The 800-meter is a unique event. According to a study done by the University of Western Australia, there is a 60% aerobic energy system contribution to top male athletes and 70% aerobic energy contribution for top female athletes running at 800-meters. It is important to note that the slower the athlete is, the more aerobic contribution the event will require.
Clearly, the 800-meters is an endurance event. However, the 800-meter is raced more like a sprint event, in that the first half of the race is faster than the last half of the race in top performances. It is the only endurance event that relies on “positive splits” for the fastest performances. Let’s look at 4 Goals for the 800-meter event.
Goal #1 – Endurance Support:
While we know that the aerobic component is critical to successful 800-meter performances, true 800 meter specialists, especially early in their career, may not enjoy or properly execute unsupervised distance runs. We can build endurance support through higher quality or higher velocity yet shorter duration continuous running also called tempo running. These are continuous runs at marathon to half marathon pace for as short as ten minutes or as long 40 minutes for those half milers with a strong aerobic background. These runs, if done on the track, can be more closely monitored by coaches for accurate execution.
Some misperceive repetition training as “speed work.” Repetition training can be used for a variety of purposes including developing endurance in the 800-meter athletes. For true 800-meter specialists, repetition training for endurance development may yield greater results than unsupervised continuous runs.
Endurance building repetitions are run at half marathon pace, 10k pace, 5k pace, 3200-meter pace and 1600-meter pace with relatively short rest periods. These types of sessions fall into the Lactate Threshold and VO2 Max categories of training. These reps can be as short as 150 meters or as long as one mile. The faster the pace the longer the corresponding rest will be.
The goal here is to train not strain, or as one great coach put it “just because you can go faster, doesn’t mean you should go faster.” We want the athlete to show control over each individual repetition and the overall session volume given the confines of the relatively short rest. We are not looking for the athletes to run so hard that they achieve “booty lock,” “falling out,” or “losing their lunch.” Those kinds of demanding or “going to the well” sessions will be discussed later in Goal #3.
Goal #2 – Speed Support:
Fast 800-meter racing will require relatively high velocities, especially in the first 200-meters of racing. Developing absolute speed, as well as the qualities of power and coordination (technique) that enhance speed, must be addressed as a fundamental and “base” concept. We cannot wait until late in the training year to work on speed.
Base speed is trained simultaneously with base endurance, although in different sessions. Here we are running repetitions that are most often between 60-meters and 150-meters at maximal efforts, although running shorter than 60-meters is also appropriate. These are run with full recoveries of at least 3 minutes and up to 10 minutes in length. These short runs require maximal efforts and technical efficiency.
All other technical and power training activities fall within the category of speed. Short but steep hill sprints or any type of plyometric jumping that can include the throwing of weighted implements are all examples of training that will enhance top speed qualities. Athletes often inappropriately consider these days to be the “easy” days, because they do not bring type of fatigue they associate with hard work. However, these are very demanding on the nervous system and create a different kind of fatigue if done with the appropriate level of intensity.
It is critical for the coach to demand high levels of effort and power output in order to achieve the intended training goals. It is also important to surround these sessions with contrasting sessions to allow the nervous system to recover.
Training absolute speed qualities will also enhance efficient running technique at all lower velocities, and it will enhance the development of the ATP-CP system of stored energy that is readily available at the start of races.
Goal # 3 – Specific Support:
Once we have built our endurance support and speed support systems, we can move to training specific support systems for the 800-meter event. Fatigue itself is a complex concept that sports science is constantly trying to understand. Theories are continually evolving and terminology periodically changes. We once convicted “lactic acid” for being guilty for causing the painful “booty lock” fatigue we feel after high intensity efforts over long durations such as 400 and 800-meter races. Science now tells us that “lactic acid” isn’t the cause of that fatigue. We are told now that there is a correlation of high levels of lactate and increasing acidity in the muscle, but that lactate isn’t the cause of that acidity. Regardless of this ever evolving fatigue model, 800-meter athletes must spend time training at a level of intensity and duration that cause this kind of fatigue.
The goal of specific support for the 800-meters is to combine both speed and endurance qualities to better handle the fatigue that will come from running at high intensities for long durations. This can be called lactate utilization work, lactate clearance work, buffering work or tolerance work. Whichever term you use, this is work that becomes “uncomfortable” for the athlete.
High intensity, short duration sprints with short rests, such as 2 sets of 10 x 40m at 95+% intensity with only 30 seconds rest between reps and 5 minutes or more between sets will cause the last few reps of each set to mimic the feeling at the end of 400-meter and 800-meter races.
Related Article: 4 Goals of 400 Meter Training
High intensity longer duration sprints with long rests, such as 2-3 x 500 meters with 15 to 20 minutes rest are near race-like efforts that will introduce the body to high levels of specific fatigue.
Moderate intensity, moderate volume, moderate rest intervals such as 6 x 300 meters at 800 meter pace with 2 minutes rest will gradually introduce fatigue at ever increasing levels while still being able to maintain pace similar to an 800-meter race.
Goal #4 – Intelligent Race Plan:
The fourth goal of the 800-meter athlete is to take full advantage of the training by running an intelligent and sound race plan that will allow for the fastest possible result. As previously mentioned, the 800-meter race is run with the first half of the race faster than the last half of the race. However, it is important to note that the first half is only slightly faster than the second half. We are targeting a differential between the first 400-meter split and the second 400-meter split of no more than 4 seconds. Those who run a larger split have run the first half too fast for their current fitness.
Kevin Prendergast of Australia examined more than 50 of the fastest 800-meter races ever run and concluded that the model race plan consisted of 200 meter segments of 104.5%, 99.25%, 98.5% and 97.75% of average race velocity.
If we were to use that model for a 2:00 800-meter race we would arrive at splits of about 28.7, 30.2, 30.5, 30.8. As you can see by these splits, there is a “slow bleed” of pace after the first 200-meters, while there is obviously an increase in effort by the athlete. This strategy requires racing savvy and maturity that is gained through trial and error and experimentation in less important races.
The 800-meter event is a challenging event to coach because a variety of “athlete types” have found success. While there is no singular correct training protocol, all should share in the four goals mentioned above.
Ron Grigg is director of track and field at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, FL.