win the 1992 olympic gold medal. His pattern was 20 strides to the first hurdle, 13 strides to hurdles 2 and 3, then 12 (!) strides to hurdles 4 and 5 and finally 13 strides from the 6th hurdle to the end. Young is a very tall athlete, measuring 1.93 m, and this could explain his 12 stride spurt. Was this the secret of his success? I am not sure about this. Let's not forget that Young was a very fast athlete with an (unofficial) 44.4 in a 4x400 m relay race.

Kevin Young, the world record holder

So the question is, what can be done for hurdlers who are not tall enough in order to sustain the 13-stride pace throughout the race. The obvious answer would be to train them so that they can hurdle alternating their leading leg. However this is easier said than done. While a few athletes manage to have an equally correct style with both legs, most of them have a preferred leg. At this point a crazy proposal suggests itself.

What if we let the athletes choose the distances between the hurdles? The only contraint should be that the 10th hurdle be at the same point for everybody, so that the spectators be able to follow what is happening. Apart from this the hurdlers could freely place the ten hurdles where they prefer. This would mean that for those unable to run a 13-stride race they could decide to have a somewhat closer spacing at the beginning with rather easy 13 strides and then space the hurdles further apart so that they could continue with 15 strides. With the modern technology available setting the track would be a mere matter of minutes. This "personalised" set-up would obviously take longer than the current fixed one but still it wouldn't be prohibitively long.Of course, I am aware that my proposal is unrealistic, in particular given the rigid attitude of the IAAF. Still I find it technically interesting and wholly in the spirit of A. Juilland, the crazy proposals of whose have inspired this blog.

Before closing this post I would like to say a word concerning the high hurdles. Apparently no problem exists for the 110 m hurdles: the athletes take precisely three strides between the hurdles. The question in the 110 m is whether the athletes should take 7 or 8 steps to the first hurdle. The traditional approach is 8-steps but gradually athletes, in particular the taller ones, are shifting to a 7-step approach. For women things are not very different. They typically take 9 steps to the first hurdle and then they continue with a three-stride tempo throughout. Of course the distances are not the same for men and women. The inter-hurdle distance is 9.14 m for men and 8.50 for women, in rather fair agreement with the differences in height of the two sexes. On the other hand the distance to the first hurdle is 13 m for women and 13.72 m for men. So, for women the first hurdle is proportionally somewhat further than the one for men, which explains the 9-stride approach. Still I wonder whether tall athletes shouldn't experiment an 8 stride approach. But keep in mind that changing the number of strides by one means that one must change one's position in the starting blocks (since it would be absurd to change the leading leg). But this is not really a big deal. After all we have seen jumpers change their take-off leg, like the double world and olympic champion and second all-time performer C. Taylor. So women hurdlers should give it a try. 

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