The men’s 400m Hurdles was one of many hotly contested events at this year’s World Championships in Oregon.
The top three contenders were the Gold, Silver and Bronze medallists from the Tokyo Olympics where all three athletes equalled or ran faster than the 30-year-old World Record of 46.72s, set by Kevin Young at the Barcelona Olympics. Before 2021, Young was the only athlete ever to run under 47 seconds, until Karsten Warholm ran 46.70s at the Oslo Diamond League, setting a new WR.
The Olympic Games saw something even more incredible though, with Warholm breaking the 46s barrier (45.94s), Rai Benjamin in second with 46.17s, Alison Dos Santos in third in 46.72s, with a further three National Records set by those finishing between 4th-7th - the best men’s 400m Hurdle race in history.
Known for being a brutal track event, the 400mH is a test of strength, speed endurance, technique, and grit, with the lactic acid at the end of the race making the final hurdle feel like it’s a 6ft wall. What makes these runners so effective to run these times? Beyond the strength of 400m running, the long hurdles have three key areas to consider; stride pattern, hurdle technique and choice of lead leg.
The stride pattern is crucial for athletes to ensure they can run a smooth race; male 400m Hurdlers run 12-14 strides between each hurdle, depending on their race pace, physicality, hurdling ability and their decision to ‘change down’ to maintain speed or manage fatigue. For example, we see a stark difference between Alison Dos Santos and Rai Benjamin, despite running just half a second off each other through each round, their stride patterns are very different:
Tactically, you want to run the inside line as this is the shortest route around the track, and to stay within the rules by remaining in your lane, a left-leg lead is most effective. Warholm and Dos Santos deliver this incredibly well. Warholm runs 13 strides throughout his races, remaining on his left leg the entire time.
Dos Santos runs 13 strides to H2 (on the first bend), 12 strides down the back straight into H6 (beginning of bend two) and 13 strides home, running that inside line through the second bend and the transition into the final straight. Rai Benjamin runs 13 strides throughout too, however, remains on his right leg lead throughout. Whilst he has run incredible times over the 400mH (46.17s in the Olympics and 47.07s at the Worlds), there could be gains for him if he switches to left-leg lead for the whole race, or at least throughout the bends.
Regardless, consistency is paramount and, below, we look at how the athletes performed across the rounds in Oregon. Our World and Olympic medallists maintain their speed throughout the race in the first two rounds very well. It’s difficult to run tactically in the 400m Hurdles, therefore athletes will hit the first 250m (to around Hurdle 6) at race pace and then check how they’re doing over the last 150m, whilst keeping their speed to stay in front.
It’s important to carry momentum whilst conserving energy, and the hurdle technique plays a significant role in making the race as efficient as possible, particularly in the later stages of the race. In the final (graph below), we can see how the medallists - Dos Santos, Benjamin and Bassitt - run a smooth race and maintain their speed all the way through to H10, before a dash to the finish line. The major change for Dos Santos across the rounds, and compared to the Tokyo Olympics, is taking those 12 strides to H6. This allowed him to run harder down the back straight then change down to a more comfortable stride pattern in the final 150m, where he ran some of the fastest splits between H7-H10, carrying his speed and momentum to take Gold.
Unfortunately for Warholm, he had recently suffered with injury and could not maintain his pace over the last three hurdles in the final, dropping from 13 strides to 15 strides between H8 and H10. As we can see in the graph below with his splits in blue, this affected his pace significantly as he faded and finished in 7th:
With the next World Championships in 2023 and the Olympics in 2024, the next couple of years will see this battle continue and evolve. Whilst the sub-46 WR could remain for some time, the 46 second races could become the new norm, and it will be fascinating to see how this event is elevated in the coming years.