Updated: Dec 11, 2020
"Sometimes when you get disappointment it makes you stronger. " David Rudisha
Throughout the coaching community this has been a hot topic of debate. Should 800m runners be trained like distance runners or like sprinters?
800m athletes can be divided into two primary groups:
1) The Long Sprinter (Speed) (400/800/1600)
2) The Distance Runner (Endurance) (800/1600/5000)
The goal of training for any event is simple: To slowly enhance the volume of specific training. In my program, I define specific training as any speed that is 90%-110% of the race pace of the event. As an athlete season progresses, their training should become less general and more specific.
The first group of 800m runners (“Sprinters”) come from athletes that are able to run 200m and 400m at a high speed when they are young. They have the physiological make up of a sprinter. This group has a higher percentage of fast twitch muscles fibers and lower percentage of slow twitch muscles fibers.
Because their speed is typically much higher than the specific training of the 800m, the goal is to extend the specific speed while slowly reducing the recovery times. This athlete will typically run low reps at high speeds. Most athletes from this category typically never become great milers because of their genetic makeup as sprinters.
The second group of 800m runners (“Distance Runners”) comes from athletes that are aerobically strong. These athletes tend to have good times in the 1600 and can run the 5000m as well. The second group of 800m runners don’t have the max speed as the first group but tend to be more elite endurance wise.
I believe wholeheartedly that in order to grow as a coach, you must continue to challenge your ideas and accept that your training methods might not be the most effective and might be dead wrong. One of my favorite sayings is “Everything looks like a nail to a hammer.” When I first started off coaching, I used to think that every athlete was a 400/800 runner, so I trained majority of my athletes the same way.
While I had success with this formula, I realized that my training was not individualized for each athlete and I was doing a great disservice to some of my athletes. I had to realize just because an athlete gets better each year or season does not necessarily mean that they came close to reaching their potential while in high school.
My philosophy in training is simple: find the best solution for each athlete so they may each achieve their best individual results. The goal of training should be to exalt the main abilities of the athlete. While a coach does not want to neglect filling in the gaps and diminishing the weaknesses of an athlete, the focus of the training should be on elevating the qualities the athlete already possesses.
If you want to run fast, in training you have to run fast. Exalting their abilities goes back to the coach being a tailor rather than a factory worker. Thinking your system will work with everyone is a fundamental flaw. As coaches, we have to analyze and understand the qualities of our athletes and proscribe a program that is suitable to their needs as an athlete.
This led me to understand that there is no training for the distance, only training for the athlete. This goes for the 800m, as well as any other track and field event. A coach’s mission is to guide the athlete in choosing the best event for her running career. The coach is supposed to help mold the athlete to so that the athlete can achieve the best future result.
However, I have noticed that many coaches decide to train the 800m based on their beliefs between the relative anaerobic and aerobic energy distributions of the 800m, never considering the individual needs of the athlete. For example, some coaches believe that the 800m is 60% anaerobic and 40% aerobic while others may believe the event is 40% anaerobic and 60% aerobic. This is pseudoscience, at best.
It is impossible to find the exact amounts of different energy distributions for any given event when you are dealing with a myriad of different athletes. Coaches should perceive the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems as interdependent systems of the 800m with their relative functions shifting depending upon the intensity and length of the event. The longer the event, the more aerobic it becomes.
With that said, I do believe that the 800m has more connection with the 400m than the mile. But I have seen coaches and athletes fall into a trap when they have a good or great 400m runner and just throw them into an 800m without “endurance” training thinking they will be good. While I do believe that the race strategy may be closer to the 400m, I believe that training incorporates more endurance training than speed training. Not developing the athlete’s aerobic base over the years is inhibiting the athlete’s growth.
While 400m speed is very important to an 800m runner, is it the most important quality? I would argue no. Over 90% of the top 800m runners also have great times in the 1500m as compared to 800m runners only having less than 10% of the top times in the 400. The 400m speed of an athlete does not matter in an 800m if that athlete is not in shape to stay with the more endured athletes until the last lap. So, while natural 400m runners may be the ideal type to train for 800m, in order to increase their 800m time, we must increase the aerobic engine (Aerobic Power/Capacity).
If an 800m runner is fast, keep them fast. While training max speed occasionally is necessary, it is not the most important aspect in sprinting an in 800. Max speed does not matter if the athlete is not able to stay with the more endured athletes until the last 200m. An athlete must become superior aerobically while enhancing their specific training. The primary and easiest way to achieve this goal is by increasing the Aerobic Capacity, not the max speed, as the max speed is way above the specific training of the 800m. The best way to train closing speed in an 800m is to train the body to recruit fast twitch fibers when the muscles are full of lactic acid.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the long run may be detrimental for the long sprint 800m types. Their physiology is that of a sprinter. This 800m runner has more fast twitch fibers, different nervous system, hormones and a differently mentality. On the other hand, long runs may be great for production of mitochondria in an endurance type 800m runner. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again. “Training is what you do, not what you don’t do.” This is the principle of specificity. The purpose of training is to add, not replace. An athlete only loses what they don’t train.
So, while a long run doesn’t make the athlete lose speed, it is a training session where the athlete is not subjected to speed training. Likewise, a runner will not lose endurance because the runner is training for speed. The runner will only lose endurance if the runner neglects to train endurance.
If two athletes are equally endured, the faster will always win. But the faster will never win, if the athlete’s endurance is lower than that of her competition. In most running events, you cannot improve your speed (max speed) very much. As sprinters are born, so is max speed along with them. Max speed is connected to your talent (genetics). The improvement we see in most sprint athletes is their speed endurance associated with their training.
All training should be individualized. Too many coaches treat their athletes like products on assembly line. The coach goes with a one size fits all models. The cookie cutter approach. While this may work for some athletes, it may be detrimental to many more athletes and most likely does not allow many athletes to reach their maximum potential. This is lazy coaching and it leads to athletes underperforming in events, becoming unmotivated and/or becoming pigeonholed into events they should not be running. Why would you train an 800m runner with great speed the same way you train an 800m runner with great endurance? The answer is you would not.
The coach must be a tailor to the athlete. The suit is the coach’s framework for the training program. The coach’s job is to tailor the suit to the needs and shape of the athlete. We have all worn or seen a cheap suit before, not a good look. Now imagine, if you were to walk into a tailor to get a suit or a dress made and the tailor tried to sell you a suit that didn’t fit or a dress that was too large. Or worse the tailor tried to force you to try on the suit knowing it was too small or too large. Would you buy the suit? Hopefully the answer would be NO! But this is exactly what many “distance” coaches are doing with their athletes when it comes to training in general but particularly when it comes to the 800. This type of thought process leads the athlete to only get general training and never specific training.
To sum up, there are many systems valid for coaching an athlete in the 800m. There is no such thing as an absolute truth when it comes to training. However, a coach should always be able know the reasons for different types of training. Running faster in the 800m depends on a combination of factors, each depending on a few variables such as: the weather, the athlete’s mood, personal problems, racing opportunities to compete, mental toughness, etc. These are just some of the principles that I have established over the years through trials and error of coaching. I will continue to make mistake as I will continue to learn, as should you. One cannot experience true growth without pain and reflection.