MINI-HURDLES and 3-5-8 POSTURE
There was a time when I thought I might explore hurdling as an event. I was young and there was no coaching so I dragged hurdles up into school hallways after students had vanished and tried to figure out what to do. I eventually managed to get a copy of the ‘Hurdlers Bible’ by Wilbur Ross and that gave me the one-step and half-hurdle drills. What I also needed was a quick way to measure out hurdle distances in a limited space so that one-step, marching and high knee drills could be navigated without crashing. I would set my distances with footsteps that kept the hurdles at a set distance. It was a trial and error thing where adjusting, pushing over and smacking hurdles lead to a realisation that a pattern was hiding within all my efforts. Then the lightbulb moment: for most of the one-step drills I was using 3, 5, or 8 steps for marching, skipping and running. I realised that for some reason the formula for a spiral series was the pattern I was using. When I went to 8, 13 and 21 steps the three stride variations emerged. I was stunned and awed at the wonder of this finding, and at the same time a bit giddy that I’d stumbled on a dynamic relationship to movement while trying to avoid crashing into hurdles.
Those 3-5-8 patterns remained with me and I use them today with Mini-Hurdles (Agility Hurdles). Even though they are a different animal in terms of equipment, the human animals using them are the same. I use them for all manner of drills that relate to training landing management and dynamic posture. Over the years they have become a staple in programming that helps athletes develop competency and skills from introductory experience to international stages.
Dynamic Posture, I learned from great coaches like Gerard Mach, isn’t related to how we look at a given moment in time but how we stitch movements together into a flow. It’s a quality issue. When movement quality is underdeveloped or erodes we move with compensations. Compensations invariably limit our performance and ultimately result in more compensations, pain and injury. Further to that is the notion that quality of movement is a learned skill. Over time we become smoother, competent and effective.
I work with sports that typically need to use ground reaction forces (GRF) to move. We strike the ground with a certain force and the ground resists that motion in an equal and opposite way. Compare doing a hop on a hard surface in bare feet versus a hop using a spongy mat. On the hard surface we feel the contact and our body will need to learn to handle the impact with a measure of stiffness and compliance so that we can continue hopping without having the legs or body crumple. On the mushy surface the same movements feel different because the cushioning dissipates some of the force we are applying and also alters stability. To hop in the same way we need to either add force or accept that the hops will be less dynamic.
When we are learning to use ground reactions to move more quickly or jump higher we are much like the cushioned mat version when we start. Imbalances and relative weaknesses like an ankle joint that is floppy or a knee that wobbles will keep us from using the ground effectively. If the sequencing of movements from the hips downwards and the feet upwards is inefficient then we look mechanical and rough in our movements; using far more energy than we need to.
Mini-Hurdles, as with the high hurdles, are a way of regulating stride length relative to speed. As hurdles get closer together stride lengths decrease, stride frequencies increase and there is a tendency to lighten the force applied to the ground. With the same movements a wider spacing will lengthen strides and tend to lower frequencies after a certain point. The spacing will also be influenced by the height of the hurdle. With an available range between 15cm and 45cm a higher hurdle will demand more horizontal braking with the same drill in order to clear it. Depending on the task, if an inappropriate height-distance is chosen the athlete may end up learning to overcompensate with knee-foot lifting or overreaching rather than moving with smoothness. So, while 3-5-8 footstep spacing (perhaps their foot size, not mine) may be a good guide for human movement patterns some adjustments up and down may need to occur to satisfy the aims of the exercise with the history of the athletes. The following points are the capsulized versions of what a coach and athlete need to keep in mind if Mini-Hurdles are to become a staple part of the TAKEOFF COACHING training diet.
A. Use a distance-height combination that preserves quality. Rhythm disruptions due to faulty landings and braking become obvious with Mini-Hurdles, including kicking them over… The idea is to develop skills and competencies that influence other sport movements. When drills become fastest, highest, furthest the programme intent has shifted from development to increment.
B. Look for an effective load-unload cycle. Foot contacts have efficient ‘touch-off’ timing when performed correctly. Mini-Hurdle drills will highlight faulty foot contact or stability issues and tend to also help correct them over time; the athlete who kicks hurdles at the beginning of training will be ultra-smooth after a couple of weeks. Further, the athlete needs to unload the tension from the landing while in the air or they will not be able to pre-tense just prior to the next landing. This is also seen as developmental as the athlete acquires a natural flow.
C. Run before you Leap. This statement might seem contrary to typical guidelines for takeoff progressions, but in this case is valid. Mini-Hurdles are set so that athletes learn to conserve some horizontal momentum while maintaining directional rhythm. Running is usually the least challenging of horizontal moves when there are small barriers in the way.
D. Leap before you Hop. For takeoff training I like to use varieties of hopping, bounding and leaping through a series of Mini-Hurdles, but always start with Leaps. Closer spacing and bilateral leaps are a way to bring in more vertical impulse while retaining both stability and momentum. They are a bit like a repetitive depth jumps without a platform to regulate height. Mini-Hurdles are a great way to learn how to hop and bound but require a landing confidence that comes from two-foot landings.
E. Keep It Simple for Safety. While Mini-Hurdles are generally safe and are light, a stumble or faulty landing to avoid kicking them can be catastrophic. Start with straight lines and even spacing formats before looking at patterns and direction changes that may be relevant to your sport. Some coaches like to mix up the distances and hurdle heights, but I feel that those situations are more of a test than a developmental process. If the exercise seems a bit too complicated it is probably unsafe as well.
Regulating stride length and frequency with Mini-Hurdles is a great way to enhance development of Ground Reaction Forces. The equipment is relatively inexpensive and accommodates group situations well. With a mixture of athlete needs and quality assurance combined with imagination these little bits of plastic tubing can become one of the most valuable insertions into a developmental programme you can find.
J. Erik Little