The Steeplechase – Training and Racing
By Mike Dilley,
- Coach of Olympic Games Semi-finalist 5k Cormac Finnerty
- Coach of 6 All Americans in Steeplechase (JUCO & NCAA Division I)
- Coach of Pan Am Bronze Medallist in 10k Peter Julian
- Coach of 2 time Irish National Steeple Champion Cormac Smith
Training for the steeplechase has many similarities to training for the 1500m/3000m/5000m events. Hurdling presents the additional challenge.
Following cross country season steeplechase training should be divided into two distinct phases. From mid January to mid March speed endurance training is emphasized in the 1500m/5000m ranges with more focus on the 5k threshold and fuel development. In season training from mid March on should emphasize 1550m/3000m type sessions with the focus on 1500m speed and development of lactate tolerance.
Training a steeplechaser to hurdle and water jump properly is a process that should be approached long term. In December the athlete can begin basic hurdling drills once a week to learn technique and go through the initial muscle soreness during a time usually reserved for base mileage.
Hurdling in the speed endurance phase of training over the winter months should emphasize technique, volume and rhythm. Drills can be done at relatively high volume twice a week using a combination muscle memory drills, wall drills and actual hurdling similar to that used by intermediate hurdlers.
Rhythm hurdling can be done at the en training runs every other week by running 800m to 1 mile over 4 hurdles per lap. An example might have the athlete run 6 mils at a medium pace and coming right on to the track for a steady 800m over hurdles at the end of the run. Intermediate hurdles are used for obvious reasons as they will move when hit - barriers do not. The teacher should emphasize an early take of leading into each hurdle to keep the hip line as flat as possible over that hurdle. The lead leg should also be almost on it's way down as the athlete passes over the hurdle to insure consistent rhythm and spend less time in the air.
Water jumping can also be taught in this phase by placing a barrier at the end of the long jump runway and jumping into the sand pit. A line mimicking the edge of the water can be drawn in the sand the exact distance from the barrier. Coach Kelly Sullivan from Willamette University (Salem, OR) teaches the idea of "float like a butterfly sting like a bee". The runner approaches the barrier fast but relaxed and "stings" the front side of the barrier by rolling the foot over the top and pushing hard off the it's face in one quick movement. The opposite foot should land on or near the line drawn in the sand with the same foot used on top of the barrier landing beyond the line. Always have your athletes continue to run out of the pit so they learn to run out of the water and not into it.
Hurdling drills during track season stress technique and speed with less volume (once a week). Early season interval sessions can be cone over the hurdles at of near goal pace as part of a total training session. A good idea is to alternate one repeat over 4 hurdles per lap with the next on the flat. Entire interval sessions over hurdles are not recommended because of the water and tear on the legs and these sessions often rob from future races. Water jumping in the normal water pit can be done once every other week. Some athletes prefer to use a check mark in training near the bend in the track coming into the water jump area. This allows them to accelerate into and out of the water as opposed to stutter stepping and slowing down. Mid to late season interval training should emphasize lower volume and better speed.
Ideally, the athlete would race the steeplechase once every 2-3 weeks until he/she is in a situation where one would have to race twice as part of a single competition.
Tactically the race should be approached in a similar fashion to the flat 3000m event with one significant difference - a slower start. The great Kenyan steeplechasers are often very close to their 3k flat pace in the later stages of their steeple races.
It is a good idea to race on the outside shoulder of your opponent and approach the barriers a little wide in traffic. This will help create better visibility and a straighter line over the barriers and water jump with no significant loss of ground.
There are two important times in a steeplechase. The runner should move into racing position just after the mile when many competitors begin to slow and begin a drive for the finish with 700m remaining. This will create good speed over the penultimate water jump and creates a "gathering" period for the bell lap and final kick.
Great steeplechasers are extraordinarily tough and determined athletes with exceptional force of will as well as finely developed skills.