An 800m training epiphany

ITCCCA Coaching Blogs, Distance, Illinois HS Track & Field, Sprints/Speed 1 Comment

Derek DeBarr coaches at Pleasant Plains High School. Follow the team on twitter at @plainstrackxc.

In college, I somehow managed to scavenge and obtain a copy of “Bowerman and the Men of Oregon.”   I was on a Pre kick and wanted to digest any information I could about the prodigal young runner. What I found instead lead me down an entirely different road; tales of a gritty Boweman surviving and excelling as the only coach at a top ranked university. Before the days of specialization, one coach reigned supreme. To excel as a team the coach had to learn about and master every facet of the operation; from the sprints to the throws and everything in between. I learned that Bowerman was not just a distance guru, but a master of all.

Those of us in class A know exactly what I’m talking about. We’re often saddled with medium to large sized teams with little in the way of assistants. We’re the throws, jump, sprint, throw, hurdle, relay, and distance coach. When I took the job at Pleasant Plains I was faced with this task, with the addition of one assistant coach; I would never see our distance team. This was for the better; I was a decathlete in college and had little to no knowledge of distance or middle distance running. When a string of distance coaches left in 2011 I was left up a creek without a paddle. Lost and clueless, I turned to what I always do; research.

Sprinter or 800 runner? School record holder David Plunkett (1:55.41) taking off in a 4x400

Sprinter or 800 runner? School record holder David Plunkett (1:55.41) taking off in a 4×400

I knew that things were changing with our middle distance team. We had a pretty good miler; Matt Vermeersch was our first in a string of three sub 4:30 guys (which, while not impressive for 2A and 3A types, gets the job done quite nicely in 1A). I had to learn how to train them, and learn quick; we had a hot shot group of brothers coming through and I knew it. I felt like Marty McFly when he stumbled across Doc Brown’s time machine; I was in over my head with a machine that could vastly outperform my expectations. Not ending up in 1955 and marooned barn would take research, networking, and begging.

I was able to stumble upon workouts in 2012 and 2013. Here, I had the idea to split our squads into two main groups; 400-800 kids and 1600-3200 kids. But it was in 2014 that everything took off. And this is the story of how a sprint coach helped guide me to a 800 philosophy that seems to work. This isn’t the only way to do things. There’s more than one map to El Dorado. I hope it spurns comments and people give me even better ideas on how to improve in the future. I’m by no means a guru.

Lactate training makes sense. Kids cannot trudge for miles and be fast in a two lap near sprint.

It was reading Tony Holler’s “Speed Kills” that completely changed my mindset and how to train middle distance runners. Lactate training makes sense. Kids cannot trudge for miles and be fast in a two lap near sprint. Instead, I had a (guided) epiphany: jog less and run more. Do plyos. Recovery runs are not vital for 800 kids. They barely exceed 25 miles a week.

Instead, we sprint. Not all workouts are long. The science behind this is simple. In the 800 meter run, 6% of one’s energy comes from the PC-R system (like when one explodes out of the blocks.) Fifty percent of energy comes from the anaerobic system, and 44% of the energy comes from the aerobic system. Translation: the 800 is closer to a sprint than a distance event. By comparison, in the 1500 the anaerobic aerobic breakdown is 25-75. In the 5K it’s 12.5%-87.5% (this can all be found on page 169 of “Exercise Physiology” by William D. McArdle). In case you were wondering, the 400 is more sprint based, with a 12.5% PC-R (gotta run real fast right now system), a 62.5% anaerobic, and only a 25% aerobic breakdown. This changes everything.

Sophomore Luke McGraw demonstrating split arms and knee lift. As a sophomore, Luke ran a 51split in the 4x400 and a 2:05 split in the 4x800.

Sophomore Luke McGraw demonstrating split arms and knee lift. As a sophomore, Luke ran a 51split in the 4×400 and a 2:05 split in the 4×800.

The evidence clearly suggests that 800 runners are a different breed than 5K runners, yet they’re all lumped together because some may run cross country. 800 runners have to sprint; often. Workouts should be short and intense. A staple workout at Plains is the goal workout. 4×200 @ 800 goal pace with 30 seconds of recovery. Three minutes of rest, then do it all again. They’re sufficiently tired, and with good reason; the type II-A muscles will be pushed to the limit. Energy systems are not magic; they work concurrently. The PC-R system just doesn’t stop because one is running a distance race. Instead, the idea is to redline the anaerobic system and get the aerobic system involved. The body must learn how to process lactic acid. It does not do then when trudging though miles. Speed is essential.

So we work sprint drills with our 800 kids. They go through the wickets. They work on technique. They run some workouts with the sprinters, especially the critical zone workouts later in the year. (And yes, they love this.) Our mile and two mile kids will join in too, but that’s a different article for a different time.

Recovery runs are not vital for 800 kids.
They barely exceed 25 miles a week.

Instead, we sprint.Derek DeBarr

So what do we do on recovery days? It depends. Some days are circuit training. They need to be strong. Some days do a basic anaerobic/aerobic plyo mix.  

800 runner Jordan Verhulst showing off sprint mechanics finishing a 4x400; Jordan ran on the 2015 state qualifying 4x800 team.

800 runner Jordan Verhulst showing off sprint mechanics finishing a 4×400; Jordan ran on the 2015 state qualifying 4×800 team.

I read another article (you can find an abstract here) that states a basic link between vertical jumping ability and 5k runners. These guys will NEVER run more than 4 miles in any given practice. Slow running doesn’t help them much. It does help build mitochondria and bone density, but that’s about it. We don’t do it to get “in shape.” We do it because of supercompinsaton; much like sprinters 800 runners cannot be redlined every day. Oh, and we teach sprint mechanics. These guys actually need to learn how to lift their knees and run with sprint mechanics. They don’t do that by running slow. They also learn how to use and be proficient in blocks.

The culmination? 2014 was the best year our middle distance and distance squads have ever had. Our 4×800 won the state meet despite an electrifying charge from George Gunther of Urbana University High School (the scariest moment of my coaching life!) We sent two runners to state in the 800; Mira Patocka did not even make our 4×800 despite running a 2:00.19 at sectionals. Mitch Johnson ran a 1:58.16 to qualify for state, then ran two sub 2 minute 800s to go to the finals. He placed 10th after running 4 800s in 4 days. We also had two guys make the finals in the 1600 that day: Daniel Plunkett placed 8th and Tyler Johnson 10th. We’ve been lucky enough to send five consecutive 4x800s to state with 2 all state appearances and David Plunkett placed in the 800 in consecutive years, running a 1:55.41 at the Sangamon County meet. All of this isn’t bad for a school of under 450. While this may not be the road paved in gold for all, it has certainly worked for us.

I’d like to thank Tony Holler for writing his wonderful sprint blogs and giving me the idea to train 800 guys like this. He’s also been very gracious; I’ve reached out to him and he’s always there with an answer. Same to Chris Korfist; he took the time to answer every question that a coach he’s never heard of has asked and has given very meaningful insight. In addition, thanks to Bill Owens from Rochester and Chris Mosley and Kevin Kramer from Shelbyville; all three of those men have helped me transition from just a sprint coach to a more balanced individual.

Our record setting 4x400 featured one sprinter, 2 400/800 guys, and one two miler (one has to be fast to run a 4:21 mile J) This team (minus Tyler and with a sprinter) placed 4th at the Illinois Top Times meet.

Our record setting 4×400 featured one sprinter, 2 400/800 guys, and one two miler (one has to be fast to run a 4:21 mile J) This team (minus Tyler and with a sprinter) placed 4th at the Illinois Top Times meet.

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