Reflections on a change in the height of the hurdles in the women's sprint hurdles event

by Norbert Stein

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(Translated from the original German by Jürgen Schiffer)
 

ABSTRACT

    The women's hurdles for specialists, who are the target group to be dealt with in this article, is considerably depreciated in skill demands when compared to the men's hurdles. It should not be possible in the women's hurdles that the winner is an athlete whose performance in the flat sprint is demonstrably excellent but whose technique of hurdling is only moderate and whose anthropometric characteristics are not optimal. The author concludes that higher hurdles in the women's discipline would lead to a significantly higher importance of technique and would therefore contribute to an upgrading of the event. Because of the necessarily greater lift of the centre of gravity of the body when clearing the hurdle, the technical model would become similar to that of the men and athletes with a better technical training background would have a better chance.

 

    Many years of experience as a coach in the specialty of women's sprint hurdles have led me to write this article. My views have been shaped by numerous discussions with female athletes of all performance categories as well as the exchange of ideas with other coaches from within Germany and from abroad. Observation of national and international development and current level of performance in this event have also contributed to my perspective. What I am going to say should not be regarded as a scientific analysis of the problem. Such an analysis would require a lot of specific comparative data, which is not available at the moment. My intention instead is to deal once again with a problem which has been ignored for a consider- able time.

Gymboss Timers

The problem

    The hurdles sprint as a "compulsion run" is characterised by the fact that, according to the competition rules, the athletes have to run over six to ten hurdles which are placed at defined spacings from one another and whose height varies between men and women and between the different age categories. The major objective is to co-ordinate one's individual maximum sprinting ability within these fixed distances.
    From an objective, biomechanical point of view, it must be stated that a lot of female athletes who are successful at national and international level fall well short of exhibiting "optimal technique" of hurdle clearance. Another sign of this is the variety of technique models which are used in the women's hurdles - some of which are very different from one another. This does not apply to the men's hurdles. In this con- text one very often gets the impression that the athletes and their coaches are looking for "fashionable trends" instead of sound solutions which have been tailored to the athlete's particular needs. This is particularly the case in the training of young athletes when often the focus is on the blind copying of a technique which appears to be successful. When, in spite of all this, the athlete achieves excellent performances, the success can be explained by very good sprinting performances and not by the level of technical skill, which according to most text- books is of minor importance for female athletes anyway.
    All this means that the women's hurdles for specialists, who are the target group to be dealt with in this discussion, is considerably depreciated in skill demands when compared to the men's hurdles. It should not be possible in the women's hurdles that the winner is an athlete whose performance in the flat sprint is demonstrably excellent but whose technique of hurdling is only moderate and whose anthropometric characteristics are not optimal. This was the case at the World Championships in Seville and the same problem can often be seen at international and national meetings.


History

    In the men's hurdles almost nothing has changed since the 19th century. The hurdle height of 1.06m (which corresponds to 3 English feet; which was the height of the standardised sheep hurdles used in sheep-farming), the spacings of 9.14m (ten yards) and the length of the whole event (which has only slightly changed from 120 yards/109.98m in the past to 110m today) have always made this event a demanding core exercise of athletics.
    The development of the women's hurdles was different as it was introduced much later and, reflecting the sparing attitude towards women which prevailed at that time, the height of the hurdles was set at only 0.762m. The spacings between the hurdles were 8m and the length of the event was only 80m (8 hurdles). It took a relatively long time before the 100m hurdles distance and the hurdle height of 0.84cm were introduced. At that point time came to a stand-still so that, as far as the height of the hurdles is concerned, we still have to deal with a relic from days long past where the athletic abilities of women were underestimated.
Prospects
    My thoughts are not new. Only a few years ago the problem was pointed out and proposals for possible solutions were made but without success and without the recognisable intention to change the corresponding competition rules.
    In order to give further dynamic impetus to women's athletics, to reserve the hurdles sprint (60m and 100m hurdles) primarily for specialists and to make the event more attractive by increasing its demands, it is high time to raise the height of the hurdles to O.914cm, with the spacings between the hurdles remaining the same. This would be in line with the principles of a modern development of women's athletics, typical characteristics of which are the introduction of physically and technically demanding events such as the pole vault, the triple jump and the hammer throw and their inclusion into the Olympic programme. However, it would be worthwhile to think about maintaining the current hurdles height in the heptathlon.


Facts

    In the male sector of the sport there is a continuous rise in the hurdle height with increasing age from the child categories through the age groups up to senior men (see Table 1), but with women this development comes to an end when the "A" youth category (18/19 years) has been reached. The possible argument that the physical development of girls comes to an end at an earlier time so that a further increase of the hurdles height after leaving the youth category would be superfluous is not tenable in view of the actual relation between body height/leg length and hurdle height. Taking into consideration the sometimes considerable deviations from the norm both for men and women, the fact remains that with the women the relation between the height of the hurdles and the mean leg length is considerably smaller.

 


    It is a fact, too, that sprinting ability has an over-proportional significance for the hurdles performance both at international level and in the transition from national to international level. At the international level only athletes showing an above average (special) sprinting ability have the chance to challenge the top athletes (see Table 2). This sprinting ability must not just reflect itself in the flat sprinting performance achieved under competitive conditions. Although in general the fact that the women's hurdle race is mainly oriented towards the sprint must be accepted, the role of the technical component within the spectrum of the total event- specific demand profile is too small at the moment.

 


    It was certainly justified in 1984 to change the rules in the youth category in Germany with the goal to require and promote the sprinting character of the event at an earlier stage. Since that time even female "B" youth athletes (16/17 years) had to run over hurdles placed at a distance of 8.50m. The young ladies when leaving the "A" youth category (18/19 years) should have learned to manage the specific demands of these competition distances. When, at the age of 18/19, they have learned to run over the height of 84cm, - which is not difficult - and they have had enough time for the development of the specific movement pat- tern, they should be ready to speed up the technical development in addition to the sprinting quality.
    It is still remarkable that all young female hurdle sprinters from Germany cut a good figure technically when compared internationally. However, in the past hardly any of these athletes managed to develop further at a corresponding level or were successful in making the transition into international class at senior level. What are the reasons for this? Considering the orientation of the training methods in Germany the reason is not necessarily a lack of technical training. It is a well-known fact that in Germany this kind of training is much more intensive than in the USA. However, on the other hand the conclusion that there was simply nothing else to do but learning to sprint would be too simple. Although, in my opinion, adequate measures are taken in this respect, too, it is difficult to keep up with the sprinting values demonstrated at international level. I do not want to speculate here about the reasons for this. However, it should be noted that the German men are able to keep up with the best hurdlers in the world although in the men's hurdles the technical demands are higher.
    Finally, it should be mentioned that in the past the "low" demands in the women's hurdles as far as hurdle height is concerned often led to the fact that in competitions a lot of athletes did not show the necessary aggressiveness. A "defensive" approach to running over the hurdles, which can often be observed in the age group categories, thus continues into the women's category. A specific indication of this is the fact that a lot of female hurdlers tend to give up the race too early if they touch the hurdles, which can be painful sometimes. 

 

Consequences

  1. Higher hurdles in the women's discipline would lead to a significantly higher importance of technique and would therefore contribute to an upgrading of the event.
  2. Because of the necessarily greater lift of the centre of gravity of the body when clearing the hurdle, the technical model would become similar to that of the men (e.g. as far as the posture of the upper body is concerned). In this context different biomechanical aspects should be dealt with in order to clarify the effects of the rule change on the hurdle sprint behaviour. Some of these aspects would be hurdle contact times, the push-off and landing forces, the distances of the push-off and landing points to the hurdle and their effects on the stride pattern, the lift of the centre of gravity as well as the velocity losses in front of and behind the hurdle.
  3. Since the "new" demand profile would be more related to technical aspects, athletes with a better technical training background would have a better chance. Thus the sprint hurdles event would be no longer an "offshoot" of the flat sprint.
  4. In any case, the development of speed would remain a decisive training-methodical parameter, although the focus would change to hurdle-specific speed. Just as in the men's event, one can expect that the focus would be more on the special, rhythm-related stride rate than on the development of stride length which is of equal significance in the flat sprint.
  5. Higher hurdles would definitely not lead to a completely new type of hurdle sprinter. However, apart from a marked level of specific strength, very good speed and reactive strength abilities, co-ordination ability at a high level and above average flexibility, psychological characteristics such as courage, mobilisation and concentration ability must be brought into a balanced relationship.
  6. Although the unpleasant topic of illegal performance manipulation would certainly not be abolished by increasing the height of the hurdles, a greater number of female athletes would be able to compete at international level. So long as their physical prerequisites are of a sufficiently high level, these athletes could prepare and present themselves on the basis of a systematic training build-up, great diligence in training and a perfect hurdles technique.
  7. Perhaps the proposed change of the rules would lead to the effect of a greater consideration of the (hurdle-specific) basic training and a well-timed specialisation. Such a tendency would be very desirable as a means to promote the hurdle sprint as a "key event" in age group athletics which would have a positive effect on other events (such as the flat sprint).
  8. Unlike other adaptations in the past (e.g. in the javelin throw), a change in the height of the hurdles would not cause great organisational difficulties.


    The author has been Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Athletics at the German Sport University Cologne for 20 years. He is a successful coach of female hurdle sprinters in the German Athletic Federation. As IAAF Lecturer he has conducted several courses and High Level seminars on sprints and hurdles.
 

Published in IAAF New Studies in Athletics 2.00


 

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