800 metres

Coaches and runners are confused about how to train optimally for 800-metre racing, and with good reason. After all, there's a wealth of scientific information about training for 400 metres, 5000 metres, 10,000 metres, and the marathon, but almost no research has been done concerning 800-metre training. As a result, thoughts about 800 preparations tend to be long on philosophy and anecdote -and short on fact

In addition, the 800-metre distance itself presents a key paradox. The race is now considered to be an extended sprint -a contest for the truly fleet of foot. When Seb Coe set his world record of 1:41.73 in 1981, for example, he ran an astonishing first lap of 49.7 seconds. This suggests that fast-twitch muscle fibres and anaerobic energy production are dominant in the race, yet over 55 per cent of the energy actually needed to run 800 metres is generated aerobically, suggesting that aerobic ('endurance-type') training is absolutely essential for success

The importance of aerobic energy production puts 800-metre coaches in a dilemma, because endurance training can easily compromise raw muscle power and check running velocity in those who undertake it too rigorously. Endurance training for 800-metre athletes must somehow preserve anaerobic capacity and avoid transforming fast-twitch muscle fibres into intermediate- or slow-twitch cells which would generate less power. In short, finding an optimal balance between endurance and raw-power training is necessary to produce an athlete's best-possible 800-metre performances.

Study the best to find out
Since there's no scientific research concerning 800 training, how can one identify that balance? One answer is to study the top 800-metre people in the world, and there' s little doubt about who they are. While we tend to think of the Kenyans as long-distance-people who dominate the 5000- and 10,000-metre distances, the truth is that their grip on superlative 800-metre performances is far tighter than the hold created by runners from any other country

If you doubt that the Kenyans are great at 800 metres, consider these facts. Each year, the esteemed American publication,Track & Field News, ranks the world's 800-metre runners. In both 1993 and 1994, five of the top 10 800-metre athletes were Kenyans, and in each year the No. I runner was Kenyan (Nixon Kiprotich in 1993, Wilson Kipketer in 1994). In fact, since 1987 Kenya has produced the number-one man an incredible six times, with five different men

If you look at the 10 fastest 800-metre men of all time, four are Kenyans (Great Britain has three, Brazil two, and the U.S. -much more noted for its sprint athletes -just one). In contrast, only three of the 10 fastest 5000-metre runners of all time have been Kenyan. Kenyan men finished first and third at 800 metres in the 1993 World Championships in Stuttgart, and first and second at 800 metres in the '92 Olympics. In contrast, Kenyan men captured 'only' one medal at 5000 metres in the World Championships -and one at the Olympics.

What Kiprotich has to say

The Kenyan 800-metre men have shone so brightly that it's difficult to pick out a single-best performer, but Nixon Kiprotich would have to be very close to the top of the list. The willowy (6'1', I 49-pound), 32-year- old Kenyan won the IAAF/Mobil Grand Prix for 800 metres both in 1990 and 1992, snared a silver medal at the '92 Olympics in Barcelona, has garnered gold at both the East-African and African Championships, and was rated No. 1 800-metre runner in the world for 1993 by Track & Field News. His 800-metre PB is a not-too- shabby 1:43.31

Recently, PEAK PERFORMANCE had the good fortune to catch up with Kiprotich at his home in Eldoret, Kenya, and we found the Kenyan to be quite willing to share his ideas about optimal 800-metre training.

PP: Nixon, when do you begin preparing for the outdoor track season?
KIPROTICH: I really start in December. If I'm not going to run in any indoor track meets, I'll take a two month break October and November, during which I do very little training at all. Then, throughout December and January I'll train Monday through Friday, running about 15 kilometres at 10 a.m. and another eight kilometres at about 5 p.m. each day. It's all easy, aerobic running -at about four minutes per kilometre -with no speed work at all. Saturday and Sunday are rest days.

PP: There's been a lot of debate about the merits of that kind of aerobic-base training for 800-metre runners. You run about 115K per week during your base period. What is the value of this training for you?
KIPROTICH: I've found through trial and error that if I don't do my base work and build up my aerobic capacity properly, I have a very hard time maintaining my fitness during the competitive season. Without the base, I just can't sustain fast times for very long; I lose my 'peak' quickly

PP: That's very interesting. You know -exercise physiologists have pointed out that the first 400 metres of an 800-metre race is primarily anaerobic, while the second 400 metres is more aerobic. Do you think that your base training helps you consistently maintain a high- quality velocity during the second laps of your races? KIPROTICH: There's no doubt about it.

Next, some hill training
PP: So in December and January, you're just running steadily at an easy pace. What happens in February and March?
KIPROTICH: I add in some hill training.

PP: How does that work?
KIPROTICH: I'll do my regular base running on Tuesday through Friday, but I'll add in hill sessions on Monday and Saturday. Nothing fancy about the hill workouts; I'll just find a steep, 200-metre hill and complete 20 reps per session at close to top speed, with jog- to-the-bottom recoveries (Editor's note: These reps are carried out at an altitude of about 7000 feet near Kiprotich's Eldoret home).

PP: Nixon, do you ever work out with weights?

KIPROTICH: Never, man. The hill work is my substitute for weight training. Weight work would just bulk me up, making it too easy for me to get injured.

PP: So in February and March, you are running aerobically and doing hill work twice a week. How do things change in April?

Then, the track workouts
KIPROTICH: In April, I'll really start to get ready for the outdoor season. Basically, I cut way back on mileage and start doing my track workouts. My schedule is as follows:
On Monday, I'll run 2 sets of 5 X 1000 metres, with each 1000 in 2:45 to 2:55. There are two minutes of recovery between reps and 10 minutes of rest between the two sets. I'll run the first 800 of each 1000 at slower than race pace and then finish the last 200 metres at actual race velocity, which helps me develop the ability to run at race pace when I'm tired.

On Tuesday, I'll complete 8 X 200 metres in 25-27 seconds (very close to actual race pace), with only five to 10 metres of easy jogging between reps. This workout helps build up my speed endurance -my ability to sustain a fast speed throughout the race, and as it does so, it increases my confidence tremendously. Since about 1992, I've been the kind of 800-metre runner who likes to come from behind. When I can do this workout the right way, then I know I'm ready to overtake almost anyone at the end of a race, and I'm a lot more relaxed in the second halves of my races, which helps me to run more fluidly and powerfully.

PP: How do you warm up before your workouts?

KIPROTICH: I just complete a standard 30-minute warm-up, with lots of jogging and stretching -and several upbeat 100-metre strides.

PP: What do you do during the rest of the week?

KIPROTICH: Well, on Wednesday, I'll run 4 X 600 metres in 83-86 seconds, with two-minute recoveries, and then 5 X 300 metres in just 40-41 seconds, with two-minute recoveries. However, again I'm looking to develop my finishing power during this workout, so for the 300s, I'll do the first 100 in 14 seconds and the final 200 in just 26 seconds -right at race pace.

On Thursday, I'm looking to develop speed, so I'll just do 4 X 400 metres in 49-50 seconds each, about two to three seconds faster per 400 than race pace. Again, I'll use two-minute recoveries. This is a very tough workout for me.

On Friday, I'm after speed endurance, so I'll do 4 X 500, with the 500s at the pace I want for the second lap of my 800s, i.e., about 66-68 seconds per 500. As usual, I'll rely on two-minute recoveries, and the overall goal is to develop the ability to run the second lap of the 800 in a quality way.

Saturday is an easy day, with just jogging for 40 minutes, and on Sunday I'll rest completely. I'll follow this schedule throughout April and May, and then go to Europe or the United States in early June to begin the competitive season. I'll always start with small races first -just to ease into competition.

Training during competition
PP: During the competitive season, you're often racing every week. What is your training like when you are competing?

KIPROTICH: It depends. If my first race is bad, I'll continue training hard, with basically the same schedule I've just described to you On the other hand, if my first race goes fairly well -in about 1:46 or so, I'll stop training vigorously and just do two track workouts per week

PP: During the racing season, when you' re in close to peak condition, what's your routine like during the week?

KIPROTICH: I'll generally jog for about 30-40 minutes in the morning on a grassy surface and then do a few 300-metre strides at about race pace. For the first of the two weekly track workouts, I'll do 6 X 200 in about 25-26 seconds each, which usually feels very easy. For the second session, I'll complete 5 X 400 or 5 X 600 in about 51-52 seconds for the 400s or 78-80 seconds for the 600s

PP: Your season ends in September. What do you do then?

KIPROTICH: It's total relaxation time for at least one month. Two months are even better. I'll sleep late in the mornings and just spend the days with my family and friends, with no real training at all

Not for youngsters
PP: Your training during the two months before the competitive season is really rigorous, with tough track workouts scheduled for Monday through Friday. Do you recommend this kind of schedule for young 800- metre runners?

KIPROTICH: Oh no, not at all. The high school and college kids should be patient and wait for their time to come. If they try to train the way I do now, they will definitely get injured. When high school runners come to me and ask what to do, I tell them 'Just do two difficult workouts per week. Do not attempt to train hard every day.' I recommend moderate workouts -30 minutes of relatively easy fartlek running, 300-metre intervals in 45 seconds or so, hill workouts with 10 repetitions, etc. Young 800-metre runners should avoid the temptation to try to progress too fast.

PP: What are your plans for the future?

KIPROTICH: I'm still thinking about the Olympics for next year. I've thought about competing at 1500 metres, but that race is too much hell. Running a 3:38 is pure torture.

PP: How about after 1996?

KIPROTICH: Well, in 1997 I'd like to run a marathon. People laugh when I say that, but I've already run a I OK in 30 minutes at altitude, just kind of jogging it, and I'm really eager to give the marathon a try

PP: Training for world-class competition is difficult and painful. What motivates you to keep running?

KIPROTICH: People say to me all the time, 'You're just running for money,' but that's not what keeps me going. I run for friendship, not for financial reward. Running has given me the chance to travel all over the world and meet all kinds of great people. Without running, I would not have had that kind of opportunity

Nixon' s training appears to be perfect for the 800-metre distance. The Kenyan builds up his aerobic capacity during the early pre-season and then tops it off with a generous 'frosting' of anaerobic capability, built up during his April-May track workouts. These track sessions are brilliantly designed to improve both raw speed and speed endurance -the ability to sustain a high running speed, even during the final painful moments of the 800-metre race

Below, we've listed some common, important questions about 800-metre training, which should help coaches and runners develop their own 800-metre schedules

Basic Q & A about 800m training
'anaerobically' - in order for the leg muscles to exert maximal power during the race

Q: So, should 800-metre runners carry out special work- outs in order to lift their lactate thresholds?
A: No

Q: Is the ability to use energy efficiently essential for the 800-metre runner?

A: Yes. 800-metre races are decided by split seconds. Since a limited amount of energy can be created by leg-muscle cells, the runner who can use available energy most efficiently (to drive the body forward at the highest velocity per unit energy) will usually reach the finish line first

Q: How does the 800-metre runner improve efficiency? A: By conducting some 200-metre and 400-metre interval workouts at faster than goal race pace -and by working on hills, hills, hills. Repetitions on hills appear to be the most specific, useful form of resistance training for 800-metre runners. Hills can be emphasized before the main competitive season begins, during the four- to eight-week period which follows the pre-season, aerobic-development period

Moving up and dropping down
Q: Does improving V02max (maximal aerobic capacity) help the 800-metre runner?

A: Yes, since about 55 per cent of the energy needed to run an 800-metre race is generated aerobically, increasing V02max is a good thing because it means that the heart is better at sending oxygen-rich blood to the muscles, and that the muscles are better at using the oxygen when it arrives. This helps the 800-metre runner, because as oxygen utilization improves, less energy has to be produced anaerobically during the race. The interiors of leg muscle cells are therefore less acidic (there' s less lactic acid than there would be with a lower V02max), and as a result there is diminished fatigue and a greater ability to sustain the desired pace

Q: What's the best way for the 800-metre runner to develop VO2max?

A: During the pre-season training period, it's optimal to combine interval workouts (five-minute intervals at 90-95 per cent of maximal heart rate) with 30- to 60- minute continuous runs at 80-90 per cent of maximal heart rate. This kind of training can last for six to eight weeks

Q: Is having a high lactate threshold important for the 800-metre runner?

A: Not necessarily. In an endurance runner, a high threshold is critical -so that the runner never strays too far above threshold when running 5Ks, 10Ks, and marathons. The 800-metre runner doesn't have to worry about roaming above threshold; he/she is always far above threshold during races. In fact it' s important for the 800-metre competitor to be able to generate a lot of lactate by producing ample amounts of energy Q: Should the jet-like 400-metre runner who is moving up to 800 metres really train differently than the slower, higher-endurance character who is dropping down from 1500 metres?

A: The traditional view is to build on an individual's natural tendencies and strengths, i.e., to let the 400-metre athlete continue with the short, fast work which he/she likes and permit the 1500 harrier to do more endurance- type stuff. However, while it' s wise to retain these runners' strengths, it also makes sense to work on their weaknesses, so that the 400-metre person has more endurance and the 1500-metre individual has more speed. What the 400-metre runner may be lacking is the 'lactate tolerance' necessary to run the full 800 metres and enough speed endurance to maintain a high running velocity over twice his/her normal race distance. 90-second intervals at close to top speed, with four-minute recoveries, would be great for lactate tolerance, and Nixon Kiprotich's 1000-metre intervals (with the last 200 metres at race pace) and 500-metre intervals at race pace would promote better speed endurance

The 1500-metre person also requires lactate tolerance but needs to especially emphasize efficiency and foot speed. 60 second intervals at close to top speed, with two- to two-and-one-half minute recoveries, would build running velocity and lactate tolerance, and 200- and 400-metre efforts at faster than 800-metre race velocity, with six-minute recoveries, would promote efficiency

Strength training
Q: Is it absolutely necessary to strength train as part of one's 800-metre preparations?

A: The Kenyans are currently dominating 800-metre running, and few of them have ever entered a gym. However, almost all of them have grown up in the per fect environment for 800-metre runners -in places where there are lots of steep hills. As mentioned, hill running is the most specific way to develop brute power in the leg muscles -power which translates into faster 800-metre running. So, the answer to the question might be 'Yes, you need to strength train if you are an environmentally challenged runner who lives in the flatlands.' To succeed at 800 metres, you do need to bolster leg-muscle power. Whether you do that while carrying out squatting and lunging exercises in the gym or while running on steep inclines may not matter

Q: Have any studies looked specifically at the merits of strength training for 800-metre runners?

A: Yes, a nice piece of research carried out by Terry Kemp at Ashland University in the United States compared high school runners who simply carried out circuit training with high school harriers who followed circuit training with heavy-weight power training (squats, lunges, hamstring curls, pull-downs, and bench presses). The latter group improved 800-metre times by about three seconds more than the circuit-only group, an effect which was statistically significant

Owen Anderson

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