As an athlete in track and field, I have always struggled with the idea of the “penultimate step” in jumping events. It has become a talking piece within many coaching spheres, as most coaches conclude that problems in a jumper’s technique occur here. First, I would discourage this thinking, as most problems occur much earlier than the penultimate step. Nevertheless, the penultimate step is still very important and should be addressed in jumping events.
For those of you that aren’t familiar with track and field, the penultimate step is the second to last step prior to takeoff. It is sometimes called the penultimate stride, and sets the jumper up for a correct takeoff trajectory. The penultimate step mainly functions to lower the center of mass prior to takeoff to allow the jumper to move vertically. Depending on the jumping event, the goal should be to lower the center of mass enough to allow for a vertical displacement of the center of mass, while maintaining a high velocity. Jumpers who lower more, and run slightly slower, have commonly been called “power jumpers”. Conversely, jumpers who lower less, and run faster, have commonly been called “speed jumpers”. In high jump this would be the difference between Stefan Holm (speed jumper) and Hollis Conway (power jumper).
During high jump, the lowering is much greater, as the takeoff angle is directed more vertically than triple jump or long jump. To do so, the athlete must run slower, as the breaking will be much greater during takeoff. The lowering during high jump begins at the initiation of the curve, but increases more during the last stride after contact of the second to last step (penultimate step). This step is initiated by leading touchdown with a toe up, or dorsiflexed position. This allows the athlete to dissipate forces optimally. The athlete should feel the hips move over the penultimate step and feel the leg move behind the body. Also, it has been taught that lowering should occur after the hips have moved over the penultimate step. In other words, the athlete should avoid lowering too soon. It is important to avoid allowing the hips to raise prior to the touchdown of the take off step. High jump differs from the other jumps in that the take off leg is much further in front of the body to allow greater lowering and breaking. After touchdown of the takeoff leg, the hips will travel forwards and upwards over the takeoff leg, and the athlete will displace vertically.
Long jump does not exhibit as much lowering, which allows for greater takeoff velocity. It is extremely important that the athlete does not compromise speed to attain excessive lowering, as there is a very high correlate between long jump performance and take off velocity. The penultimate step in long jump is initiated by a toe up position, and will contact slightly in front of the body, although the athlete should try to place the foot directly under the hips. This contact should be flat, as a rolling contact may decrease velocity too much. The athlete should actively push the hips forward over the penultimate step to preserve velocity and allow the center of mass to move down and forward. If done properly, the free leg will be left behind the body. The free leg will move a long distance very forcefully due to the stretch reflex occurring in the hip flexor. The takeoff contact has been discussed in great detail, as some coaches cue “push”, while others cue “pull and push”. Either way, it is important that the athlete have a very active, stiff takeoff leg at contact with little knee bend. The hips should begin to displace vertically after the contact of the takeoff leg.
Triple jump exhibits the least amount of lowering. The athlete should try to attain very high takeoff velocities through “running” off the board. If the athlete contacts the last two steps with a flat contact, the take off should be optimal. Most problems in triple jump tend to occur with too much lowering, leading to excessive vertical displacement of the center of mass. This is problematic, as athletes who are not eccentrically strong enough, will be unable to stop their center of mass from accelerating downwards, leading to injuries and poor performances.
There are many ways to skin a cat, and athletes will exhibit different strategies depending on their strengths and weaknesses. The important things to remember are that the athlete should attain sufficient lowering for optimal take off angles, while preserving velocity and posture.