By Kimber Rozier CSCS, Pn1 – Rugby clubs are focusing more and more on a complete training program and one piece of equipment overlooked as recently as 5 years ago but is common today is the training hurdle.

Hurdles are an excellent tool for improving speed. Hurdles placed at set distances can force athletes to stride quicker (without over striding) and put more steps into the ground. Doing single and double leg hops over hurdles can train ankle stiffness through velocity. And transferring quick leg cycles and knee drives into a sprint trains the legs to turn over faster when length is increased.

Why does this matter?

Lower leg stiffness and time spent on the ground are strong indicators of top speed running. It doesn’t matter if you can produce enough force to lift a house. If you’re not using that strength efficiently, some weaker guy with great mechanics is going to beat you.

When you run, you get to top speed within the first five or six steps, and the rest is about maintaining that speed, reproducing force at a high velocity, and efficiently transmitting it back into the ground to propel yourself forward.

Your legs are generating that power, but the foot contacts the floor to translate it into sprinting. The stiffer your ankle, the bouncier you will be off the ground. Learning to cycle the knees high, pump the arms, and keep a good heel recovery means less time decelerating. It’s not only how fast you can run, but how much you can prevent slowing down.

Moreover, your stride length and stride frequency play a big part. Stride length is the distance between foot strikes during running, while frequency is the amount of times you can turn your legs over in a given distance. Chances are that you already favor one over the other – taller athletes tend to have a greater stride length and shorter athletes rely heavily on a greater frequency, but all of us fall somewhere along this curve. Practicing quicker turnovers and longer lengths will allow you to cover more ground at a higher speed.

Use the three drills below together or on different training days to see an increase in sprint efficiency.

Leg Hops

Double Leg Hops

These can be very intense on the lower legs, so make sure your ankle stability, mobility, and muscular strength is up to par before doing high intensity plyometrics. Begin on two legs to spread the weight between limbs as stiffness and reactivity develop. Set up 3-5 hurdles about a meter apart in a straight line. Stand facing the first hurdle and begin by hopping forward, clearing the hurdle with feet at shoulder width and toes forward. Landing on the balls of your feet, keep the toes flexed and immediately hop over the next hurdle. Do this without over-bending at the knees or absorbing your weight in a squat. Contact with the ground should be short and sharp, recreating force with ease. Continue in this manner until you’ve jumped over all hurdles.

Single Leg Hops

First, check that you can complete at least 10 standing single leg hops without pain or fatigue. If so, you’re ready to begin. Start again at the lowest setting possible. Face forward on one leg and hop over the first hurdle, cycling the opposite leg and the same side arm as you jump. After clearing all of the hurdles with one leg, walk back to start and repeat with the other leg. Even if it feels easy, make sure to rest about 2 minutes between sets. Any fatigue will cause form to breakdown and can provide undesirable adaptations.

Two Step (High Knees) into a Sprint

Set up 4-6 hurdles a meter apart and stand facing the first hurdle. In this drill, you’ll work with a slight forward lean and focus on good heel recovery. Bringing your knees up, take two quick steps between each hurdle without collapsing at the hips. Pump the arms and stay square to finish with a 10 m sprint out to transfer these mechanics into running.

This is very similar to the typical “high knees” dynamic warm up. The knee drive naturally brings your foot underneath the body while quick steps between hurdles keeps you from over-striding. Make sure to switch the lead leg after each time through so that you train both sides evenly. Complete 2-3 sets of 4-6 sprints.

Stride Rate Running

Stride length is shorter during acceleration while rate is faster. Once you reach top speed, the mechanics allow for a longer stride length and different rate. The ideal stride rate and length varies per athlete, but you can use hurdles to set appropriate markers. Having hurdles just after your foot strike will force you to bring the knee up and heel to glute, rather than letting it trail behind you. If you don’t, you’ll just kick the hurdle over. It also forces you to flex the foot enough to avoid clipping them with each step. These elements are critical to cycling the foot up, around and back down quickly. Contact upon the ground should remain quick and light.

Place the hurdles about a meter apart, varying slightly depending on an athlete’s size. Begin your acceleration through the hurdles, where your short steps will seem natural and easy at first. But it becomes more difficult to maintain as you pick up speed, forcing you to increase your stride rate to step between each hurdle.

Adding it all up

These drills are very intense and place a great deal of strain on your nervous system and connective tissue. Make sure you get a nice, long warm up before trying any of this, and slowly progress through sets. If you can film yourself or have a coach watch you – do so. If you treat each rep with care and emphasize quality over quantity, these mini hurdle drills can really help improve your running.

Shop for Adjustable Speed Hurdles

What training drills does your rugby club use to improve speed? Have you worked with speed hurdles? Help other clubs by leaving comments below on your training methods.

Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union and as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C. She is currently training with Harlequins in England.