By Ken Jakalski
After starting my high school coaching career in the 1970s, I developed a philosophy regarding each event in track and field. I began by trying to define the difference between sprint and distance events. Much research at that time made that process easy, since there was general agreement on the following breakdown of the relative aerobic/anaerobic contributions to events:
- 3K: 86%–14%
- 1500: 77%–23%
- 800: 60%–40%
- 400: 41%–59%
- 200: 28%–72%
- 100: 20%–80%
The Rob Duffield, Brian Dawson, and Carmel Goodman analysis in 2005 [see References] was based on measurement of race V02 and accumulated oxygen deficit. Their findings presented a breakdown similar to the ones determined by previous research teams over the preceding thirty years.
I began my career accepting that the shorter the race, the great the anaerobic contribution. But what happens with the 800, a race I call “the twixter?” If research indicates it is a race with a high anaerobic contribution, how do I train athletes? The coaches I knew at the outset of my career worked 800-meter runners with their “distance group,” and the 4×800 was considered a “distance relay.”
There was one exception. He took sprinters not fast enough for his 4×100 and put them in the 4×800 and 800. I was surprised with the effectiveness of his 4×800 teams with sprinters running that event.
His successes influenced my thinking about training for the 800. For the hundredth anniversary of Illinois track and field in 1994, I thought I would try something never accomplished in the modern era in our state—doubling an athlete in the 800 and 400 with the intention of winning both.
This athlete had amazing versatility and talent. He had been a Hershey National Youth Champion in the 200. As a freshman, he finished 18th at the state cross country championships, clocking 15:37 for three miles. That spring he anchored our state championship 4×400 after winning the 400 in 49.15. As a sophomore, he finished eighth in the state cross country championships in 15:26. At the start of track the following spring, I told him about my favorite track star—Cuban Alberto “El Caballo” Juantorena, who won both the 800 and 400 at Montreal in 1976. I added that he could become our El Caballo by accomplishing this same feat.
Saying that most coaches thought I had completely lost my mind would be an understatement. Not only would I be ruining an immensely talented sprinter with great potential in the 400, but also subjecting him to a near-impossible double. At state, the 4×200 is the only event between the 800 and the 400. He would have at best just nineteen minutes between races. Quite a challenge for a high school sophomore. He couldn’t even accept his 800 medal because he would have to report to the clerking tent for the 400 check-in.
So what happened?
He easily won the 800 in 1:56.79, then took the 400 in 48.38. Ironically, that was his best 400 mark in the four years he won the state title in that event. He ran 48.71 as a junior and 48.80 the following year. I never doubled him again—that had been our agreement.
Genius or Fool?
So was I a genius or a fool for challenging a thoroughbred with an impossible double? Further, was I risking his bid to be a four-time state champion in the 400? Perhaps this double might not have been possible in the larger of our two state classes at the time. But on the basis of his speed (21.80 in the 200), I never doubted he could win both events at the small school level.
The focus on the significance of speed for this “twixter” event began generating interest in the research community a decade later. It’s obvious to coaches that athletes run faster over shorter distances. But what I didn’t know prior to the Weyand/Bundle research published in 2005 is that, though speed does decrease dramatically the longer we sprint, this only applies up to a certain point. 1
For example, my top sprinter will race at a meters-per-second rate almost double that of my top miler, but my miler’s speed is not double that of a 10K runner. These decreases aren’t incremental. In other words, decreases in speed are not uniform relative to increases in distance. This seemingly small point has great significance for those of us training sprinters, but up to this point we really had no way to predict shortspeed performance as easily as predicting distance efforts.
Why is knowing this so important? The sprinter who maintains top speed the longest is the one who wins races.
We know from years of research that top distance runners can maintain greater than 80 percent of their maximum aerobic pace from two miles almost up to the marathon. However, this isn’t true for sprinters. The ability to sustain anaerobic energy declines quickly, as most of us observe in developmental sprinters who appear to hit a “speed-wall” at about the same point in the 400.
Predicting Sprint Performance
As a result, sprint coaches would have an edge if they could predict high-speed running performance. To do that, we first had to determine if sprint performances, like distance events, conform to some kind of general relationship. Matthew Bundle, Reed Hoyt, and Peter Weyand found the means to predict all-out running speeds lasting from a few seconds to several minutes. 2
A formula for revealing decrements in speed has profound implications not just for predicting sprint efforts, but also for determining specific times (or distances over time) for sprinters training over distances considerably shorter than their races. In other words, the algorithm could be used not just for revealing current performance levels but also for constructing workouts. This required analyzing the difference between a sprinter’s maximum burst speed and his maximum aerobic speed, now generally referred to as anaerobic speed reserve (ASR).
The hypothesis was that a decrease in all-out speed in relation to the length of the run would be the same for different runners in relation to their anaerobic speed reserve. In other words, high-speed running performances could be accurately predicted from two variables that any coach could easily measure: maximum burst speed and maximum aerobic speed. That formula is now well known in the coaching community.
800 as Long Sprint
For me, it was the first connection to the 800 as leaning more toward being a long sprint determined by musculoskeletal force output rather than energy input. Using the Weyand/Hoyt/Bundle regression algorithm, coaches could accurately predict a runner’s times “from three seconds up to four minutes by analyzing the data from two tests: one that determined the sprinter’s anaerobic power, and another that determined his aerobic power.” 3
As the authors concluded: “Mechanics, metabolism, and performance differ fundamentally between sprint and endurance exercise. Although a common relationship has traditionally been assumed to generalize across a broad duration continuum of sprint and endurance efforts, contemporary evidence indicates otherwise. For endurance events, the metabolic energy available via sustainable, aerobic sources of metabolism predominantly determines performance by setting the intensity of the musculoskeletal mechanics that can be sustained throughout the effort. For sprint efforts, precisely the opposite is true: the intensity of the mechanical activity that the musculoskeletal system can transiently achieve determines the quantities of metabolic energy released and the level of performance attained.” 4
Ross Tucker, writing ten years after the Bundle/Weyand research, provides a further analysis of how we need to approach the 800, an event he describes as straddling the “divide between what people usually refer to as sprinting and middle distance running.” 5
Fast First Lap, then Hang on
Tucker sees this issue of the aerobic/anaerobic divide as a contentious one but believes there is “no black and white split between the energy sources.” 6 He relies on good data relative to the way the world’s top athletes in the world run the event. Of the 26 world records in the 800, Tucker points out, in all but two the second lap was considerably slower than the first. The 200 segments from races with specific data reveal that the first 200 is fastest, with each succeeding 200 progressively slower. Therefore, a world record seems to require that you run a fast first lap and hang on in the second. Speeding up at the end—a negative split—does not appear to be an option for a high-quality 800, even many longer events feature this pattern.
Tucker’s conclusion: “I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that if you are an 800m athlete, or you are coaching an 800m athlete, if you want that athlete to run their best, you have to plan for a second lap that is about 2 to 3 seconds slower than the first.” 7
A respectable time in the 800 in our small school class is 2 minutes. Tucker recommends a first lap in the 58s with a slowdown to 61 in the second. This split is not new to coaches who have observed a similar lap regression in their half milers.
Mike Cox corroborates Tucker’s analysis in his article “The Long Sprint: Reclassifying the 800m.” He notes, “In the first 200 meters of the race, the athlete must accelerate quickly to obtain a tolerable pace that is as close to their maximum speed as possible. If the athlete is unable to do this, they will not achieve the relative pace necessary to offset the deceleration effect found later in the race.” 8
Many coaches still advise athletes to run balanced quarters in the 800, but Cox believes that the even-paced or negative-split strategy will not allow athletes to achieve maximum potential. “Since the 800 is more of a sprinting effort, it is important that athletes maintain as high of velocity as possible before exhaustion,”9 he adds.
My observations from the early ’90s—in light of the Weyand/Bundle research, Ross Tucker’s analysis, and now Mike Cox’s recent insights—confirm that, even among the world’s elite half milers, the athlete with the ability to maintain speed is likely to come out on top.
Legendary Geneva High School coach Mike VanDeVeer, who influenced my thinking for this event, never had access to the research now available to us. His insides just told him that fast sprinters made for fast 800 runners. Mike may have been the only coach at the time who didn’t think I was completely nuts for doubling my sprinter in the 800 and 400 back in 1994.
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1. Peter Weyand and Matthew Bundle, “Energetics of High-speed Running: Integrating Classical Theory and Contemporary Observations.” AJP: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 288.4 (2005): R956–965.
2,3,4. Matthew W. Bundle and Peter G. Weyand, “Sprint Exercise Performance: Does Metabolic Power Matter?” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews (2012): 40(3): 174–182.
5,6,7. Ross Tucker, “IAAF World Champs—men’s 800m.” The Science of Sport, Sept. 2, 2007.
8,9. Mike Cox, “The Long Sprint—Reclassifying the 800m.” Track Technique, August 24, 2015.
Bundle, Matthew W., and Peter G. Weyand. “Sprint Exercise Performance: Does Metabolic Power Matter?” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews (2012): 40(3): 174–182.
Bundle, Matthew, and Reed Hoyt and Peter Weyand. “High-speed Running Performance: A New Approach to Assessment and Prediction.” Journal of Applied Physiology, November 2003, 95(5): 1955-1962.
Cox, Mike. “The Long Sprint—Reclassifying the 800m.” Track Technique, August 24, 2015.
Duffield, Rob, and Brian Dawson, and Carmel Goodman. “Energy System Contribution to 400-metre and 800-metre Track Running.” Journal of Sport Science, March 23, 2005: 299-307. Print.
Tucker, Ross. “IAAF World Champs—men’s 800m.” The Science of Sport, Sept. 2, 2007.
Weyand, Peter, and Matthew Bundle. “Energetics of High-speed Running: Integrating Classical Theory and Contemporary Observations.” AJP: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 288.4 (2005): R956–965.