Performance Diagnostics

Posted by Scott Christensen

Middle distance coaches should be constantly analyzing the race day performances of runners in their training group for both good tactics and physiological strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, racing performance will improve more dramatically by developing and improving physiological weaknesses rather than improving already developed strengths.


Both the aerobic energy system and the anaerobic energy system contribute to race day performance in the middle distance events. While the more robust aerobic system carries a bigger load in these races, the anaerobic system must play its part in energy contribution. At times it is difficult to pinpoint which energy system is under-developed when analyzing middle distance performance, which in turn leads to confusion in prescribing the workloads necessary for improvement in physical status.


Individualization of training stimuli is necessary for complete development in the athlete so prescribing the same workout for the entire training group does make sense because adaptation will be so variable. Work experience and longevity in a middle distance coach really helps in identifying an under-developed energy system in a runner but one cannot just invent experience. There must be other avenues of identification and analysis.


An effective technique for identifying under-developed physiological systems in a middle distance runner is to analyze numerous case studies and apply that knowledge to the real runners at hand. These case study samples can be either hypothetical or real, but a careful look must be made in order to identify and narrow the problem from the profile and only then can workouts addressing the problem be prescribed.


middle distance runners


Five hypothetical athletes are shown below. First, a profile of recent racing and key workout performances are described. Then performance diagnostic of the physiological problem is made. Finally, a prescription of training intervention is suggested.


#1 Profile: A 15 year old female has recently run times of 11:19 for 3200 meters, 5:18 for the 1600 meters, and 2:26 for the 800 meters in important track meets. She won the 3200 meter race, but finished fifth in the 800 meter race. You would like to use her on the 3200 meter relay at the end of the year, but question if she is capable. Help!

#1 Problem: The runner described has well developed aerobic power, but poorly developed lactate tolerance.  She is trying to carry the load in all of her races with a well developed aerobic energy system, while anaerobically she remains under-developed. Since the 800 meters is more anaerobic then the 1600 or 3200 meters her performance suffers in that race.   

#1 Prescription: Move away from workouts she is good at and enjoys, namely those in the aerobic domain, and run many anaerobic sessions during each microcycle using an interval style with short rest. Examples would be 8 x 200 meters with 2 minutes rest, 7 x 300 meters with 3 minutes rest, or 5 x 400 meters with 1 minute rest.


#2 Profile: An 18 year old male hopes to win the state meet 1600 meter race but is starting to doubt his goal. You know it will take about 4:11 in your state to accomplish this feat. He has recently run 1:56 for 800 meters, 4:15 for 1600, and 9:13 for 3200 meters. During some meets he runs the 4 x 400 meter relay and splits 53.8 seconds. Help!

#2 Problem: The runner described is carrying the correct percentage load in his aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. He needs to get faster in the critical zone while maintaining or slightly improving his comfort zone effort. His stride frequency must increase slightly.

#2 Prescription: Cut out the long runs and the slower base work. Race him in only one event in future meets plus the 4 x 400 meters and have him anchor that race as long as you can. Add race specific hills. Do many repetition run style sessions to increase the capacity of his anaerobic system. Do an absolute speed session each microcycle. Examples would be 3 x 4 min 1-2% grade hill with 7 min jog recovery between, 3 x 500 meters at near max with 15 min recovery, 6 x 30 meters on the fly with 4 min recovery between.


#3 Profile: A 17 year old female recently ran 12:07 for 3200 meters in an important meet, but ran 11:33 for the same race last year. Her 1600 meter is about 13 seconds slower as well. She is not the star she once was and is getting discouraged enough to quit. Help!

#3 Problem: The aerobic power component has remained about the same as the girl described has gotten older and is now near physical maturation. Her running economy is suffering because her cardiovascular system has remained stable as she has finished maturing her neuro-muscular system and skeleton. The tempo and lactate threshold runs that were once done as her main training component no longer do the trick in achieving top level racing fitness.

#3 Prescription: Increase the long runs to 25% of her weekly mileage. Do race specific hills. Spend three mornings per week in the pool doing aqua jogging for an hour each session. Do two sessions each microcycle of special endurance 2 work as intervals with short recovery. Examples would be weekly 12 mile runs, 5 x 3 min 1-2% grade hill with 5 min jog recovery between, 4 x 600 meters with 3 min rest between, 7 x 500 with 3 min rest between.


Training Resource: Training Model for High School Middle Distance (800-1600)


#4 Profile: A 17 year old male is moving up from the 400 meters to the 800 meter event. He has run 52.5 seconds for 400 meters and 2:05 for 800 meters in recent important meets. He has never run cross country or even a serious mile race.   The goal is to get him under 2:00 in a month. Help!

#4 Problem: The runner described has both aerobic capacity and aerobic power shortcomings. VO2 max  will have to be developed by repeated runs of 400-800 meters at vVO2 max pace which will be 91% of his present exhaustive mile pace gained through a test. His strength lies in lactate tolerance, but he cannot carry it effectively from the 400 meters to 800 meters.

#4 Prescription: A continuous long run of about 6 miles must be added each microcycle. Increase total weekly mileage to about 30 miles per week. Add an aerobic power workout about every 6 days. A broken tempo run will need to be added every 8 days. Special 2 workouts should increase to 600 meter repeats. Examples would be 5 x 800 meters at 100% vVO2 max pace with work time equal to rest time. 12 x 400 meters at 100% vVO2 max pace with work time equal to rest time. 2 x 12 minute runs at 85% of vVO2 max pace with 4 min rest between. 4 x 600 at near max velocity with 5 min rest between.  


#5 Profile: The best 17 year old male runner on the high school team recently ran 2:04 for 800 meters, 4:35 for 1600 meters, and 10:06 for 3200 meters. You can run him in only two of the three races in the Conference Meet. He wants you to pick his best two events. Help!

#5 Problem: The runner described is a better middle distance runner than 3200 meter runner at this point. His two races at Conference should be the 800 meters and 1600 meters based on a high ability to tolerate lactate as compared to his overall aerobic power development.

#5 Prescription: The objectives for the rest of the season will be to maintain his current aerobic fitness, while spending most of the time pushing lactate tolerance limits even further. Shorten the long run to 15% of the weekly mileage volume. Eliminate the tempo run.  Most of the aerobic work will be done on recovery days. Insure that workout themes emphasizing speed, speed endurance, special endurance 1 and special endurance 2 and are done during each microcycle through the pre-competitive and competitive training periods. During the pre-competitive period do speed and speed endurance as repetition run style with near complete recovery, while special endurance 1 and special endurance 2 are done as interval style with incomplete recovery.


During the competitive period all four themes should be repetition run style with near or complete recovery between bouts of work. Examples would be 6 x 150 meters at near max velocity with 8 minutes recovery between. 7 x 200 meters with 3 minutes recovery between during pre-competitive and 8 minutes recovery during the competitive period. 4 x 500 with 3 minutes recovery during pre-competitive and 15 minutes recovery during the competitive period.


One of the most rewarding aspects of coaching middle distance runners is in pinpointing the exact weakness in an athlete’s racing physiology and improve it. Once that variable is found, very specific workouts can be prescribed to strengthen it. The athlete continues to run faster and faster through all phases of the macrocycle and eventually reaches their performance ceiling. It takes some effort and experience, but it is essential to a middle distance runner’s development.      




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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