What Is Steeplechase? Everything You Need to Know About the Athletics Event
Sport & Activity
Plus, how to train for the race.
Evan Jager won the silver medal in the 3,000-metre steeplechase at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. He took bronze at the 2017 World Championships.
While most track races generally involve people running in a straight line or in circles, few attract the crowd's attention like the steeplechase. This race involves hurdling over large, immobile barriers and a water jump—earning its reputation for being an intense event.
"Steeplechase is fun, challenging and unexpected", said Matthew Barreau, head cross-country and interim head athletics coach at Lewis & Clark College. "Track is extremely monotonous in some ways. Steeplechase breaks up some of the monotony of a long-distance race".
But steeplechase isn't as well known as many other track races, and it's understandable to have questions about what the race is and how to run it. Here's what you need to know.
What Is a Steeplechase Race?
A steeplechase race is a track race that takes runners over 28 large, fixed barriers and seven water jumps. It's important to note that this isn't a normal hurdles race—steeplechase uses large barriers that span several lanes. (Hurdles, on the other hand, take up just one lane and fall down when they're hit.)
The barriers are different heights for men and women. For men, the barriers are nearly one metre (approx.) high; for women, they are 0.8 metres (approx.) high. There is one barrier placed right at the front of the water jump. The water jump is almost 4 metres long and has a pit with an upwards slope that's deeper near the barrier.
"The first 200 metres are without a barrier, and then the last seven laps involve going over barriers", Barreau said.
Unlike hurdle races, steeplechase barriers don't move from their positions if they're hit by a runner, Barreau pointed out. They're also much larger than hurdles, spanning several lanes on the track.
How Long Are Steeplechase Races?
Steeplechase races are usually 3,000 metres, but Barreau said there is some occasional variation. "Almost all steeplechase races are 3,000 metres, but some developmental steeples, primarily for secondary school, might be 2,000 metres", he said.
Where Did Steeplechase Come From?
Steeplechase was originally modelled after equestrian steeplechase races. "Those go through the countryside and over hedges", Barreau said.
The race originally started with people running from one town's church steeple to another, according to the International Olympic Committee. These races featured obstacles like walls and low streams.
Modern steeplechase races originated at Oxford University, with fixed barriers and pits replacing natural obstacles. The event debuted at the Olympic Games in Antwerp in 1920 for men, and in the 2008 Beijing games for women.
How To Run the Steeplechase
Courtney Frerichs is a three-time silver medallist in the 3,000 metre steeplechase.
Barreau said there are a few things to bear in mind when it comes to running the steeplechase.
"You have to be prepared to run 3,000 metres", he said. "It sounds simplistic, but you've got to be a good 3,000 runner".
In addition to being prepared for the distance, the demands that come from jumping also need to be considered. Though, Barreau is cautious about giving his runners too much advice when it comes to getting over the barriers.
"Especially for beginners, the phrase that I use is, 'just get over it'", he said. "It means two different things: One, you just have to clear the hurdle—I don't care how you do it. Two, there's a good chance that your hurdle isn't going to be the greatest, especially for the rookies".
The barriers are every 80 metres. "They're present all the time, but technically, they're such a small portion of the race", Barreau said. "It uses your energy, but you still have to get [over the barrier] and run".
When it comes to clearing the barriers, Barreau recommended doing whatever feels easiest. That often means finding a technique that feels natural to each runner. Some people prefer to jump over the barrier in a traditional hurdle style, while others like to jump onto the barrier and then jump off it. Each technique has its own pros and cons, and runners may use both options throughout a race depending on their positioning as they approach the barrier and how tired they are.
"It has to be the least interrupting thing to you", Barreau said. "If that means you have to [jump on] it and go, great. If you can fully clear the hurdle, do it". If you're unsure, Barreau said "it's better to just [jump on] it and get back to running again".
How To Train For Steeplechase
Barreau said that preparing for steeplechase largely involves endurance training to ensure you can run a 3,000-metre race.
"You can completely overcomplicate things by saying, 'We've got to be really efficient at hurdling'", he said, noting that endurance is really what's important in the race. "But at the end of the day, you've just got to run", he said.
Still, Barreau said it's important to know how to jump and land. That can involve doing bounding and skipping exercises on the track, or box jumps to make sure you feel comfortable landing from the height of the hurdles. "That's a very simple aspect of the race and training", he said.
"If you have access to a barrier, learning to approach it comfortably, jump over it and continue racing without breaking up your speed too much can also be helpful", he said.
As for the water jump, Barreau said it can be hard to train for, given how few people have access to a water jump on a regular basis.
"When you're jumping onto a barrier and getting ready to jump into water, you have a little sensation of jumping off a cliff", he said. If you have access to a small diving board in your town, consider jumping into the water from it to help overcome any nerves you may have, he added.
Remember To Enjoy Yourself
Overall, Barreau said to just have fun with steeplechase.
"A lot of people choose the steeplechase because of the play aspect of it, so play", he said. "When you're running around town, jump up on a park bench and jump off [safely]. Just play. Have fun. That's what it's all about".
Words by Korin Miller