A High School Hurdler’s Journey to a National Championship
Part 1: Fall Training
As fall 2014 approaches in the U.S., I can’t but stop and remember back to two years ago to the start of one of my most successful as a coach. One that would see one of my athlete’s become a national champion in hurdles.
This athlete had previously spent a year with me, and in the previous fall word spread around school we had a new student who was supposedly a pretty good runner. We checked him out and found he had some success in his previous state before moving to Michigan. He started out training with us in the fall, competed indoors, and did well outdoors, earning high ranks in the state of Michigan in both hurdle events, running the fastest 300 meter hurdles time in the state and placed 4th in the 110 meter hurdles. His times in both of these events were not even top 50 in the country. Who knows where he was ranked because all the rankings I saw stopped at 50. I owe a big credit to former forum member “Clemson”, who helped me get my feet wet in hurdles and set out a path of basics for us that season.
He took the summer off and when school started up in the fall, he and I sat down to discuss goals and plans. That is when the incredible season began. We looked at the state records for the hurdles and he said he’d rather focus on the 110’s. (Note: the previous year was his first doing the 110s. He only did 300s at his previous school). Knowing what our goals were, I was able to formulate a training progression starting with shorter runs and lengthening them out over time. Our first goal was the run 7.70 in the 60 meter hurdles, our state’s fastest time. Then outdoors strive for 13.60, our state record outdoors.
I developed his training plan had many of the same exercises and progressions similar to Charlie Francis’s short to long concept. For about eight weeks in the fall, he drove 20 minutes to a steep grass hill perfect for acceleration development. He and the training group would go there three days a week. The other days in between hill sessions he would do a variety of medicine ball throws, box jumps, jump rope, weight lifting and tempo runs, the same exercises Charlie outlined in his training manual and videos, such as the GPP Essentials. A side note for this story is during this time, I was coaching cross country so the group was on their own until the end of October, when I would begin overseeing daily training. So from mid-September to the beginning of November, training consisted of the above elements.
About the time cross country ended and I began daily practices with them, the weather here in Michigan began to turn cold, dropping into sub 40 F, definitely too cold for fast sprinting. We were forced to go into the school hallways for the remainder of the winter until March track season. You see, our school isn’t one with fancy facilities. We had about 60 meters of usable stone floored hallways. (Ideal training surfaces…hint of sarcasm). At this time, we began doing hurdle progressions, as I did not want to develop poor mechanics without me there observing. It’s at this point I want to make a very important point. We did nothing fancy. No special equipment, just a hill, medicine ball, jump rope and a weight room doing basic lifts like push-ups, pull ups, squats and step ups.
As we began our hallway hurdle training, I had conversations on the forum with Ange Coon about her ideas for hurdle training. Her ideas Charlie and her used were simple. Spacings were never at regular distances or regular heights. The training was similar to a short to long approach. We did simple drills, and worked at doing them precisely. We did skips, a simple drill most athletes perform wrong and most coaches’ use incorrectly. The knee height is very important in this drill, along with arm swing.
Image: Our training “hall”
( Esti has provided a great image here. Let me figure out how to share it with you...;)
A High School Hurdler’s Journey to a National Championship
Part 2: Training in Hall(way) of Champions
After a period of about eight week of basic exercises such as running hills, throwing medicine balls, jumping rope, box jumps, and lifting weights, we continued training indoors since the weather became too cold to go outside.
We began to add a few hurdle drills and master them. One for the trail leg, one for speed in between the hurdles, and we also began accelerations to the first hurdle for a week, then to two hurdles for a few weeks, and continued this until the end of February. We focused on mastering each hurdle at a time.
We didn’t stop doing the other exercises though. We only hurdled 1-2 days a week because of the hard ground, and my fear of potential shin splints or worse, stress fractures in the lower legs as a result. We did sprint work at least two days a week after our hurdle work. Usually 1-3 reps of 60 meters using the acceleration limits Charlie talked about in his short to long programming.
Continuing the hill progressions, we began to start with shorter sprints and over the course of weeks, lengthen them out. I wanted his sprinting to be good in the first 10 meters before moving out to 20 meters. Again, due to the hard ground, we needed to supplement training by doing medicine ball throws, jump rope, box jumps and weights.
Outdoors in the fall he did tempo runs, but indoors this became a problem. We followed the Basement Tempo program Ange and Charlie outlines by creating run in place circuits that simulated his outdoor running routines. He would run in place on a foam exercise mat (to save his legs from pounding) and then take a “break” by doing push ups or abdominal exercises for about 15-20 seconds, before starting to run again.
Each day we would warm-up and I swear, each day I was constantly on him (and the group) about his drills. Something so simple as doing skips can easily be performed incorrectly, and those little details make huge differences in the results.
From November through the Christmas holiday, he trained hard as I described above. Right after New Years, he ran his first meet of the indoor season. Training was only to 3 hurdles and 30 meter acceleration limit. During the year prior with me, he ran a personal best in the 60 meters of 7.31 doing little speed work. Now, in his senior year, after all the training we did that fall and early winter, he ran 6.99, at the time good enough for top 10 in the US. He then walked back to the starting line for the 60 meter hurdles about 20 minutes later, and ran 8.09, at the time another top 10 time in the country. (He didn’t run the 60 meter hurdles the year before as we trained indoors to work on his 300 meter hurdles speed endurance.)
In training, we did a few things, and tried to do them really well. We trained in sub-par facilities, yet still found a way to improve, and become one of the fastest runners in the country. In fact, his hurdle time was impressive enough he was immediately invited to a national race in Seattle called the Brooks PR Invite, where they ran indoors where the University of Washington runs.
Part 3: Competition season and championships
After the first race of the season, it was quite a huge personal record. One thing to realize is when big performances like this occur, it’s time to back off to allow for recovery. Right after this meet, he started to have tightness in his hamstrings. Thankfully for him I do sports massage and we were able to get it fixed without major injury. He raced again 3 weeks later and ran the same time as before, but at this point needed to focus specifically on racing hurdles only. It was clear his sprint speed was adequate enough, which was part of our fall planning. He needed to get faster, and he did. So workouts began to focus on hurdle specific training only.
We continued our basic progressions and slowly began to incorporate more event specific training and gently fade out the general training we had been doing since the fall. This is the same concept with any other sport. Keep the training general until practices start and just before that time, start to blend out the general training and being specific training.
One rule l I have found to work well in racing is to schedule races every 7-10 days. 7 days later he ran again, this time slightly improving his time. Based on training times, I knew he could do better, but we still hadn’t broken 8 seconds, only running 8.07 at the end of January into early February. With the Brooks meet and the Indoor nationals around the corner, and the missed time with the leg tightness, we scheduled another race. This race was the first time I was not with him at the race. Since the Brooks race was in Seattle and I wouldn’t be there, this served a great purpose in addressing potential issues when he was on the road, in addition to getting another race under his belt on a track known to be fast.
As the meet was taking place, I awaited eagerly for the results. Immediately after his race, I received about 5 or 6 text messages. I couldn’t believe what they were saying. 7.76!! U.S. number one time (at that time). It was such a huge drop in time, several college coaches questioned if it was legit (having only run 8.07 a few weeks before that). Comparing to the other racers in the field, they ran around their usual times. After watching the race on video, things clicked for him. Those little things we worked on were executed beautifully. All the little details we spent time on in warm-ups on drills and in practice finally paid off and the results speak for themselves.
The next weekend he flew to Seattle for the invite meet. He ran 7.83 in the prelim, advancing the final. He clipped a hurdle in the finals and lost by 0.01 seconds, taking second running 7.82. We had two weeks to prepare for the indoor nationals. Again, he would be without me, and would have to race three rounds in 2 days. We went over plans for recovery between days and in between runs on the final day. Only a few hurdlers had broken 8 seconds that year, so all he needed were clean runs and he would advance to the final, and that is what he did. I watched his semi-final on line live streaming and soon after he called me from his phone. My instructions were simple, “Just do what you have been doing all year and you will win.”
In the finals he got a great start and pulled away winning in 7.72, just off our state record of 7.70. It was such an incredible experience to see all that hard work pay off, to run your fastest race when it counted, and to become a national champion.
Later that spring he went on to be our state champion in the 110’s but with cold weather, had suffered a back strain that limited his training and racing. After that race, we shut down for the summer and he prepared to head on to his college team, Syracuse University. Just this past year in 2014 as a Freshman, he advanced to NCAA Outdoor National Championships Semi-Finals, just missing the finals, and then advanced to run in the USATF National Championships, where he again made the semi-finals. Not bad a for a kid who only has done the event for three years.
The take away from this story is someone had some ability, we set out a plan, and kept to simple basics and worked to get better at them, and things fell into place for us. Whether you run track or another sport, it’s no different, and in nearly 10 years training youth athletes, I can attest to this.
Charlie’s ideas work. I had to modify to fit my situation and it wasn’t a smooth ride, but I made it work. Nearly everyday I showed up to practice, I would ask myself constantly, “What would Charlie do” in this instance?
Here is the link it to the forum where the journal is http://www.charliefrancis.com/community/showthread.php?22413-110mH-State-Title-Quest
( if you are a high school coach or coaching young kids and or adults you need to read this)