Face the ‘Chase'
Dr Matt Long spends time with Olympian and former UK national cross-country champion, Spencer Duval, discussing the specifics of the steeplechase event.
"It is the easiest event to make the team in and will be for the next decade", the 1996 Atlanta Olympic steeplechaser tells a gathering of some of the region's top coaches and young athletes at a recent England Athletics Workshop in the West Midlands.
When you possess a personal best time of 8 minutes 24 seconds for the 3000m steeplechase and have been ranked as highly as 20th in the world, maybe that is easier said than done. The man who boasts a best of 11th in a World Cross-Country Championships to add to his 1995 win in 'The UK National Cross Country Championships', says there are three fundamental components to the steeplechase - (1) Endurance; (2) Technical; (3) Tactical.
"It is fundamentally an endurance event which is broken up every so often," says the former British Athletics national event coach. In coaching a session suitable for both genders, he advocates once weekly sessions for the novice run over hurdles rather than the more intimidating wooden barriers. His lynchpin session was 3 x 1k over hurdles with 30 seconds of recovery. A fitness component working both aerobic and lactate energy systems was a key predictor of forthcoming race times.
Duval emphasises that the critical endurance demand of the event lies in the transition between 2k and 3k and thus junior athletes. They race the shorter distance (as well as the 1,500m distance) can modify their sessions to include much shorter repetitions over 400m with hurdles placed in conventional steeplechase positions. In certain instances, he advocates active recoveries during repetitions with jumping squats being thrown in deliberately to induce the kind of "super-fatigue" in the quadriceps muscles to simulate the tiredness that an athlete will face in the latter stages of a race.
The gathering of the proverbial baying crowd at the water jump at any club meeting is a testament to the fear factor that this event holds. This is why Duval advocates that 95% of work be done over hurdles and not wooden barriers. He stresses that before mastery of the water jump and the one-footed landing can be achieved that adaptation be used in terms of perfecting of the 'jump' from grounded take off with no barrier whatsoever - "I even used twigs on my park runs to trigger my practising of jumps in front of bemused dog walkers who would see me leap into the air for no apparent reason!" he enthuses.
To achieve technical efficiency over the conventional wooden barriers, Duval advocates walking hurdle drills of the kind utilised by sprint and one lap hurdles to increase balance, agility and coordination. He encourages creativity in maintaining that postural stability can be developed at home using household furniture such as a chair to perfect the hurdling technique. Duval was coached from his early teens by Dave Sunderland (national coach mentor for middle distance and steeplechase). In paying tribute to his former mentor, he points to the need to "control acceleration into the barriers while being energy efficient".
Duval encourages coaches to move hurdles into different lanes, place cones in front of barriers, and even consider using their bodies as mild obstructers by moving in front of hurdles during training. This has to be appropriately risk assessed by the coach to avoid athlete injury. If done so appropriately, Duval maintains that the inherent physicality and unpredictability of racing can be simulated.
Duval concedes that in the earlier part of his career, he had an overwhelming desire to go to the front of races in an attempt to "keep out of trouble". As he matured as an international competitor, this changed, and he stresses that "while you cannot blindly trail the runner in front of you as you can in a flat race, you must learn to run in the pack as a steeplechaser".
In acknowledging that at a world-class level, the Africans have turned the last 400m of the race into a sprint over the last five years, he maintains that this is far from likely to be the case for the club runner. "Even at the top level, athletes mess up on the last lap as their stride pattern changes, but for the club runner, it is more about who slows down the least in the latter stages as fatigue sets in".
Having explored the basic endurance, technical and tactical pre-requisites for the steeplechase, the core components of Duval's philosophy can be summarised as:
"Think of it as 3,000 metres race with 35 jumps in it" is his parting shot.
Now for us mere mortals that require a cognitive leap of faith as brave as any physical leap of the barrier!
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About the Author
Dr Matt Long works for British Athletics in coach education, having delivered work at the national high-performance centre at Loughborough University.