Watching running videos on YouTube can be a great source of inspiration and motivation. It can also be quite instructive.
Recently I watched a video celebrating a world-class steeplechaser named Conseslus Kipruto. Like many African distance running athletes, he seems to run without fear of limits.
As I was watching this video, I noticed that his form over both the regular hurdles and steeple pit. The barriers on the track each stand 42″ high. So does the steeplechase pit, which starts at a depth of 2.5 feet below the hurdle to a zero depth one foot before the end of the inclined “pit” which is actually a big triangle filled with water.
Conseslus doesn’t really hurdle the barriers. He jumps over them with both legs lifted to one side. Absolutely no one jumped barriers like this forty years ago. We all hurdled in “traditional” fashion with a lead leg followed by a trail leg. Only once in my four years of doing steeple did I drag that leg enough to strike the 4″ X 4″ wooden barrier. Let me tell you, that is something you remember not to do again. It hurts.
I had what most considered fairly elegant form coming over the steeple pit. One of our college track coaches said that I did the water jump better than anyone he’d ever seen. Some of that came from my experience in playing other sports. I had excellent coordination and balance, and I’d even practiced fast-paced hurdling by racing the 400 meter intermediate hurdles. That’s a very tough race to do, running all out for 400 meters and jumping 13 hurdles along the way. Talk about anaerobic debt!
So I studied how other hurdlers did their work, and sometime during college a guy named Randy Johnson (I think) from Wisconsin started hurdling the water barrier rather than stepping on it and jumping off like the rest of us.
It didn’t catch on back then. We all figured you had to be world-class to pull off a stunt like that. Plus what were the benefits of getting even wetter by landing deeper in the pit? With my triple-jumping ability (I went 40’4″ in high school) I could often jump completely over the water and keep both feet dry. Over 7 3/4 laps, that could really help not being soaked on one or both feet.
And yet, among the African distance runners I’ve watched now, many of them side-swing their legs over the hurdles and flat-out hurdle the water barrier. They’re the fastest athletes in the world with the exception of individuals such as Evan Jagr, the American steeplechaser. So who’s to argue with their technique?
What this tells us, and what it can inform you in all your pursuits, is that conventional methods are not always right. I well recall the revolution that occurred when high jumper Dick Fosbury invented the method called the Flop, and everyone in the world now uses that technique for high jumping, whose record now stands over eight feet.
Which means that some of the things you might be doing “right” these days in swimming, cycling or running might not be as efficient or smart as you think. Certainly swimming strokes have evolved over the last forty years. Cycling techniques have as well, with high cadence cyclists such as Lance Armstrong and Chris Froome winning major tours against “power” cyclists who might be faster in some respects, but whose endurance ultimately wears out.
As for running form, the basic biomechanics of the mid-foot or forefoot strike are preached as vital to greater speed for many in the distance world. And yet watch a major marathon and there are African runners clearly heel-striking while tearing along at sub 4:40 pace for 26 miles.
That’s what you can learn from people who don’t let convention confine them to a certain way of doing things. It pays to experiment and to challenge your perceptions by watching a wide spectrum of athletes in all the disciplines. Many personalize their approach in order to maximize their performance. That’s the lesson we can all afford to learn.