How to Run the 800 Meter

Posted by Scott Christensen

Click here to watch How to Run the 800 Meter                                                   

Hi, everybody.  Welcome to Stillwater High School.  This is the human performance lab that I have and my physiology classroom here in Stillwater, Minnesota, and I’d like to talk to you today about how to run the 800 meter and a little bit about developing a race plan.  I’d like to thank my technical crew here, Marcus and Matty.  I’d like to also point out that I’ve got some distance crew here, some of my 800 meter runners and some of my milers who are also gonna watch today.

At the end of the presentation, we’ll give you a web address that you can reach me at if you’ve got questions, if you wanna buy some training things.  Whatever you need, I’m here for you, and I operate a question and answer board, so if you’ve got things, make sure you contact me, and again that address will pop up a little bit later.  Now, talking about the 800 meters, and that’s where I really wanna concentrate today is on the two lapper.  I don’t wanna talk much about training.  I wanna talk about a plan for running the 800 meter.

Now, why would you wanna do a plan?  Well, anything that’s worthwhile in life has got a plan, and the racing plan for the 800 meters should serve two purposes.  Number one, it should be a means of action.  It should be a plan of your actions, rather than a predictor of your results.  The time will take care of itself.  The place will take care of itself.  This is more processing rather than results.

Number two, a good racing plan should psychologically prepare the athlete for the physiological processes that are going to occur during the race, which should be the most stressful time in any athlete’s life if the actual competition is the race and we prepare them so well physically that it really serves its purpose to have a good psychological racing plan, something that’s set up ahead of time that might anticipate some things that may go wrong and just a good time for the coaching athlete to discuss what their racing intentions might be.  Now, let’s profile the 800 meters before we get going.  What is it?  Well, technically it’s an endurance event.  Now, I know there’s some talk amongst coaches that really is just a long sprint.  You won’t get very many physiologists to agree with that because of the strong aerobic component in the 800 meters.

We group it in with the other endurance events.  Now, by aerobic component, we mean that a certain amount of the energy has to be supplied through the aerobic system as well as a contribution from the anaerobic system.  You could walk it.  You wouldn’t have any racing success that way, but that would be purely aerobic.  To get up to racing speed, you’ve gotta have some sort of contribution from both of the energy systems.

Coaching Resource:  Speed Development for Distance Runners

As it turns out, the physiologists have done the work for us and they’ve determined that the 800 meters, which is two laps, is about 50 percent aerobic and 50 percent anaerobic.  Now, what that means practically is this.  It will take about 90 calories’ worth of energy to run the 800 meters.  Now, those of you that have a pasta meal the night before a race and load up on pasta and have all of those various team bonding things and you need to load up on all this pasta, please realize that the 800 meters and the energy required is about equal to three-fourths of a banana, so you really don’t have to load up too much for it.  It’s 90 calories, of which 45 calories will be processed in the mitochondria, thus in the aerobic system, and 45 calories will be processed anaerobically.  That is, outside of the mitochondria, so that’s the physiological features of it.

The athletes that will run this race are varied.  We’ve got sprinters that move up.  We’ve got middle distance runners, and we have distance runners that may move down.  You need to be able to address all three, and when I get into a general racing model, I’m not going to discern between those three, but as you train those three, you need to realize what type of athlete you’re training.  Is it the true middle distance runner?  Like historically some of our more famous ones have been Sebastian Coe and Wilson Kipketer who were probably just as successful in the mile as they were in the 800 meters.

Their volume is probably 40 to 50 miles per week.  They’ve got a very high allometric model of VO2max to running economy and then you’ve got a long distance runner that’s moving down, the Peter Snell type, the Steve Ovett type who is very comfortable running more than 60 miles a week, spends a lot of time on the endurance component, has very high VO2max, that sort of runner.  Then the third type, which we are seeing more and more commonly is the long sprinter that’s moving up.  They don’t have the highest VO2max in the bunch, but they are very economical.  They’re able to have a very strong vertical component.

They’re probably forefoot strikers, which is very metabolically expensive.  They probably don’t have a long run in their normal training menu.  They’re most comfortable with a training volume probably somewhere around 30 miles per week.  Those are the types of people that you’re gonna find in this race, so as you train them, you of course are training for their faults and deficiencies rather than their strengths, so you’ll need to address that in training and that stuff is available through some of the things I’ve written and how to train the middle distance runner, which we’ve got as a class that you can purchase the complete track and field, so as you set up the racing plan, you need to discuss with the athlete what their competition is, who they’re racing, and what type of runner they are, although that’s probably been discussed many times with them, specifically since they’re your athlete.

Let’s talk about the race itself.  How do you distribute the energy?  How are these 90 calories distributed throughout the two laps?  How do you set up a timeframe that you allow them to be able to successfully hit?  Certainly you don’t want them to go out as absolutely fast as they can.  You wanna give them some strength in order to finish.

How do you set it up?  Well, there’s been studies done.  A lot of it’s come out of South Africa where we’ve looked at the last 26 world record holders in the 800 meters and it turns out that 24 out of the 26 had a faster first lap than a second lap, and it’s been significant, at least a couple of seconds.  That’s generally how the racing model is set up, that the first lap is two to three seconds faster than the second lap.

Now, how might you set that up practically with your athlete?  I’ve got an example here of an athlete actually sitting right here in the crowd.  He’s got a date pace today of 400 meters.  He can run in 53.2 seconds.  His date pace here – and that’s what DP stands for, is date pace – in the 800 meters currently is 157.1.

Now if I’m gonna set up a racing model for him, the first 400 meters should be run at 93 percent of his date pace, 400 meters, so our goal for him is to get through that first lap in 57.3 seconds.  He can certainly run faster than that, but the 800 meters isn’t about running one 400.  It’s being able to repeat 400’s.  That’s the number you’re shooting for.

The second lap, again, revealing what the 53.2 date pace, 400 – 89 percent is your goal on the second lap, so when you divide by .89, he is right under 60 seconds, 59.8.  Add the two.  That’s how he should achieve the 157.1.  Now interestingly, and Wilson Kipketer, who followed Sebastian Coe and had the 800 meter record for so long before David Rudisha broke it, Kipketer actually set the world record three different times.  His second lap on all three was about the same, and as he brought the 800 meter record down, it all came out of the first lap, so he was riding his first lap harder.  His second lap remained about the same.

If you look at the Olympic Games, in the last four Olympic Games we’ve got data on, in the 800, the 1,500, the 5,000, and the 10,000, every one of those races over the last four Olympics on the men’s side, the last 400 meters was run in the high 52 point range.  That’s the critical zone in the race, is the last part of it and no matter what the race, the Olympic games, which is usually a tactical race, they’re able to close in high 52 seconds.  Even the 800 meter, which is in the Olympics kind of traditionally more tactical than other European races, even going out somewhat slower than normal because it’s so tactical in the Olympics still causes that second lap to not be as fast as the first lap.  Look for about a two to three second slowdown between the first lap and the second lap.  Let’s set up the race.

Here we go.  I’ve picked out seven critical spots in the two laps, and that’s the things that need to be discussed today and you take it to your athlete.  Let’s talk about the start.  I’ve got three athletes here: red, green, and blue, and of course in the inner meters they start in lanes.  It’s a standard start, and they’re gonna run the first portion of their race in lanes until they get over here into the backstretch, which is a cut line, and from this cut line they’ll move into lanes and this is really what separates the 800 meter from the 400.

The 400 is just in lanes and you basically run as hard as you can, but you’re in lanes all the way.  The 800 meter is not quite as hard as you can, but it’s still pretty hard, but you move shoulder to shoulder and that’s what really makes the 800 meter so dynamic and so interesting is the shoulder to shoulder competition rather than sitting in your lanes like they do in the 400.  Well, let’s look at the situation here.  Let’s say you’re red, green, or blue.  Which one’s better?

Preferred lane is in the middle of the track, so the green dot is no doubt preferred, but it’s got some pitfalls.  It’s got a lot of advantages, but it’s got some pitfalls.  Blue has got some advantages being on the outside.  Also got a few pitfalls that need to be discussed and red of course has got probably more pitfalls than advantages and they need to be addressed as well, so let’s talk about getting going here.  As the gun goes off, they’re in lanes.  Your first five steps should establish your pace.

Now, the difference between the 800 meter and other longer distance races has to do with a lot of physiology, but a lot of psychology as well.  On the psychological side, I like to tell my distance runners that in the longer races, it’s all about concentration.  Because you’re out there so long in the two mile, the 5k, that’s a lot of concentration.  In the 800 meters, it’s about awareness more than concentration.  You have to be completely alert.

That’s why I don’t run some guys on my team in the 800 meter very often.  They’re just not alert runners.  They’re just not aware of what’s going on around them and thus just are tactically very poor 800 meter runners.  I might stick them up in a longer race where maybe their concentration’s a little stronger or at least there’s more room to make up for errors that might occur.  The real problem with the 800 is if there is a problem, there’s no time to make up for it.

Let’s get going, and these first five steps are pretty hard and then you’re in your pace, and you should be completely sensory aware of sounds you hear, people’s steps, people’s breathing.  You should be able to sense people on either side of you.  Maybe on the periphery of your vision you can see people.  You’re trying to come around the corner aware of where your competition is.  Now, when you get over here, this seldom happens, but I’ve drawn it this way, all three being equal.

Red has the problem here of the whole pack collapsing in on them, on this person in this position.  Green has the problem of being boxed in on both sides.  They will be set up according to what either on either side of them do.  Blue has got an advantage of not having anybody to their right.  This position also has the advantage of making a nice, smooth transition along the backstretch.

Now, a lot of things that happen in races with younger people, problems and things that stem on the backstretch, deal with people that make the cut just too quickly.  They just veer right in, and I know it’s something you talk about with your athletes.  It’s a very simple concept, but they seem to forget it in races.  You just absolutely don’t have to take a sharp left turn.  You want to bring your body very slowly in to the inner rail along this area from the cut mark to the 200 meter mark.

Red has to have elbows out a little bit, protecting space.  Not necessarily elbowing people, but make yourself bigger.  Make yourself bigger, and then people won’t intrude on you.  If this is a race that was seeded properly, green should be the best runner and as green gets out here, if it was seeded properly, green should kind of be  the one that’s dictating the cut to the curve, because blue certainly can’t cut until green’s cutting as well.  Now, when you get here, when you get to the 200 meter mark, the goal is to be a good racing position.

Now, that doesn’t mean pinned against the rail.  That’s perhaps the worst place to be, and that’s what red really has to watch for, are people pushing into the rail against them.  Ideally what you wanna be is on the outside of lane one, outside the line of lane one, just off the shoulder of the leader.  Now, if you are by far the best runner in the field, then you should be the frontrunner.  You don’t have to key off anybody.  Just go, but if this is a competitive race, by the time you get here, you’ve got the front pack and you’ve got the leader and the challenger and the prime challenger just off the right shoulder, just back a touch, but on the outside right shoulder of the athlete, and that’s the best position to be in.

That’s why it’s a little bit better to be blue than red, but it’s great to be green because that gives you the clearest path down here.  Now, this guy is going to run 57.3 for the first 400.  Well, what should you be here at the 200 meter mark?  If you’re gonna be 57.3 over there, you’re gonna be somewhere high, 27th, maybe 28 at the 200 meter mark and then come in in 29 on your second 200 meters, which would be area D here from the 200 meters to the 400 meters.  As you get in front of the crowd, so you’re about just under 28 to here and then about 29 to there, staying in position, staying relaxed, deciding when you’re gonna make your move.

Because of the speed here, your leaders are starting to separate from the other people in the race and you’re just at this point real relaxed.  As you pass the 400 meters, this is kind of a graveyard for 800 meter runners.  This is where the pace generally shows.  You’re a little anxious because of the crowd in the front stretch.  You’re trying to get up to your split time.  You’re calculating your split.

You’ve maybe mentally separated the race into two 400 meter repeats, so as you cross the start/finish line for the first time after the first lap, there’s a tendency for all athletes just to let down a little bit, and as you go around the corner, in a lot of races you’ll see the path reforming.  It might’ve been strung out a little bit coming down the friendship, but now it’s coming back a little bit.  It’s more back in a path, because the leaders relaxed a little too much on this corner.  Now, this is an excellent place to make a move, to make a strong move just as you’re coming off the corner, approaching the cut mark.  A lot of people are gonna wait over here till the last 200 meters.

If you’re the best runner, you’re no doubt out of the problem, but if you’ve got a real competitive race going here, this is a prime spot, just over the cut mark, to make your move and make a strong move.  Make a move they can’t come back on, because if you make a move and are able to be in good position here, they’ve got the corner to deal with and not a lot of people are gonna take the effort to try to get by you on the corner with 200 meters to go.  They’re gonna wait until you’re down to 100 or 90 meters so you can gain an advantage on this spot and it’s just a kind of an underappreciated part of the race is people are preparing for the finish, but you’ve gotta be psychologically strong and it’s gotta be part of your plan.  I mean this is where you’re gonna pull the trigger right in there.  That’s been pretty much predetermined, that no matter where you are in the race, that’s where you’re going to make a psychological and a physical move on your competition.  Then you get over to area F, which is the last curve, and people will tuck in.

The last bit of jostling will occur here.  Everybody’s fatigued.  You’re starting to recruit muscles that you haven’t used earlier in the race, and that’s kind of that rigor look that you get when 400 to 800 meter guys finish.  It looks like they’re in some sort of rigor mortis setting in.  They call it rigor.

We call it rigor, but really what’s happening is your big muscle groups have fatigued and now your body is relying on ancillary and smaller muscles to accomplish the task because your will is still there.  It’s just there’s so much acidosis.  The pH in your inner cellular fluids that has crashed and you’ve got what we call fatigue setting in and you’ve got to maintain your form.  You’ve gotta continue to run high in posture.  Don’t go to the dog paddling right around this last corner.

Keep your thumbs up.  Keep your hands relaxed.  Clenched hands aren’t gonna help.  That’s gonna further fatigue muscles in your upper body, and your arms don’t really make you a faster runner, but they certainly will slow you down, so you wanna keep your upper body as relaxed as possible when you’ve got the incredible amount of fatigue setting in.  The last 90 meters is about foot speed, what you have left.  What’s your maximum speed?

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What have you trained over the last components of your training scheme to further the foot speed and maintaining your form, maintaining your relaxation, keeping your thumbs up, running tall, keeping your weight out on the front of your spike place, being a midfoot to forefoot striker and continuing to run through the finish line.  Not run to the finish line, but run through the finish line, being absolutely aware of what’s around you.  At this point, your intent more on your competition than your time and run past the start/finish line and then collapse and do whatever you do when you finish your race.  That’s how you run the 800 meters, so if you’ve got questions, make sure you get a hold of me.  Get a hold of Latif.  He’ll get the questions to me, and enjoy your day at the track.  Thank you.




FREE REPORT From Distance Expert Scott Christensen

Race Strategy and Tactics for the Endurance Events: 800m – 5000m

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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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