In 2012, Aries Merritt had what was arguably the greatest season ever for a high hurdler – highlighted by an Olympic Gold Medal AND destroying one of the toughest world records in the sport. Aries has been one of the top hurdlers in the world for several years but even then, his 2012 season stands out amongst other great Olympic year performances from Bolt, Blake, Ennis, Farrah and Rudisha. He had not only ridiculous performances but was consistently ridiculous. While such a season makes the extraordinary begin to look ordinary, it is important that we don’t overlook what it takes to make something like this happen. Seasons like this are rare but they really are a perfect storm of sorts. Behind the scenes, it is the result of years of tireless work and commitment from not only a hard working athlete but also an intelligent and dedicated coach. With that in mind, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Andreas Behm, the man who guided Aries to his sensational 2012 season. I was first corresponded with Andreas several years ago and we share the similarity of being volunteer assistant coaches for Pat Henry, the most successful Track & Field head coach in NCAA history (me at LSU from 2001-2005, Andreas currently at Texas A&M). Andreas was gracious enough to answer some questions for us. Thank you very much Andreas!
Aries had what might be the greatest season ever for a high hurdler, was there anything different that you did this year that you can pin his continued development and consistency on?
While everyone sees the success Aries had this season, it is important to understand that this was more than just one year in the making. It took us two or even three years to get to this point. The obvious technical change everyone has been talking about is the switch from an 8 step to a 7 step approach. It gives him an increase in propulsion on his approach and better velocity on takeoff through the first hurdle. The work on this started two seasons ago when we were still using an 8 step approach. On acceleration days Aries would alternate his front feet on each rep, so as to get used to having his unaccustomed foot forward in the blocks. The other major technical component we refined was his hurdle clearance. We worked on establishing consistent takeoff distances, an aggressive takeoff angle, closing down into and over the hurdle as well as continuously moving his limbs over the top of the hurdle. All this resulted in him clearing the hurdle a lot lower and more fluidly than he used to. Aries also has simply been a lot more diligent regarding his work ethic, nutrition, treatment and rest. He has basically been able to stay fairly healthy for the last two seasons for the first time in his career, which means lots of great training sessions without setbacks and interruptions. He is at an age where his maturity and experience finally match his talent and that has made all the difference in the world.
How frequently do you train speed and how often is that training done over hurdles? If it changes throughout the course of the year please briefly discuss.
In our system acceleration and speed development lay the foundation for everything we do. There are specific rhythms, movements and coordination patterns that need to be worked on and improved upon from day one. We do some type of acceleration or speed work at least two times a week. Since all types of hurdling is optimal acceleration/speed work, we still continue to work on maximal acceleration/speed on the flat to challenge the nervous system throughout the year. We never really get away from doing speed work whether it be sprints or in hurdle rhythm form. I would much rather manipulate variables such as training volume and/or density before I reduce training intensity.
Can you discuss your feelings on hurdle drills. Do they serve a purpose in the development of an elite hurdler? How about for a more developmental hurdler?
The younger the training age of the athlete, the more important hurdle drills are for developmental purposes. Oftentimes Coach Vince Anderson and I will have several multi-event athletes who have limited or no hurdle background at all. We use drills with these athletes to introduce postures and movement concepts, as well as establish common language for instruction and cuing. Drills also help to unlearn bad habits of fledgling hurdlers. We are constantly fighting the notion of novice hurdlers wanting to be long and open in between the hurdles and relatively quick over the top (from a range of motion standpoint), when the exact opposite is desirable. With our more advanced and elite hurdlers we tend to do a limited amount of drills and generally prefer to make technical changes during actual hurdling.
Can you discuss your manipulation of hurdle variables (height, spacing, number, etc) in training over the course of the training year?
We rarely, if ever hurdle at regular hurdle height and spacing. In an effort to establish fast hurdle rhythms between the hurdles we lower and discount the hurdles. The only hurdle which remains fairly in place is the first hurdle, all others we move in. As the year goes on we discount the hurdles less and less once the athlete has stabilized a fast cadence at a certain spacing. This way we try to maintain our fast rhythms while getting closer and closer to actual race spacing. The deeper we get into the training year the athletes’ speed and power levels increase which allows them to handle the less discounted hurdles and maintain the same fast rhythms. Early in the year we tend to work over 4-6 hurdles with the focus being on a dynamic approach and optimal hurdling speed/rhythm, later on in the year we work in the 4-12 hurdle range with an added emphasis on rhythm endurance.
How much emphasis do you place on building strength in the weight room? Does it differ with different athletes, ages, etc? And what is your general strength development philosophy?
Throughout the year I tend to go from structural to maximal and finally to more dynamic and functional lifting as the year progresses. I also start off with more double support lifts and transition to more single support exercises as we go along. Once I have developed strength and power to satisfactiory levels, I like for the body to be able to express these qualities unilaterally. I feel very strongly in having a multifaceted approach and making sure that track training, weight training, general and specific strength methods are all used in an integrated manner. The levels of each that are applied depends on the type of athlete you are working with and the strengths and deficiencies they bring with them.
As far as a general and overarching philosophy, I believe in posture, rhythm, range of motion, coordination, (and depending on the lift, bar speed) before weight. If you are working on all those qualities you will be able to lift heavy and explosively in time, but never stop working or compromise these just for the sake of lifting heavier.
On a more hurdle specific note, I have put an added emphasis on such lifts as quarter squats, low box step ups and explosive movements from shallow flexion. These help more closely mimic the force application demands of a shuffling hurdler. A hurdler simply cannot open up and apply forces into the track with the range of motion that a sprinter can, due to the limited amount of space they have to work with between the hurdles.
Can you discuss your thoughts on the 7 step approach to the first hurdle. Is it the future for everyone? What are the challenges and what are the indicators that should be used to decide when to make the switch?
I do not feel like the 7 step approach is for everyone. There need to be certain qualities in place for the athlete to be able to execute this approach effectively. Primarily the athlete needs to be fast and powerful. Height of the athlete is a secondary consideration. The initial challenge is having to switch feet in the blocks, thus pushing off the unnatural foot out of the front pedal. The 7-step approach has a more open and sprint like rhythm to it, making it hard for athletes to get into a quicker hurdle cadence coming off the first hurdle. This type of approach work tends to take more out of the body, so being careful with overall programming as it pertains to the week’s other training sessions is critical.
Do you use any specific technology to facilitate training or recovery (video analysis software, sleep quality applications, timing devices, heart rate variability monitoring, etc)?
At Texas A&M we use timing systems to get accurate and consistent times for certain sprints that we periodically test throughout the year. For analyzing posture and technique we use high speed cameras and Dartfish analysis software. Additionally we benefit from having Dr. Raph Mann and his biomechanical team come in a few times a year for quality control purposes on our elite athletes. They have the ability with their equipment to measure some variables we are unable to (such as ground contact times, limb velocities etc.) and compare our athletes’ postures to different virtual models. In the weight room we periodically use Tendo Units to measure bar speed and power output for our Olympic lifts. For body composition data we take DEXA scans every six weeks, which lets us know if we are moving in the right direction, in terms of body fat and lean muscle mass.