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How to Develop The 800m Specialist

Liam Cain

Undoubtedly fast 800m running requires sustained sprinting abilities developed through a careful blend of training from both the endurance and sprinting communities. Understanding how to apply strength training and create structured training workouts will unlock the potential for fast 800m running performances.

Before we can look at the specific training workouts and the periodisation of the 800m event, we must encourage our runner to be more athletic. The reason for this is because we must prepare and condition the runner for the demands not only of the 800m event but also the training that is required in the various phases of preparation.

A conditioned athlete will be able to absorb the many varied training sessions without breaking down through injury. Greater athleticism begins with posture, body alignment and muscle balance evaluation. The introduction of mobility in the ankle, hip and shoulder joints coupled with the development of skills and drills contribute to the athletic development of the 800m runner.

Strength and Conditioning is best viewed by understanding a concept called: The Muscle/Tendon Complex. Muscles are trained through resistance work using weight training and are responsible for the production of power. Tendons are trained through jumps or plyometric training and are responsible for reactive strength.

When we understand this concept a clear pathway to conditioning an 800m runner will become evident when we review their physique. We will generally find two types of 800m runner:

  • The muscled, mesomorph athlete
  • The slight, slender, ectomorph athlete

If we take the mesomorph athlete and introduce weight training the chances are that they will bulk up and become too heavy. If they increase bodyweight too much their aerobic system may not be sufficiently developed to sustain this increased weight and subsequent loss in relative VO2 max. The mesomorph type runs the 800m through muscle power which results in very high lactate production and obvious muscle damage. These athletes need to learn to float around the track and emphasise tendon development through jumps training. Olympic Lifting weight training would not be suitable – power is already there. Circuit based work with 50-100m jogs between work stations would be a more suitable conditioning stimulus for the mesomorph athlete.

The more slightly built ectomorph athlete who can sprint fast probably has great reactive strength capabilities. Although a jumps programme should be implemented this athlete requires Olympic Lift Strength development to maximise muscular power. The slight increase in bodyweight due to weight training will not affect this athlete but the power gains will drastically improve performance.

Both types of athlete should make use of core or pillar strength training. Lower limb strengthening exercises should be encouraged to avoid ‘trainer feet’ problems.
Up Skill Running Technique

Fast running is a skill. Therefore it must be taught correctly and practiced regularly. Think about:

  • Relaxation in the Face and Shoulders
  • Correct placement of the hands
  • Compact use of the arms
  • Maintain a tall running posture
  • Encourage a smooth hip movement through increased mobility
  • Develop an active foot strike

Tempo sessions to maintain race pace mechanics should be encouraged to help the athlete maintain form and develop a relaxed sprinting stride. Endurance training will not help the athlete improve running technique. Speed through endurance applies to physiology only – not skill development.

800m Training

Structured Fartlek Sessions
The 800m runner needs to develop oxygen uptake capabilities (VO2 max). This type of runner should perform repetitions of 1-4 minutes in duration with a recovery of half the repetition duration. By performing this session over undulating parkland, forests or trails you will add a strength endurance component. You will also take away the stress of the track both physically and more importantly mentally so that the athlete feels refreshed. These workouts are utilised extensively in the General Preparation Phases. They are maintained through the Special Preparation Phase and used occasionally in the Pre-Competition and Competition phases to top up the endurance tank.

VO2 max Track Workouts
Performing Fartlek sessions will improve oxygen uptake in a natural way. However having a high VO2 max number is only one part of the equation. You must also consider velocity at VO2 max (vVO2 max) and also VO2 Kinetics (how fast you can access or the rate you can utilise your VO2 max).

To hit all three areas you need to perform track workouts at vVO2 max paces which are roughly 3k/2 mile speed. If you are unsure about the speed to perform these sessions you can run a 6-minute test. Run as hard as you can for 6 minutes around a 400m track. After 6 minutes mark off the distance you have covered. If you cover 2000m in 6 minutes then your velocity at VO2 max is 20 kilometres per hour which means you would run vVO2 max workouts at 72 seconds per 400m lap.

The table below shows distances covered in the 6-minute test and corresponding vVO2 max and training pace. The 6-minute test was devised by the French physiologist, Veronique Billat.

Distance Covered vVO2 max Pace per 400m
2200m 22 km/h 65’’
2100m 21 km/h 68’’
2000m 20 km/h 72’’
1900m 19 km/h 75’’
1800m 18 km/h 80’’
1700m 17 km/h 85’’
1600m 16 km/h 90’’

Every male sub 1’50’’ runner I have coached has been able to cover in excess of 2100m on the 6 minute test. Every sub 2.10 female runner I have coached has covered at least 1700m in this test.

Performing 3 x 1000m repetitions at vVO2 max pace would be a standard session. For an athlete with a vVO2 max of 20 km/h this would take 3 minutes to complete the repetition. I would allow a 1:1 work rest ration allowing 3 minutes of recovery.

An athlete with 16 km/h vVO2 max pace would take 3’45’’ to complete the repetition and would have the same amount of time in recovery.
We utilise these durations because they will improve the athlete’s VO2 max but also as an 800m runner you need to access your oxygen uptake very quickly to race effectively.

As a coach you are always looking to be creative. I take this 3 x 1000m session and split it up each 1000m repetition like this (based on an athlete who has run 1’48’’)

  • 600m in 1’37’’ (65’’ per 400m)
  • 100m float recovery in 20’’
  • 300m in 45’’ (60’’ per 400m)

We cover many areas here. To complete the session the overall time of the repetition is 2’43’’ so we are maintaining our VO2 max, Secondly we are training vVO2 max with the 600m as well as VO2 max kinetics. With the 100m float recovery in 20’’ (80’’ per 400m) we introduce something called the lactate shuttle. The athlete having produced lactate (through the 600m repetition) must now clear it quickly through a fast active recovery. The 300m repetition is now run at 1500m pace (3’45’’) forcing the athlete to inject a pace change. If the first 600m is too quick the athlete will struggle to maintain the float recovery and be unable to up the pace for the 300m repetition. Progression of the session comes from increased pace of the float recovery not by increasing the speed of the fast intervals.

This shows the athlete is becoming more aerobic at these paces. Completing the 1000m distance split-up still produces the overall time of 2,43,, which is an average pace of 65.5’’ for the distance. Therefore you have averaged vVO2 max pace for the 1000m but run with a broken up rhythm – just like many 800m races. Therefore this type of session would be introduced in the Special Preparation phase of training and maintained through the Pre-Competition Phase.

Threshold Training
The prescription of the correct threshold pace for the 800m runner is probably the most important factor in developing their endurance capabilities and sustaining the competitive season. The only way to be accurate with the training intensities is to monitor the anaerobic threshold through regular lactate testing. By that we do not mean just laboratory treadmill test but fortnightly field testing over a fixed distance.

Generally I use 3-4 x 1600m and I look for a stable lactate production or maximum lactate steady state (MLSS). In the chart below you can see two examples of threshold sessions. Athlete A (a 2’05’’ female athlete) is running at MLSS pace at 6.00 min mile pace and is producing a very stable lactate curve. This is exactly what we are looking for in this type of workout. Athlete B (a male 1’52’’ runner) is running at 5.14 minute per mile pace. He feels comfortable. He is misreading his body and is not training his threshold. To produce the flatter more stable curve this athlete had to reduce his pace to 5.30 minutes per mile pace.

This type of training is introduced in the latter stages of General Preparation and Developed through the Special Preparation Phase.

After performing a threshold workout we utilise some 100m intervals at 1500m pace with 20’’ turnaround recovery. This allows the athlete to experience faster running mechanics and improve race specific running economy. It is very similar to the way sprinters utilise tempo endurance workouts.

To monitor the threshold effectively you may need the help of a physiologist or you can buy a lactate meter and perform the tests yourself.


Specific Endurance
The purpose of this training is to prepare the athlete for the lactic tolerance required for the event. It is always wise to start at date pace early in the Special Preparation Phase and reduce this volume as the intensity builds progressing into the Pre-Competition Phase.

An example of progressing sessions based on different repetition distances is outlined below:

Towards the end of the Pre-Competition Phase and the Competition phase itself you can schedule long repetition long recovery workouts:

• 3 x 500m at race pace with 15-20 minute recovery
• 2 x 600m at race pace with 20-30 minute recovery

It is at this point of the season that the athlete should be conditioned for the event they just need race simulation workouts to help ‘put it all together’.

Remember some athletes do not like to run these race simulation workouts preferring to come into the early competition phase at 90-95% race fitness. Using low key races helps them find their full race fitness in time for the main competitive season.

Speed Development
For the 800m Specialist speed development is crucial. A thorough understanding of speed terminology is important. We are not talking about speed in the context of 800m pace – that is specific endurance. Outlined is the speed we need to develop:

Energy System ATP + CP ATP + CP + LA ATP + CP + LA
Terminology Speed
Alactic Power Speed Endurance
Alactic Capacity Speed Endurance 1
Lactic Power
Duration 6’’ 6-20’’ 20-40’’
Distance 20-60m 80-150m 150-300m

In the general Preparation Phase short repetitions over 30-100m can be introduced through hill sprinting. As the season progresses fast sprinting must be transferred to the track.

A useful session in the Special Preparation Phase is to work on 200m capability using 8 x 100m. The benefit to using this distance is that you can always run with the wind behind you. I split the session into 4 x 2 x 100m with each 100m interval at 200m pace. Have 2 minute recovery between pairs and 5 minute recovery between sets.

This session can be progressed in the Pre Competition Phase to split 200m. Run 200m at 400m pace take 30’’ recovery and repeat. Generally I use 3 set with 15 minutes recovery between 200m pairs.

In the Competition Phase I would still use the 8 x 100m session but if requiring speed and lactate tolerance I would introduce 300m + 200m + 150m at 400m pace with 15 minute, 10 minute and 5 minute recoveries. The key to speed development is to know when to schedule the higher lactic tolerance sessions. This last workout would be totally inappropriate in the General Preparation Phase.

The training sessions required for 800m running have been discussed. Now we have to look at creating a schedule that develops an 800m runner through the season.

I would generally look to organise training schedules into 3 week blocks or cycles. This would allow for 2 weeks of loading and a one week unloading phase. If you continually repeat a 2 week hard intensive phase for too many weeks invariably the athlete becomes ill or injured. By introducing the regeneration weeks the body is able to adapt to the very demanding training required for high level 800m running.

To understand the schedules detailed below we must also consider adding easy and steady running. For the 800m Specialist one Long run of a maximum duration of 60 minutes and one Medium Long Run to a maximum of 45 minutes should be programmed. The remaining runs should be no longer than 30 minutes.

General Preparation Phase

Sat: Fartlek – 2’+3’+4’+3’+2’ off 2’ recovery + 2 x 5 x 100m Hill Sprints
Sun: 60’ easy to steady running + circuit training
Mon: 30’ easy to steady + abdominal and lower limb strengthening exercises
Tue: 30’ easy to steady + circuit or weight training
Wed: 45’ easy to steady + abdominal and lower limb strengthening exercises
Thu: 15’ threshold run + 5 x 200m at 1500m pace with 100m easy jog recovery
Fri: Rest

Special Preparation Phase

Sat: 3 x 1000m Split up at vVO2 max pace
Sun: 60’ easy to steady running + circuit training or weight training
Mon: 30’ easy to steady + abdominal and lower limb strengthening exercises
Tue: 2 x 5 x 200m or 6 x 300m or 6 x 400m at 800m Date Pace
Wed: 45’ easy to steady + abdominal and lower limb strengthening exercises
Thu: 3 x 1600m at Threshold Pace + 10 x 100m at 1500m pace with 20’’ rec
Fri: Rest

Pre-Competition Phase

Sat: 2 x 600m at 800m pace or Low Key Race
Sun: 45’ easy to steady running + circuit training or weight training
Mon: 30’ easy to steady + abdominal and lower limb strengthening exercises
Tue: 3 x 2 x 200m at 400m pace
Wed: 30’ easy to steady + abdominal and lower limb strengthening exercises
Thu: 2 x 1600m at Threshold Pace + 10 x 100m at 1500m pace with 20’’ rec
Fri: Rest

From this article you should be able to construct your own 800m schedules. If you require further assistance on any aspect of 800m training then take a serious look at Scott Christensen’s program ‘The Training Model for High School Middle Distance (800-1600)’. 

If you’re looking for daily workouts from January through outdoor Nationals, it’s the program for you.