Dr Matt Long spoke with ex-Olympic steeplechaser Spencer Duval about the specifics of the event
Former Olympic steeplechases Spencer Duval, who boasts an 8:24.64 3000m steeplechase PB, explained: “It’s the easiest event to make a team in and will be for years to come as so many athletes give it a miss and opt for races on the flat.”
The 1996 Atlanta Olympian was speaking at a gathering of some of the region’s top coaches and young athletes as part of the England Athletics West Midlands Mentoring programme. He says there are three fundamental components to the steeplechase – endurance, technique and tactics.
The former UKA national event coach told the workshop: “It’s fundamentally an endurance event which is broken up every so often.”
In coaching a session suitable for both genders, he advocates a weekly session for the novice run over hurdles rather than the more intimidating wooden barriers. His own lynchpin session was 3x1000m over hurdles with 30 seconds recovery, which, as well as a fitness component working both aerobic and lactate energy systems, served as a key predictor of forthcoming race times.
Duval emphasises that the key endurance demand of the event lies in the transition between 2km and 3km and junior athletes who race the shorter distance (as well as the 1500m distance) can modify their sessions to include much shorter repetitions over 400m with hurdles placed in the conventional steeplechase positions.
In certain instances he advocates active recoveries during repetitions with ‘jumping squats’ deliberately being thrown in to induce the kind of ‘super-fatigue’ in the quadriceps muscles in an attempt to simulate the tiredness that an athlete will face in the latter stages of a race.
The gathering of the proverbial baying crowd at the water jump at any club meeting is testament to the fear factor that this event holds and that is why Duval advocates that 95% of work be done over hurdles and not wooden barriers. He stresses that before mastery of the water jump and the one-footed landing can be achieved, adaptation should be used in terms of perfecting the ‘jump’ from grounded take-off with no barrier whatsoever. He said: “I even used twigs on my park runs to trigger my practising of jumps in front of bemused dog walkers who would see me leap into the air for no apparent reason!”
To achieve technical efficiency over conventional wooden barriers, Duval advocates walking hurdle drills of the kind utilised by both sprint and 400m hurdlers in order to increase balance, agility and coordination. He encourages creativity in maintaining that postural stability can be developed at home using household furniture such as chairs to perfect the hurdle technique.
Duval was coached from his early teens by Dave Sunderland (England Athletics coach mentor for middle-distance and steeplechase) and in paying tribute to his former coach he points to the need to “control acceleration into the barriers while being energy efficient”.
In the earlier part of Duval’s career he concedes that he had an overwhelming desire to go to the front of races in an attempt to “keep out of trouble.” As he matured as an international competitor this changed and he stressed that, “while you can’t blindly trail the runner in front of you as you can in a flat race, you simply must learn to run in the pack as a steeplechaser”.
In acknowledging that at world-class level, the Africans over the last five years have turned the last 400m of the race into a “sprint”, he maintains that for the club runner this is far from likely to be the case. He adds: “Even at the highest level, athletes mess up on the last lap as their stride pattern changes due to fatigue. For the club runner however, it’s more about who slows down the least in the latter stages when fatigue sets in.”
Duval’s parting shot was apt: “Think of it as a 3000m race with 35 jumps in it.” For mere mortals that requires a cognitive leap of faith as brave as any physical leap of a barrier!