Everyone prepares for the steeplechase in their own way, from the Olympic champion who claims he never practices hurdling to Evan Jager, who works on his hurdle form every week. LetsRun.com consulted the experts to explore the differences between the top Kenyan and American steeplers and the importance of hurdle form
By Jonathan Gault
May 22, 2017
Iain Hunter spends a lot of time thinking about the steeplechase. Since 2003, Hunter, a professor in the exercise sciences department at Brigham Young University, has worked as USATF’s lead sport scientist for biomechanics analysis of distance events. He travels to the USATF Outdoor Championships every year, along with a handful of other events, to shoot video, which he breaks down in painstaking detail, analyzing the body position of each runner and their entry and exit velocity for each barrier. Combined, Hunter and his students spend around 100 hours per year studying the steeplechase. He has written three journal articles about the event, with two more on the way.
Yet even Hunter cannot explain Ruth Jebet.
“I watched her and I thought, ‘Maybe everything I’ve learned is completely wrong,'” Hunter says. “Because from what we teach about good hurdling, she does it so poorly and she’s the fastest ever.”
The Kenyan-born Jebet, who represents Bahrain internationally, won the 2016 Olympic title in the women’s steeplechase and owns the current world record of 8:52.78. Seated in his office in BYU’s Richards Building, the outside walls of which are adorned with photos of steeplechasers such as Josh McAdams and Emma Coburn, Hunter pulls up the video of last year’s Olympic final and starts breaking down Jebet’s form. He begins with her lead leg. Or should that be lead legs? For most steeplers, there’s a clearly defined dichotomy — the lead leg crosses the barrier first, with the trail leg tucking in behind.
Not Jebet. Her hurdle form more closely resembles a horse than another human. Though she has a nominal lead leg, once she takes off to clear a hurdle, she’ll quickly snap the other up to join it and tuck both of them underneath her, as if she’s readying herself to perform a cannonball off the diving board and into a swimming pool. The result, however, is that she gains more height than she needs to, and that’s normally considered a no-no in the steeple.
“If you think about what it takes to jump high when you’re moving forwards, then you end up needing to lose a lot of the horizontal velocity to gain vertical,” Hunter says. “It doesn’t look like a lot, but she’s losing more horizontal velocity than she needs to to convert it to vertical velocity that she clearly has because she ends up jumping so high.”
As the race goes on, Hunter points out Jebet’s other technical flaws — she takes off too close to the barriers and often leans too far backward on her water jump landings, robbing her of forward momentum — but she gains so much ground between the barriers that the other women are powerless to respond as Jebet runs away to record just the third sub-9:00 steeplechase in history. Back in 1998, when the women’s steeplechase was still more of an idea than a race that was actually contested in track meets (it would not be added to the Olympics until 2008), Hunter and former BYU women’s coach Patrick Shane estimated that a woman could run 8:45 once the event became well-established. Hunter thinks Jebet can get closer to that time by improving her technique, but recognizes that she may be reluctant to switch things up.
“If you’re winning in world record times and getting your gold medals, there’s probably not a whole lot of motivation to change anything,” Hunter says.
“I Have Never Worked Out in Training Over Barriers”
As tracks go, the one at Moi University in Eldoret, a training mecca in western Kenya, isn’t much to look at. There are no markings on its red dirt surface; no lanes, not even a finish line. There are no steeple barriers, nor are there hurdles or a building in which to store them. There is most definitely no water pit. Yet on this early morning in March, Brimin Kiprop Kipruto, one of the most decorated steeplechasers in history, is working out at Moi.
I catch up to him later that morning, at his training camp in Kaptagat. I’m curious about where Kipruto runs his steeple workouts. He tells me there’s another track in town that has barriers available upon request. But Kipruto never uses them.
So, Brimin, when do you practice over barriers?
“I never try.”
What do you mean? Like, ever?
“I have never worked out in training over barriers.”
I am flabbergasted. A man who has earned six medals between the Olympics and World Championships (including an Olympic gold in 2008) NEVER practices his hurdle form outside of races? Can this be possible?
I think back to my college running days. One of my teammates, Will Geoghegan, a fairly athletic guy who would go on to run 7:45 for 3k and 13:17 for 5k, tried the steeple once during his junior year. He fell during the race, ran 9:24 and never ran the event again. And Will had been practicing!
I tell Brimin that it would have been difficult for me to take up a new event without practicing for it at all. Brimin looks up at me, smiles, and starts to laugh as he slaps my knee playfully.
“Maybe difficult for you, but mine, it’s okay.”
Michel Boeting, a Dutch agent who represents Conseslus Kipruto, the reigning Olympic champion in the event, said that until two years ago, his star client never trained over barriers. Conseslus Kipruto still managed to earn a silver medal at Worlds as an 18-year-old in 2013, though he has begun working out over barriers more often in recent years after struggling to clear them in traffic during tactical races. However, Boeting said that Kipruto doesn’t train over them as much as his European and American counterparts, and that’s par for the course when it comes to Kenyan steeplers. In April, RunBlogRun reported that two-time Diamond League champion Jairus Birech won’t hurdle a barrier this year until his first race of the season.
“Most tracks in Kenya lack the proper equipment to do hurdles,” Boeting said. “In my past working at Global Sports Communication I worked with [former world record holder Bernard] Barmasai, [2000 Olympic champion] Reuben Kosgei and Brimin Kipruto and all were very much the same about training hurdles. Maybe when there are more [Evan] Jagers, they (will) feel the need to do so (practice)…I think if Kenyans go for real hurdle training as Europeans and Americans do, it will lead to accidents. Now they are fearless and don’t really think too much about the barriers. If we want to have a Kenyan hurdle like the rest of the world, you would need to have someone who just started running for it to be successful.”
Jager has developed the same fearless mentality over the barriers by utilizing the exact opposite approach.
“It’s kind of funny that Michel says that because my goal in practicing hurdling so much is to get so much practice that I don’t even think about hurdling, it just kind of happens naturally,” Jager says. “You can do the same thing two different ways, but for me, I think it’s better to be well-practiced than not and have the same mentality.”
Jager, the American record holder and Olympic silver medallist, like most U.S. steeplers, practiced over barriers before running his first steeple in 2012. He says it took him four or five practice sessions to become comfortable in the event, and right from the start, he had good hurdle technique. Jager set the American record in the fifth steeplechase of his life. Yet he is constantly working to refine his technique. At least once a week during the outdoor season (April to September), Jager will spend 30 to 45 minutes practicing hurdle form, in addition to running workouts over barriers approximately once every two weeks (this varies depending on Jager’s competition schedule). Pascal Dobert, Jager’s steeple coach, says that’s typical for members of the Bowerman Track Club, which also includes Olympic finalists Matt Hughes, Colleen Quigley and Courtney Frerichs and 8:13 steepler Dan Huling (5th at 2015 Worlds).
“I would say that [hurdle form] is extremely important,” Dobert says. “Because in essence, you are a hurdler. You just happen to be running 3000 meters as opposed to 110 or 400 meters, or 100 meters if you’re a woman.”
“I think it just takes away one more thing you have to worry about,” Jager says. “If I didn’t know to hurdle or didn’t feel confident going over the hurdles, that would add a mental stress and that’s obviously not good for racing.”
Both Jager and Dobert agree that in a fast race, with a clear look at each barrier, Jager can gain ground on his Kenyan rivals. Dobert points to the 2015 Paris Diamond League, where Jager set the current American record of 8:00.45, as the best example. Though Birech actually won the race, Jager had dropped him convincingly on the final lap and looked set for a time well under 8:00 before falling on the final barrier.
“If you just look at that race, you see Evan taking the barriers in stride, very efficient over them, coming down off the barrier and right back into his race rhythm,” Dobert says. “And you see Birech behind him just kind of breaking stride. He was probably losing a meter every barrier and then having to mini-accelerate to get up right behind Evan. And that’s four times every [lap], not including the water jump.”
Donn Cabral, who has finished eighth at the last two Olympics, says he tries to run over barriers during a workout once a week during the outdoor season, though, like Jager, that varies depending on his health and racing schedule. Ideally, Cabral will also incorporate 15 minutes of hurdle drills twice a week, but he may skip one or both if he doesn’t feel he has the energy for it. After all, these guys these guys have to do a lot of “normal” running during the week as well.
That sort of regimen has been the norm for American hurdlers for at least two decades. Both Dobert and Cabral’s coach, Tommy Nohilly, made multiple U.S. teams during their own careers in the 1990s, and both worked out over barriers once every two weeks or so. Both would supplement those workouts with hurdle drills, or, as they called it, “rituals.” In addition, Nohilly spent around six to eight hours per week in the gym working on steeple-specific strength training, targeting important areas such as his hips and feet.
In general, Hunter, the BYU sports scientist, says that the technique of the top Kenyans lags behind that of the top Americans and Europeans. Typically, Hunter says that Kenyan steeplechasers take off too close to the barrier, jump too high, and don’t extend their lead knee enough while hurdling. Dobert believes those issues are fixable and that, as great as they are, athletes such as Conseslus Kipruto could slash a few seconds off their personal bests if they improved their hurdling. In fact, Boeting has talked with Dobert about bringing Kipruto to Portland to work on hurdle technique, but it never happened due to injuries.
“It would be hard to convince me that having better technique over the barriers would be a bad thing and working on technique over the barriers would be a bad thing,” Dobert says. “The [Kenyans] would need someone to work with them on a consistent basis and they would need to be convinced that this is something they need to really work on.
“Conseslus, his PR is 8:00. You can’t tell me that with proper technique that guy can’t run low-7:50s. They need to be convinced of that and I don’t know if they are or they can be. I mean Moses [Kiptanui] was a pretty good hurdler and he ran 7:56…
“If you just look at these guys hurdle and the energy cost, if our guys hurdled the way they did, they’d run 20 seconds slower. I don’t think the Kenyans are losing 20 seconds by hurdling the way they do. [But] they would definitely run faster. Whether it’s a couple seconds or 10 seconds, it’s hard to say.”
Designing the Perfect Steeplechaser
The barriers in the steeplechase are, by definition, obstacles: they are placed on the track to slow the athletes down. Which makes the goal of every steepler simple: maintain as much speed through the barrier as possible. Hunter tracks this by measuring an athlete’s velocity during two one-meter segments, the first from three to two meters before the barrier (approach velocity) and the second from two to three meters after the barrier (exit velocity). The closer an athlete’s exit velocity is to their approach velocity, the more efficient their hurdling. After years of studying with that goal in mind, Hunter and his colleague James Tracy came up with a list of keys for the “ideal” steeplechaser, which they put on a poster for USATF to share with athletes. You can view the full poster here, but the key points are summarized below:
- Come in fast. As Hunter explained earlier, when a runner hurdles a barrier, the body is forced to convert some of its horizontal velocity to vertical velocity. The more horizontal velocity present at takeoff, the easier it is to convert some of it to vertical velocity and hurdle the barrier. Of course, the steeple is also about managing energy. Sprinting toward each barrier may make hurdling easier, but it also tires a runner out more quickly. What this means is that faster runners have a natural advantage when it comes to hurdling as they’re already running closer to optimal speed at takeoff.
- Minimize height of the jump. Because every gain in vertical velocity has to be offset by a loss of horizontal velocity, it stands to reason that the higher a runner jumps, the more they slow down. If the goal, then, is to minimize loss of horizontal velocity, then a runner should jump just high enough to clear the barrier safely. This is also why knee extension and trail leg flexibility are important (Hunter says knee extension should be around 150 degrees or greater): the straighter a runner’s lead knee, and the more flexible a runner’s trail leg, the less height they need to gain. It can be difficult to find the sweet spot of being high enough to clear the barrier but not so close as to endanger the runner, but it is something that can be improved through practice.
- Don’t take off too close to the barrier. The closer a runner is to the barrier at takeoff, the less time they have to gain height and the more vertical velocity is required. The ideal takeoff point varies from runner to runner, but Hunter recommends that men running 8:23 pace should take off 1.95 meters from the barrier while women running 9:30 pace should take off 1.65 meters from the barrier.
- Land as close to the barrier as possible. Per Hunter, “landing close to the barrier leads to runners having their center of mass directly under them at landing which minimizes the braking forces so that they can accelerate forwards upon landing. There is an ideal distance for this, but it seems that nobody gets too close.”
The water jump is a little different, obviously, but the same tenets apply: come in fast and don’t jump too high. As far as hurdling the water jump versus stepping on it and pushing off, Hunter says that hurdling requires more energy and carries a greater degree of risk — runners can’t see where they’re going to land when they take off, and they land with more force than if they were to push off of the barrier. But it also carries the potential for greater speed.
“If they can hurdle well and they’re going really fast — which means they’re running their last lap in under 60 seconds, which for the steeple is pretty good — then hurdling is something worth considering,” Hunter says, though he adds that anyone considering hurdling the water jump in a race should work on it in practice before deploying the tactic in a race.
According to Hunter’s data, America’s best steeplers — Jager for the men and Emma Coburn for the women — are also the most efficient.
“On other people we see things like 90%, meaning they lost 10% of their speed [through the barrier],” Hunter says. “That’s pretty typical, anywhere from 5 to 15% speed lost on hurdling. Emma and Evan do not lose speed through the hurdles…On the water jump, we usually see anywhere from 5 to 20% lost. Emma and Evan are usually more like 5%, sometimes a little bit more.”
Jager and Coburn’s form may look close to what you would draw up in a textbook, but the primary goal in hurdling is to maintain as much speed over the barriers as possible. And though the top Kenyans’ hurdle form is generally not as pretty as the top Americans’, with their trail legs flailing over the barriers, that doesn’t mean they’re not efficient.
“Obviously we’re speaking in generalizations here, but the majority of the Kenyan runners that I race against, they’re pretty darn efficient even though they have ways that are very different of clearing the hurdles than most western athletes,” says Cabral. “As long as you’re not losing speed or being inefficient, then you can do whatever you want to get over the barrier.”
And while the Kenyans may lose some efficiency due to their hurdle form, they can make up for those losses in other areas. It helps that they’re fast, as their greater takeoff velocity can plaster over any technical deficiencies.
“[For those whose] race pace is already incredibly fast, the technique starts mattering a lot less,” Hunter says.
“That’s why the Kenyans are so good, because they’re really good flat runners,” Dobert says. “If American steeplers hurdle, technically speaking, as poorly going over the barriers as the Kenyans, they wouldn’t be good steeplers. But the Kenyans, they have a much less energy cost running over hurdles poorly than non-Kenyans would or than we would, Americans would.
“But they’re able to still, if you look at the way they run a race, running the steeple they typically don’t really have too much starting and stopping when they hurdle. They’re pretty fluid. And over the barriers themselves, they typically have poor trail legs, technically speaking, but they are fairly rhythmic as far as not having to stutter and having to break their rhythm too much. The Kenyans are very springy, we call it. They can just kind of pop over the barriers without a lot of energy. Whether it’s a byproduct of their ankle mobility or ankle strength, they’re able to just elevate quickly and without a lot of relative energy compared to Americans and Europeans.”
So how much does all that practice help the Americans? It depends. Hurdling is just one aspect of the steeplechase; a good steepler also needs to be able to run fast between the hurdles and has to be able to handle the changes in effort that arise from taking 28 barriers and seven water jumps over the course of seven and a half laps. Jager came to the event later than most, at age 23, and took to the steeple almost immediately. He says he believes most of his improvement since then has come from being more comfortable and relaxed while running, as opposed to specific improvements in his hurdle technique.
But the easiest way to become a better steepler is simple: become a better runner.
“So much of being a good steeplechaser is just being a good runner,” Coburn says.
Coburn says that since she took up the event in high school, she believes 90% of her improvement is due to better fitness, 8% due to better race strategy and 2% due to better form. And her beginning in the event is the most similar to Kipruto’s of any American steepler. Before Coburn’s first steeple in high school, she had only practiced over barriers once in her life: one lap of a local track a few days before the race. She has felt comfortable in the steeple ever since. Coburn has good form now, but she doesn’t obsess over it. She doesn’t rewatch her races to look for areas of improvement in her technique. And if Coburn is to move up the podium to take the gold medal at this summer’s World Championships in London, she knows how it will happen.
“[I think about] how am I gonna close the gap to Ruth Jebet, and that’s just fitness, that’s not improving my hurdle form,” says Coburn.”Maybe you can grade my hurdle form as a B+, but I’m not gonna kill myself to make it an A+. I’d rather kill myself to get my fitness better.”
Cabral thinks that his fitness has played an even bigger role in his improvement post-college.
“I went down from an 8:19 to an 8:13 from 2012 to 2015 and I’d say that was at least 100% due to fitness gains,” Cabral said. “It could be more than 100% if my hurdle technique got worse, and I think that that’s possible. But I think it was pretty comparable, especially in that [8:13] race.”
Cabral is still working on improving his technique. Earlier this year, he went to San Diego for a USATF sports performance clinic, where he studied video with Hunter. The video showed that he was taking off too close to the hurdle, something Cabral is working to correct this season. And even though Jager and Coburn already have exemplary technique, they will continue to work on it in practice in order to protect the gains they’ve already made.
And in track and field, every fraction of a second counts.
Indisputably, Brimin Kiprop Kipruto is one of the greatest steeplechasers who has ever lived. He owns one Olympic gold, one World Championship gold and four other medals from global championships. He also owns the second-fastest time in history, 7:53.64. The world record is 7:53.63.
“People ask me about this a lot, and it’s obviously a very important part of our training but it’s funny that everyone kind of gets there the same way,” Jager says. “Brimin never practices hurdles and he’s won a gold medal, very close to the world record. Conseslus practices hurdles, but not with maybe the best-looking hurdle form and he has a gold medal. And then I have objectively better hurdling technique and practice all the time and I’ve got a silver medal. So it just seems like you can do it a lot of different ways as long as you’re comfortable doing it and it’s not bothering you in the race, like it’s not affecting you mentally in the race.
“Obviously I’ve said that I think it’s better to hurdle and try to have good form but it seems like it might not matter much, but who knows? Maybe Brimin is actually just naturally very talented at taking the hurdles and he doesn’t need to worry about it. Maybe he just tried it the first time and he was like, ‘Oh, I’m fine. First time, I’ve tried it, I’m good at it. I don’t need to practice.’
“…He might be a world record holder if he practiced hurdling though.”
Talk about steeple hurdle technique on the LetsRun.com messageboard / fan forum. MB: How important is hurdling form to being great at the steeplechase? We asked the experts.
Note: LetsRun.com spoke to Kipruto in Kenya as part of the IAAF’s Day in the Life program. While the IAAF worked with a travel agency to arrange the author’s travel within Kenya, it had no say in the editorial content of this article and LetsRun.com covered the costs of the author’s travel and lodging (including the travel arranged by the IAAF) while in Kenya.
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