One Stride,… More or Less ? Understanding the Zen of 7 step approach in 110 hurdles

As far back as the 50s, when suggesting the number of steps to the first hurdle, according to the literature, the option was ” either 7 or 8″. However, with very few exceptions, 8 steps became the generally accepted number. In 2008, Dayron Robles won the Olympic Games using a 7 step approach in the 110 hurdles. David Oliver switched to 7 steps in 2009/2010 and became #1 in the world establishing a new American record in the process. In 2011 Jason Richardson switched and won the World Championships in Daegu, South Korea. Aries Merritt switched in 2012 and won the 2012 Olympic Games and established a new world record later that same summer. David Oliver again won the 2013 World Championships in  Moscow, Russia, again with a 7 step approach. Since 2008, with the exception of the Berlin World Championships of 2009, every major international championships has been won with the winner using seven steps.

Given that kind of success,…. and the fact that track and field can often be very much a superficial practitioner of the “follow the leader” syndrome , it is not surprising that 7 steps has enjoyed a fantastic increase in popularity . However, in the adaptation of the 7 step approach there is a lot more  involved than just reducing the number of strides to the first hurdle by approximately  12.50%. Keep in mind that while Robles was taking one fewer strides to the first hurdle int he 110s, Usain Bolt was taking 6 strides for the first 10 meters in the 100 in 2008, when the mantra for that event, repeated as gospel over and over again, ” 7 for 10″ . Or,….7 steps for the first 10 meters was the model advocated by the “gurus”, “experts” and “pundits” for the model 100 meter race. All this despite the fact that Dr Bert Lyle had shared with me, and everyone else willing to listen, as far back as 1971 that stride length was being under appreciated in the  sprint model. Later he pointed out that Evelyn Ashford was able to beat the “juiced up ” East Germans at 100 meters  because she was taking 50-51 strides while they were taking closer to 54-55 strides. Before the advent of Bolt in 2008 the model emphasis had firmly landed in the stride frequency camp with a technique and terminology to accommodate it called “front side” mechanics.

We are getting a little a field here, despite much of it is relevant, I just do not want to dilute the principle thrust of this effort and that is to recognize the fact that we can not just simply take into account the mechanics and technical aspects of track and field. There are  very well-known groups of track and field “experts” and “master coaches”, who can cite and recite “the literature”,  and bisect and dissect what is physically taking place on videos and film analysis. They can tell you with amazing and astonishing accuracy what has been measured and metered mechanically,…. and it is supposed to rest right there and that is the determining factor. It was about this flaw and failure that I encountered  Dr Ralph Mann on the bus from the hotel to the track at the most recent national championships in Sacramento, California this summer. Dr  Mann has been the singular most important and productive scientist as far as speed enhancement and development is concerned in U.S. track and field. The only people who have made a bigger impact are the chemists/scientists who have developed the performance enhancing drugs used by some of our more successful athletes. Dr Mann’s credential are impeccable, as they should be for a former Olympic athlete himself who went on to get a Ph. D. in biomechanics and then put all that knowledge toward running analysis and study for more than 30 years.  When he invited me to the annual sprint/hurdle analysis seminar for this fall I replied:

Doc, I think you guys are good, even great as far as you go. But you should first of all stay in your lane.  I think you guys are stepping outside your area of expertise.

How is that ?

It is my opinion that bio-mechanists like you should describe what is taking place . When you start to prescribe what and how it should be done, then you are stepping into the preserve of the coach. And since you are not with the athlete on a daily basis, and more importantly do not know the psychological profile of the athlete, you can not prudently prescribe because you lack the most crucial aspect of mechanical movements of athletes.

What is that ?

The Zen to improving human performance.

That is very interesting you should come to the meeting a present your ideas.

You guys deal with stick figures, angles, and forces. Coaches have to deal with the psycho-somatic totality of the best way to prepare an athlete. Much of what you physically see on your films has been preceded by a psychological, and even physiological,  phenomenon that never shows up on films, but is principally  responsible for what you see on film. The study of mechanics aside from, and outside of ,the accompanying psychological precedent activity and acceptance is folly.

Like I said, we welcome you coming and sharing your thoughts.

Later I volunteered to Dr Mann to accept his invitation and was told the program was already set and there would be no room over a four day event to squeeze me in. Perhaps next year with more lead time it could be worked out.

Now to the basic premise and promise of this effort. On its face it appears that taking one fewer step for the first 10 meters of the 100, and one fewer step to the first hurdle results in faster overall times.  But it doesn’t just end there. Specifically in the hurdles, there is a real challenge in many instances , to get the athletes to switch from 8 to 7 despite the empirical evidence supporting the benefits of doing so. Now just what are the advantages to taking one fewer steps to the first hurdle  ? There are at least  basically three  areas of benefit. First there is the fact that by taking one stride less you reduce the total number of strides in the hurdles by approximately 2%. That equates very closely to the average percentage advantage that drug use is supposed to deliver. So by taking one less stride it is possible to mechanically do what drugs are expected to do.  Secondly, in order to get to the take off point in seven strides, if the athlete is very aggressive, in stride length emphasis for the first four strides – not totally unlike the bounding start of a jumpers – then there is a post tetanus potential ( after intense contraction, the potential for future contraction can be increase upwards of 10% ). This results in a very quick and explosive effort for the next 3 strides setting up a very aggressive attack mode over hurdle #1. This establishes a kind of natural and practical inertia of aggressive behavior that can more  easily extended further down the track. The third area involves the precedent mindset and psychological profile that even allows for 8 steppers to take on the 7 step challenge. In general, athletes fall into one of two categories of psychological profile. There are the goal oriented athletes that simply use the process to achieve certain goals or objectives. The process is merely a means to an end. Then there are the task oriented athletes for whom the task itself has certain inherent rewards and fulfillment for them. They derive a certain level of satisfaction from just doing the activity itself. We see this most often in distance runners who simply enjoy the running for running’s sake, but athletes in other categories can have the same psychological profile, even if manifested more subtly . For goal oriented athletes, being one step ahead is a very big thing and psychologically they are willing to enter into the risk-reward dichotomy/dilemma more easily than the task oriented athletes. So the approach to getting the athletes to change is based more on the athlete’s mindset than the activity itself.

Other than the mathematical and mechanical advantage of taking one less step, the hard scientists do not dwell in-depth with the Zen aspects of making a mechanical change that scientists would like to prescribe. The whole process is psycho-somatic in essence,….. and without the psycho portion,….. the somatic portion doesn’t even take place in some instances and poorly in others examples. The mind must precede the body  in order for athletes to adapt to new neuro-muscular patterns. This is even more acute if the athlete is already enjoying success with the less than best system.

It is my opinion that the Zen aspect of performance is just as critical and important in human performance as the mechanical elements involved. And in order for a coach to maximize the talent and ability of an athlete, the total psycho-somatic phenomenon has to be addressed in one way or another. The very best coaches in the this sport, or any sport, have an understanding of the need to address the mind first.  In the American system, coaches recruit who and what they assume is the best talent and hope that the psychological portion is already in place, or easily stimulated. But that means a significant number of our athletes are not developed because of the one dimensional approach to athletic development. The Zen represents too much sensitivity and creativity for an overworked and under staffed program to properly address. Athletes run a spectrum from athletic to Zen, coaches must be able run the same range.


Brooks T. Johnson

( 407 ) 758 – 0755

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