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(originally published to Helium writing site, now gone)

The approach is the all-important part of the high jump. Without a good approach, a high jumper will not get enough lift or the appropriate angle to clear the bar and do well in competitions. The gather and the take off are important too, but a poor approach will result in an ineffective jump no matter how good the other parts.

There are several high jump techniques and a different approach is needed for each one. The straddle is where the jumper runs in towards the bar and throws their non-jumping or outside foot high up in the air before leaping off the ground with the inside foot. The athlete’s body becomes horizontal, facing downwards, as they rotate their body around the bar. This technique was developed from the western roll, a similar style but without the rotation. The other main method, and the one favored today, is the Fosbury flop, named after the jumper who made it famous at the Mexico City Olympic Games in 1968, Dick Fosbury. With this technique, a jumper takes off with the outside foot and twists their body around so that they go over the bar as they face upwards, head and shoulders first, then torso, and finally the legs and feet.

Let’s look at the straddle and why the approach is so important. The first thing to consider is the angle of the run. If a jumper comes in at too great an angle, they will be taking off too close to the bar. It will be difficult from this angle to get their outside leg up and rotate their body over the bar. Also, the lateral distance over the bar will be greater as the athlete will tend to slide along the top, or hit it on the way up or when coming down, or land close to the edge of the pit. On the other hand, if the athlete runs in straight or at a small angle, the lateral distance over the bar is less but they will be jumping further from the bar and there is a tendency to dive. No matter how good the take off and the height reached, clearing the bar will be more difficult if the angle of the approach is too great or small. The ideal angle is about 30-40 degrees from the straight run up position.

Length and speed of the approach are also important. A steady acceleration is needed to reach the optimal speed at take off. If the speed at take off is relatively slow, about seven strides are needed. A fast run up needs about 13 paces. If too slow, not enough momentum will be built up by the time of the take off. Too fast and the jumper will travel too far laterally as they won’t be able to transfer enough of their momentum in an upwards direction. Run up speed will differ between jumpers and may be a case of trial and error.

The way an athlete runs in will have an impact on their take off too. Several slower steps are usually preferred at the start, followed by a number of faster steps before take off. Late 1950s world record holder John Thomas of the US used three slow and then four faster steps. In contrast, Russian Valeriy Brumel, who held the record in the early 1960s, had a longer and faster run up of four slowish steps and seven fast ones. He was not a tall man for a high jumper but was able to transfer his momentum into an extraordinary upward leap. Thomas copied Brumel’s longer run up but it didn’t work as well for the American. Most jumpers will place a marker at the point where they accelerate, so that they get to the exact same take off spot each time.

The high jump technique used by most top competitors these days is the Fosbury flop. The importance of the approach using this method is probably even greater than for the straddle and other high jump techniques. For the “flop,” jumpers use a curved or J-shaped approach. The first part of the run up is a straight line similar to the straddle, but the angle of the starting point from the bar might be quite slight and athletes will often run the first section in a line heading straight for a point to the side of the jumping area. The second part of the approach consists of a curved run before the jumper goes into the gather and take off.

At the start of the approach, an athlete’s body should rock back slightly, with the ankle of the back foot locked and toes pointing upwards. The jumper takes about five steps in a straight line, by which time the desired speed has been reached. By the fourth step, the athlete’s eyes go from a point straight ahead to focusing on the bar and may then quickly alternate several times between the two. After five steps, the athlete’s body should be upright and turned slightly towards the bar in readiness for the second part of the approach.

During the second part, also of about five steps, the athlete runs in a curved motion, moving leftwards if taking off on their left foot. Those who jump off their right foot will run in from the opposite or left side of the approach area and turn to the right. The feet turn into the curve and the body should tilt in this direction too, away from the bar itself. Athletes should lean from the ankles rather than the hips, such that they feel as though they are running on the sides of their feet. This action is maintained up to and including the final stride and sets up the all-important pivotal action needed to clear the bar. Speed must be kept up throughout this second part of the approach so the athlete has enough momentum to leap high off the ground.

There are several advantages of this J-curve approach used in the Fosbury flop. The athlete can built up more horizontal speed than using the straddle or other techniques, as their body is crouched low and leaning inwards, which will generate additional upward momentum. This centripetal force, which enables the jumper to turn in the air, allows the athlete to approach the bar at a greater angle and at a quicker speed and should automatically take the jumper over the bar. It places the jumper in a better take off position than with the other methods and an exact take off spot is less important as the athlete is almost running beside the bar at take off. Further, today’s large soft landing areas enable an athlete to safely land on their back or shoulders, something that could have caused serious injury with the old sacks of foam and smaller landing area.

The development of the high jump over the last 100 years has been largely about changes in both technique and approach to enable the athlete to maximize their leap at the take off point. These aspects, far more than the take off itself, have been responsible for an increase in the world record by about one and a half feet or 45 centimeters in the men’s event and at least two feet or 60 centimeters for the women over this period.