Olympic and world 400m hurdles champion + former world record-holder tells AW why Femke Bol rebuilding her hurdles technique should be seen as her greatest achievement
Femke Bol bookended the World Championships in spectacularly fluctuating style. On opening night, there was the drama of the young Dutch athlete crashing to the ground with Mixed 4x400m relay gold in sight. Then, in the final track action of this athletics extravaganza, she engulfed her opponents with an unforgettable closing surge to clinch 4x400m relay gold for the Dutch women’s team.
The pendulum swing of emotions involved in going from that painful low to an adrenaline-fuelled high would have been more than enough for most athletes to contend with.
Bol, however, is not most athletes.
In between her relay performances was the small matter of contesting the 400m hurdles. In the absence of defending champion and world record-holder Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, the 23-year-old was a massive favourite.
Bol’s year has been of the highly impressive variety. An indoor season brought European titles in the 400m and 4x400m, as well as breaking what had been the oldest world record in the athletics history books by clocking 49.26 for 400m.
While this was all going on, though, she was making big changes in her approach to the 400m hurdles. In a bid to get faster, her stride pattern, which had previously involved taking 15 steps between each barrier, would now be 14. Doing so would also require the ability to hurdle off each leg, rather than always favouring her stronger option.
Sally Gunnell, the 1992 Olympic champion who broke the world record when winning the world 400m hurdles title in Stuttgart 30 years ago, knows just how difficult a skill that is to master. There’s a bravery, she insists, in being willing to do that – particularly in such a high profile setting.
“Changing your lead leg and changing your stride pattern, she’s done all of that this year,” says Gunnell. “I think what makes her such a big deal is that she’s able to make those changes, that she has the confidence to go for 14 strides and has the technical ability [to pull it off].
“There’s so much that goes into the 400m hurdles. You’ve got to keep the speed up, you’ve got to have the strength. You can’t overstride, you’ve got to be able to adjust plus there’s the wind and all of these factos that come in.
“She’s worked hard over the winter and has had the confidence and the belief from her coach saying ‘you can do this’. But to actually do that in a Grand Prix and try these new things [is amazing].”
The meeting to which Gunnell is referring is the London Diamond League where Bol broke the European record with 51.45. It was a sure sign that the changes were taking root and the perfect preparation for Budapest, where she recovered from that first night fall to leave her rivals trailing in her wake and take the first world title of her career.
It’s a feat which can’t be overestimated, says Gunnell. Bol was effectively rewiring her brain.
“It’s to do with your rhythm and the pattern of your brain and, of course, you want to go on to your safe leg,” she continues. “We’ve always got one dominant leg, whoever you are, and you have to train yourself to be able to go over the hurdle with that next leg.
“To do that, it’s about going back to basics. That’s just drilling and almost forgetting the left-hand side of your brain and kicking in with your right-hand side and getting out of bad habits.
“That change and drilling and drilling and drilling can sometimes be really boring. That’s the hard work and, when you get tired, when you don’t think right in a race, the oxygen hasn’t quite gone in there or you’ve just gone too hard between hurdle three and four, that’s when it’s easy to click back on to your strong leg.
“That’s where the visualisation piece which is massive in this [comes in], knowing what your stride pattern is and just drilling that over and over and over in your mind.”
Gunnell admits there were certain stride patterns she could only use in major championships “because of pressure and getting your body at its peak in this small window” so for Bol to manage it in the build-up as well as on the big occasion, spoke volumes.
As someone who remains an ardent fan of her event, Gunnell now hopes the world will get to see McLaughlin-Levrone and Bol going head to head again in Olympic year, given the great strides which have literally been taken by the European champion.
“She’s a massive talent and I’d love to see her and Sydney out there running again given how far Femke has come in this last 12 months.”
Who knows what might now be possible in the next 12?
» This article first appeared in the September issue of AW magazine. Subscribe here
» Special Offer: Subscribe today and get your first three months for just £24.99 here