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Pole Vault For Dummies

In a mall, on the street, with a train, up twenty feet... Sam I am. The recent rash of wacky vault venues inspired Seuss-ism, and more successfully, a class in how to catapult one’s* body over an 18-foot high bar.

*In this case, the body belongs to former University of Minnesota vaulter Zach Siegmeier, who provided this tutorial on the sport. Siegmeier was one of the professional contestants who took to the runway on the rooftop in the September 5th Brit’s Pub Vault in Minneapolis. See?

Pole vault is, literally and figuratively, the rocket science of track and field. None of this make a left and hurry back pablum: Between levers and arcs and momentum and awareness of your body in outer space and what could happen if you miscalculate, there are at least 47 things to orchestrate at any given moment. All of those things are crammed into the six seconds or so it takes to complete a jump.


“At the end of the day, this is a track event—speed is the most important factor,” said Siegmeier. “Some jumpers have mastered a powerful swing or great technique, but the fastest runner will usually win.”

Let the learning begin! Here are Seven Easy Lefts (read on and understand, Grasshopper) To Pole Vaulting.

Poles 101. If you’re the type who thinks nothing pulls a scanty form-fitting ensemble together like a 16-foot fiberglass pole, you have the makings of a vaulter. Poles come in different lengths, stiffness and materials. They range from 10 feet to about 17 feet 4 inches, and are made of either fiberglass or carbon fiber. The latter has a reputation for recoiling faster from being bent, which may facilitate a higher vault, but it also has a reputation for breaking, :( Stiffness, or flex number, is measured by hanging a 50-pound weight from the middle of a horizontally fixed pole. The number of centimeters the pole bends from neutral is the flex number, ranging from a very soft 22 to a very stiff 10.

Generally, beginning vaulters use a shorter, more flexible pole and as their skills improve, move to a longer, stiffer pole. Generally, athletes start a competition on a shorter pole and move up as the length of their approach and their speed increases. Generally, a longer, stiffer pole will allow you to jump higher. Again, as a general rule, smaller athletes use a smaller pole.


Those are the broad axioms, but there are six kinds of extenuating circumstances. For example, Siegmeier said, athletes may use a straight pole that doesn’t bend at all to practice the swing phase of the jump. Inexperienced jumpers may use a straight pole because they either can’t bring the speed necessary to bend a pole, or because a flexed pole adds a layer of complexity they’re not yet ready to integrate. He recalled clearing 14 feet at the Illinois state high school championship off a straight pole because that was the only arrow in his quiver. Alternately, an athlete can change how much the pole bends by adjusting his grip—holding closer to the end results in more flex; a lower grip reduces the amount of flex.

“Jump on the longest pole you can,” Siegmeier advised. “You want a pole with exactly the right amount of resistance to slow you down and shoot you vertically up and over the bar. If you’re not bringing enough speed though, you won’t be able to roll the pole over to vertical.” The Wikipedia page on pole vault dumbs it down for you thusly:


“The energy produced by the run (1/2 x mass x speed^2) is converted to vertical propulsion (mass x height x gravity(9.81)).”

If you’re not running fast enough on a big pole, gravity wins. Hopefully you’re not yet upside down when gravity claims its victory.


Conversely, if you’re making 60 mph down the runway on a pole loaded for rabbit, you’ll experience something Siegmeier calls a “blow through.” When planted, your pimp cane will slow you down exactly zero miles per hour, your forward momentum will not be diverted upward but rather will continue forward. If all goes well, there will not be a brick wall on the far side of the pit as there is at the Brit’s venue.

“While you usually need a big pole to jump high, you can jump high on any pole,” he said. “You just have to choose the right pole to fit how you’re jumping that day.”


So there’s this sweet spot of the athlete’s ability, the size and flexibility of the pole, and the karma of the universe on that day. Finding it is kind of an art. Like have a full set of golf clubs, Siegmeier gives himself the best chance of finding that sweet spot by showing up to a competition with eight different poles.

“Bring two poles bigger than you’ve ever been on,” he said. “If you’re having a great day, you’ll have no excuse. A 14-foot is the first one I’ll use from a short approach, for the first time down the runway. If that feels good, I’ll move back [on the runway] and switch to a 15 foot 6 inch stiffer pole. If I’m running faster or if there’s a tailwind, I’ll go up a pole. I’ve got the 14-foot, three 15’6” poles with various flex numbers, and four 16-foot big ones.”


Training. Many vaulters come from a gymnastics background—people who have the ability to visualize and control their body while it’s moving quickly through at least three dimensions. Not surprisingly, training for pole vault includes sprint workouts, elements of gymnastics, and weight work. “Nothing longer than 200 meters,” said Siegmeier. “Maybe 80 meter sprints; three sets of three. Gymnastics stuff like kips on the high bar, hip circles, free hip circle to a handstand. And weight lifting—power cleans, snatch, squats, a lot of core stuff. Then stretching and cool down.”

In the fall training season, September through December, he vaults two or three days a week. The rest of the year, which is the vaulting season, he jumps twice a week—a practice and a meet day. While that seems kind of sparse, he said the complexity of the event makes it extremely taxing, physically and mentally: Doing it more frequently courts injury.


Approach. Vaulters measure their runway approach by the number of left foot steps, for example, four lefts or nine lefts. The actual distance varies with each athlete—an approach of seven lefts for Siegmeier is 95 feet. Less speed is necessary to clear the bar at beginning heights, so he uses an approach of three or four lefts for the early bars. As the bar gets higher, a longer approach is necessary to gain sufficient speed. Siegmeier considers nine lefts a full approach; for others, it may be eight or ten lefts. The vaulter gains speed as he approaches the bar, with the last three steps very quick. The faster he’s running, the more energy he can transfer to vertical movement. As he’s blasting down the runway, Siegmeier thinks about only one of the many elements of the jump, such as running faster or jumping up at takeoff or technique once he plants the pole in the box. The box? It’s a rhomboid shaped downward sloping depression in which the pole slides to the back and stops abruptly. That’s when the fancy math occurs and forward energy makes a sudden northward turn. Here’s Siegmeier demonstrating a seven-step approach...


Super glue. The day of Brit’s Pub Vault was jungly—90 degrees with equal humidity. I wondered aloud how one kept a grip on the pole whilst spouting sweating like a fountain. Yes, athletes use chalk and athletic tape on the pole, but also super glue.

“I used to use 3M Super 77, you know, put it on my palms until it was tacky,” said Siegmeier. “But if you had callouses, it really ripped up your hands. It was actually hard to quit using super glue because it really worked.”


The swing. After you stab the pole into the box, you jump up with your left leg (if you’re right dominant) and drive your right knee upward. “Swing your trail leg (the left one) all the way through and snap your legs and hands together like a clam shell,” Siegmeier described. The momentum from the run together with an awesome core powers a fast swing. “Shoot your feet and legs upward while throwing your shoulders under you. Your body should be straight upside down at this point. When you’re upside down, you have to throw away the pole. And as your feet clear the bar, you turn over, so as you’re crossing the bar, you’re also rolling from your back onto your front. I think about putting my right leg over my left to affect this twist, and my body follows. Once my feet are over the crossbar, I pike, then keep my upper body and arms out of way.” That all happens in about three seconds. Probably. Here are some engaging POV...

Individualism. There is no such thing as a typical pole vaulter body type. “You need to be as strong and as light as possible, but body types are all over the place,” said Siegmeier, who is six feet tall, about 170 pounds. Most vaulters fall somewhere between the cluster-muscled 100-meter specialist and a mosquito-like marathoner. Like body types, technique over the bar varies widely, from steep up and down McVaults to sweeping rainbows. As Siegmeier said, “If the bar stays up, it’s working.”


Competition. A vaulter can choose the height at which they enter the competition, and gets three chances to clear each height. “Typically I like to come in 12 to 18 inches below my personal best,” Siegmeier said. “This gives me a couple of heights to get my timing down and helps me figure out what pole to use.” An athlete can also pass at any height after entering the competition, but if he’s already made two unsuccessful attempts at a height, for example, and passes to the next, he has only one chance at that height. The person who clears the highest bar is the winner. If two athletes have cleared the same height, the tie goes to the athlete with the fewest misses at the final height. Because each attempt is physically and mentally draining, and that demand increases as the bar is raised, it’s best to enter the competition as late as possible and limit attempts at early heights. Siegmeier considered twelve jumps in one competition a lot; performance suffers after that, making a clearance unlikely.

And there you have it. Below is some eyeball practice for you, to trammel your vaulting neural pathways...

photo credit: Ideatap Studios

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