Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Training Advice to Clear Barriers

By Frank Horwill

When Dave Bedford ran 8:28.6sec for the 3,000m in September 1971 - a new UK record - he stepped on all 28 barriers instead of hurdling them, as well as the seven water jumps. Had he possessed good hurdling technique his time may have been a good 14 seconds faster which would have ranked him fourth on the current UK all-time list.

The general consensus is that given an athlete’s 3,000m flat time, to convert it to the 3,000m steeplechase potential you add 35 seconds if hurdling technique is good and 45 seconds if it is poor. However, the current holder of the UK steeplechase record, Mark Rowland, had a 3,000m flat time of 7:46.22 and a steeplechase time of 8:07.96, a difference of only 21 seconds. He set this time in the 1988 Olympics to win a bronze medal. Rowland, like Bedford, placed great importance on flat speed under and over distance. Their flat speed times are compared in the panel.

Comparative flat times

Rowland 3:52.99 7:46.22 13:21.5 5:19:86 /2km
Bedford 4:02.9 7:46.4 13:17.12 27:30.89 /10km

Another fine British ‘chaser, Colin Reitz, had a flat time of 7:44.40 for 3,000m and 8:12.11 over the barriers - a difference of 28 seconds, well under the accepted 35 seconds differential.

When Bedford achieved his astonishing steeplechase record it caused a major rethink about training emphasis. The emphasis on barrier technique, hitherto a major part of the athlete’s training schedule, was pushed into the background. The call was for fast 1,500m and 5,000m times. The barriers will take care of themselves!

This view was given credence by the then world record-holder for the event, Kerry O’Brien, who never trained over the barriers. He claimed it was dangerous enough to race over them, let alone train over them. This sounds almost as absurd as a heavyweight boxing champion saying he did not believe in sparring practice before a major fight for fear of getting injured. In fact, in his only Olympic final, O’Brien fell heavily while trying to negotiate the water jump and retired due to injury.

O’Brien, like Bedford, stepped on all the barriers, saying it enabled him to take off on either foot when others crowded him. To sum up, given two athletes, each with times of eight minutes for the flat 3,000m, an accomplished hurdler is likely to run less than 8:35, while a stepper can only expect a time of over 8:45.

The stepper will either have to improve his hurdling technique or lower his 3,000m time to below 7:45 to defeat his more accomplished rival. And this was what Mark Rowland did - having lowered his 3,000m time to optimum, he found himself a hurdling coach in addition to his endurance one. Throughout the winter he trained once a week on his hurdling technique. His UK record is now nine years old.

The lot of a steeplechaser is not easy. One London track requires six hours notice if the water jump is to be filled up. Apparently there is a leak in the mains pipe. Fitting a hose to a tap in the dressing rooms has not been considered. Barriers cannot be put into position on the track during normal training times, and even the placing of single collapsible hurdles in the second and third lanes is considered a nuisance by others. This enhances the case for county coaching committees to book tracks on Sunday afternoons once a month specifically for steeplechase practice under the supervision of a senior BAF coach (steeplechase).

Some useful work can be done in a large indoor gym where a beam is lowered to 3 feet (0.94m) off the floor with a mat placed three feet away and a mark at 12ft (3.658m) distance from the beam. This will suffice as a make-shift water jump.

To ensure safety, check the wedges are firmly fixed with the flat side of the beam uppermost. The foot should be placed either near to the wall or upright. If space permits, a check mark should be placed seven running strides from the beam.

The aim is to hit the mark with the foot that is to be placed on the beam, assuming this is the right foot, the next stride with the left leg will count as number one, and the eighth stride will be the foot that is placed on the beam. On the opposite side of the gym a three foot high hurdle is set up.

A gym 50m long and 25m wide will enable the athlete to build up reasonable speed to negotiate the hurdle and water jump (beam). At first, the main aim is to get the technique right. Then, spells of four minutes’ duration circuits non-stop can be performed.

The conquering of the water jump is vital to conserving energy. Amos Biwott (Kenya), was the first man to have the courage not to place one foot on the barrier and spring off, but cleared the whole obstacle in one gigantic effort and, in so doing, reduced the customary clearance time of 1.1 seconds by half. The novice is not advised to emulate this technique.

The take-off spot is between 4.5 and 5 ft (1.372m and 1.524m), but some like to be nearer.

Some salient points to remember are:

  • Try to increase speed some 15 yards away.
  • Usually the take off foot for clearing the other barriers will be the strongest leg, and this is the one to place on the barrier rail. Discrepancies in leg strength should be corrected - hopping 25m on a weak leg is one way to improve elastic leg strength.
  • The ball of the foot is placed on the rail. Some steeplechase shoes have small spikes on the instep which secure the rail, especially useful if it is raining or other times when the rail gets slippery. Lower the body so you can pivot easily on the rail foot.
  • From the crouch position, push off, the thigh of the leading leg reaching out with the knee bent. A good thing to remember here is lead with the knee. The rear leg (the driver) should stick to the rail for as long as possible which will lead to a good separation of the legs (split) and will allow normal running action out of the water. In theory only one foot should get wet if the landing is at the water’s edge. A sign of a poor water jump technique is when both shoes emerge sodden. The trail leg should be brought through high ready to continue the running action on landing.

Should the run-up to the water jump cause undue stuttering of the feet, and therefore time lost, practice once a week placing a check mark (white tape, about 48ft (14.6m) from the rail. Go farther back the same distance. Run up and hit the mark with the foot you wish to place on the rail, this gives a seven-stride approach with the eighth on the rail.

The speed of approach if too fast will result in being too near for a comfortable take-off; similarly, if it is too slow you will be too far away. Try to assess race pace.

With usage, the jump can be executed without a marker. The marker can be adjusted as fitness gains.

Not much is said about arm action during the water jump, but when the split is being executed, the extending leading leg should be accompanied by a high arm raise action on the opposite side ie left leg extending, right arm coming through high.

Some coaches suggest emulating the 400m hurdler’s technique over the barriers. There is a flaw in this advice. The 400m runner is travelling at nearly 20mph. The steeplechaser will, at best, be running 6mph slower. The extravagant lean of the 400m hurdler is too energy-sapping. Neither does he want to skim over the barrier, if the trailing leg hits the hurdle it won’t fall over, but you might!

Much of what has been said about the water jump applies - accelerate to the barrier, lead with the knee dead straight ahead, some body dip will aid the trailing leg to come through high and horizontal, then snap it down fast and forward. Practice is essential.

Cross country racing in the winter is a valuable background for the keen ‘chaser, it is also the time to practice even-pace running over the barriers and water jump.

If the target is 9:15, that’s 73 sec / 400m. If the aim is 8:30, this is 67 sec / 400m, and to break the nine minute barrier you need to do 70 sec / 400m. At the severe end, there is 3 x 1,500m starting where the 3,000m begins. Complete recovery after each rep.

My favourite is to run 400m faster than 3,000m ‘chase pace on the flat, then go straight into 400m over five hurdles (four on their marks, and one opposite the water jump) at race pace. Rest four minutes and repeat four times.

Over the course of 14 days in the track season there should be sessions at 5km, 3km, 1,500m and 800m speeds. On non-track days a 35 minute run in the morning and an hour run at night for those aiming at top class performances. If the 5km pace is 72 sec / 400m, the 3km speed will be 68 sec/400, the 1,500m speed 64 sec / 400m and the 800m 60 sec / 400m.

In all league matches there are valuable points to be won in the steeplechase. Taking part and doing well for your club in this event means you become a member of an athletics brotherhood which has no equal in the sport.