Racing Tactics for the 800 Meters

Posted by Scott Christensen

The 800 meter run is defined as an endurance event in track and field because the aerobic energy demand is slightly higher than the anaerobic energy demand at race pace. It is an event that draws participants both from the long sprint group as well as distance runners that possess good speed. It is not a commonly thought of distance race that builds through a comfort zone into a critical zone where the race is commonly won or lost. Rather, the 800 meter run is uncomfortable and taxing from the start, and psychologically a 400 meter runner is more attuned to this style than a miler might be. However, history shows that even at the international level, both long sprinter and miler can be successful in the 800 meters if trained properly and the racing tactics meet the demands of the race.  Today we will focus on racing tactics for the 800 meters.

Over the past 36 years on the international level, the 800 meters has generally been dominated by three men, all holding the World Record for a substantial length of time: Sebastian Coe (Great Britain-1:41.73) 16 years, followed by Wilson Kipketer (Kenya/Denmark-1:41.11) 13 years, and more recently David Rudisha (Kenya-1:41.09, then lowered to1:40.91) the last 7 years.

The three of these are quite physiologically different runners as demonstrated by Coe also earning Olympic Gold Medals in the 1500 meters and Kipketer setting the World Record in the 1000 meters. This is evidence that these two leaned more to true middle distance type runners, with Rudisha more of a long sprinter as his 45.13 open 400 meter personal best confirms, and lack of international success beyond the 800 meter.

Yet, they all raced in a similar style with tactics much the same.  First, the eye test showed they like to lead from start to finish with no noticeable burst over the last 200 meters, and the watch revealed a “positive” race model for all three men-that is a faster first lap then a second lap.

One style of coaching middle distance runners is to simply copy the program and tactics of other successful runners.  This scenario opens up may traps and pitfalls, but in this particular instance there is merit in in using the three record holders as examples of best practice in setting up racing plans for runners in high school as well as college.


* Coaching Resource: 800M: Successful Coaching Strategies


It is not intuitive to race in a positive way, as it would make the 800 meters the only event in track and field where the successful model puts the first half of the race faster than the second half of the race.  It takes courage and trust for an athlete to be able to race this way.  However, like everything in track and field it comes down to the training.  If the coach has progressed workouts to do two things over the length of the season it will put the athlete in good position to run this way.

First, there is this speed thing! The concept of anaerobic speed reserve (ASR) argues that if maximal speed improves, then sub-maximal speed improves at a corresponding rate. The reverse is not consistent with scientific findings.  As the athlete improves by fractions of seconds over distances like flying 30 meters-50 meters all the way up to 100 meters, then they will get correspondingly faster in the 800 meters.


A middle distance runner not only gets “racing pace” faster by improving their maximum velocity, they also get used to the demands of running fast so they can get started fast right from the gun and not go into immediate duress.

The second training emphasis is on doing some Special Endurance 1 (150 meters-300 meters) sessions and Special Endurance 2 (300 meters-600 meters) sessions tired.  For example, if the athlete is to do a hard set of 8 x 400 meter repeats with 3 minutes rest today, first warm them up thoroughly and then run a 600 meter all-out for time.  Allow about 15 minutes to recover which will not be complete body recovery, but lactate levels in the blood will return close to normal.  Then start the 400 meter repeats.  This training technique too will get them ready to run fast from the gun.

In order to set up an individualized 800 meter race plan a coach must have an accurate and up to date athlete profile on each of their middle distance runners.  The most important number in that profile will be their present day 400 meter time taken either in a race or a relay split.  At worst, use a practice time trial 400 meter time.  Get out a calculator and divide that number by .92 (92%) which will give the target time for the first lap.  Then take the same 400 meter time and divide by .89 (89%) and that will be the target time for the second lap.

For example, a 2:00.11 present day 800 meter runner has a 54.24 present day 400 meter time. The first lap should be targeted at 58.7 seconds and the second lap at 60.7 for a goal time of 1:59.4, which would be about a 1% improvement. Not bad, but let’s get better!

Improve the maximum velocity of the runner, learn to run tired, and to more efficiently tolerate the 22 mmol/L lactate level that is characteristic of the 800 meter race by doing key anaerobic workouts. However, do not neglect the aerobic demands either, improve vVO2 max as the main vehicle of change.


* Additional Teaching Resource: Every 800m – 1600m Workout For The Entire High School Season


The 800 meter race is an exciting race, but there is little room for error.  Mistakes in pacing cannot usually be corrected.  Develop a racing model for each of your 800 meter runners based on the same idea of positive splits, and then train that way.



Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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