From sprint races through the marathon and beyond, running is one the most elemental and instinctive of human movements. The musculoskeletal structure has evolved to permit power and efficiency in the body as it runs forward or backward. Running as fast as is possible, at any distance, is a demanding athletic goal.
Running the hurdles is the most difficult and the most technically challenging form of running because it involves both the athletic ability to generate muscle power and the science of integrating the speed of maximum forward movement with the efficient grace necessary to clear the hurdles. The elite hurdler has evolved in the past 100 years from a pure sprinter to an accomplished technician.
Hurdling is an ancient sport that was given prominence through its inclusion in the first modern Olympics in 1896; the rules on the competition are simple. Portable barriers are erected at predetermined locations on the track; the runner who reaches the finish line first after clearing the hurdles is the victor. Each runner must remain entirely within his or her own assigned lane of the track, and any interference with the efforts of another competitor will result in disqualification. A runner is not obligated to successfully jump over every one of the hurdles, and it is common for one or more hurdles to be struck by the athlete during the course of a race; the athlete must not deliberately knock down a hurdle or he or she will be disqualified.
In outdoor hurdles races, a variety of distances may be contested; the most common are the 110 m, 200 m, and 400 m distances for men, while women race the 100 m and 400 m hurdles. Sixty meters is the most common indoor distance. In the sprint hurdles (races 200 m and under), the barrier is 42 in (1.2 m) high for men, and 33 in (0.8 m) for women; for the 400 m distance, the respective hurdle heights are 36 in (0.9 m) and 30 in (0.75 m). It is a testament to the difficulty of the hurdles that both the men's decathlon and the women's heptathlon include the hurdles as a component in competition; each is universally regarded as determinative of the title "world's greatest athlete."
All hurdles races begin with a traditional sprint start from the starting blocks. The same techniques employed by a conventional sprinter are those used by the hurdler, each emphasizing an explosive drive with the legs pushed against the fixed starting blocks, with the hips positioned above the hurdler's shoulders in the starting crouch.
Explosive power and reaction to the starter's pistol are of primary importance to the athlete. Hurdlers develop the physical abilities to achieve a strong start by the use of plyometrics exercises, repeat start training (where the starts are practiced in an interval fashion), and similar combinations of power and speed. The hurdler has other considerations that must be built into start training. In the sprint hurdles, the hurdler must plan from the position in the blocks how to run the first hurdle, fixed 15 yd (13.7 m) away, at full speed. In the 400 m hurdles, the first barrier is positioned 49.5 yd (45 m) from the starting blocks.
Hurdlers coordinate their start by determining which leg will be the first leg over the first barrier; the first leg is defined as the lead leg, and the second leg the trail leg. Through practice, the hurdler will know precisely how many strides he or she will take to travel from the starting blocks to the first hurdle; the hurdler will start with the lead leg positioned furthest back in the blocks to ensure the necessary pattern of strides culminating with the predetermined lead leg first over the first hurdle.
To achieve maximum running efficiency, the typical hurdler will take three strides between each sprint hurdle; as a general rule, given that all hurdlers at an elite level have excellent sprinting speed, the more efficient the runner and the fewer strides between hurdles, the more likely the success of the athlete.
The 400-m hurdles is generally regarded as one of the most difficult of races, as it combines the demands of the longest of the sprints with the necessary hurdling skill. The hurdles are spaced farther apart in the 400 m event than in the shorter distances, but the principles of efficiency and economy of stride remain the same. An elite international male hurdler will train to take between 13 and 15 strides between each of the 400 m hurdles; arguably, the greatest of these athletes, Edwin Moses of the United States, two-time Olympic champion who won over 100 consecutive international 400 m hurdles events between 1976 and 1987, raced taking 12 strides between the hurdles.
Hurdlers describe successful racing to require "attacking" the hurdles. The attack is the conversion of sprinting speed into fluid movement over the barrier; too high over the hurdle, and precious time is lost, and too low an approach to the barrier will result in contact with the hurdle and a disruption of the athlete's rhythm.
Hurdlers spend significant portions of their training at work on the individual components of the event. The start requires total body strength, including free weight training, squats, lunges, plyometrics exercises, and the enhancement of explosive speed. Flexibility, to both uncoil from the starting blocks as well as the movement of the body over each hurdle, necessitates stretching and flexibility exercises to promote joint health and the recovery from high intensity exercise. Additionally, the hurdler should perform knee lifts to be able to produce the lift necessary to take the lead leg consistently over the bar, with the trail leg smoothly clearing behind. Plyometrics exercises and bounding drills assist the hurdler in this aspect of the event, as it is the fast-twitch fibers of the leg muscles that are relied upon. Finally, the hurdler must practice take off and landing at each hurdle. The movement should be smooth and incorporated into each stride, with no bounce or deviation.