Speed or Endurance in the 400m, 600m & 800m Races?

Posted by Latif Thomas

Track and field is a counterintuitive sport. That’s why most high school kids are terrible at it.

I’m constantly reminding my athletes that their rate of progress is directly proportional to their ability to do the opposite of what feels natural.

Push ‘down and back’ to go ‘up and forward’.

Jump ‘away’ from the bar to go ‘over’ the bar.

Push ‘up’ and not ‘out’ to go farther in the triple jump.

A lifetime of team sports has ingrained the falsehood that ‘quick’ equals ‘fast and that more effort makes up for poor execution.

Suffice to say, our rate of progress is considerably slower than the paces we train at.

However, it’s important to note how the same principle of ‘the opposite is true’ often applies to our specific coaching beliefs and strategies.

I broke this idea down in detail in a post titled ‘3 Reasons Sprinters Fall Apart’.

We can take those lessons and extend a variation of them to our athletes competing primarily in the 400 and/or 600 and/or 800 meter races.

The basic idea is this:

Looks can be deceiving.

When athletes fall apart in these combined zone events, many coaches jump to the conclusion that a lack of endurance is the problem. Therefore, more endurance training must be the solution, right?



“Well Johnny you really crapped the bed in the last 150 of that 600 today. I thought I was watching an episode of The Walking Dead. But, I wasn’t. I was at a dual meet. A fate worse than the zombie apocalypse. Not to worry, it’s still early in the season. We’ll up your mileage and toss in a few repeat 1000 workouts and then you’ll have the strength to run a personal best!”


Coach, you can take that approach. Absolutely. That is your right as a human being.

And if you coach here in Massachusetts, where I live, I am humbly begging you to employ that approach. Particularly with your 600m runners.

However, if you’re open to new ideas, here’s a real life example of how these two ‘philosophies’ play out:

Once upon a time, to make a dual meet less painful to suffer through (six heats of the 2 mile, anyone?) we matched one of our top long sprinters (300/400/600) against one of our top middle distance runners (800/1000/mile) in the 600m.

I told “my” girl to race where she lives by taking it out fast through the 300, forcing the endurance based athlete to burn a lot of gas by running at a very high percentage of her 300m personal best in order to stay in the race.

This was familiar territory for her because the vast majority of her training is done at primary event (400 or 600) race velocity or faster.

From 380-450 the middle distance girl started making up the ~10m gap.

Sprints crew started to get nervous.

Distance crew started to get excited.

Coach Thomas peered 30 seconds into the future…

Conventional wisdom says that the middle distance runner coulda/woulda/shoulda come back and run down the sprinter on the last lap due to her superior ‘strength’ or ‘endurance’ or whatever people are calling it these days.

Here’s the fatal flaw in that logic:

Slow can’t catch fast when slow has a speed reserve disadvantage before the gun even goes off and they’re behind in the race. (Because we’re not talking about the 2mile or a cross country race. It’s a 600.)

It came as no surprise that the long sprinter doubled the initial lead over the last 200m, despite having inferior ‘endurance’. (She ran the final 200m faster than the middle 200m.)

What’s my point in all of this?

The determining factor for consistent success in the 400m, 600m and 800m events ultimately boils down to one overarching biomotor ability/physical capacity:


If you’re interested in this topic,Tony Veney does a superior job explaining the ‘how and why’ in his new program design for 300 & 400 hurdles resource.

Ron Grigg covers it in his posts on 400m training goals and 800m training goals.

The point of training is to develop faster top speeds and a greater speed reserve, not handle the ability to run a large number of submaximal intervals. This is especially the case at the HS level where kids don’t have to run the same number of races in a single competition or multi-day Championship Meet as they would if they were collegiate athletes.

Speed development is a year round process, not something sprinkled in over the last six weeks of the season or whatever extra old school distance coaches still prescribe.

Want your long sprinters and middle distance runners to run faster times? Compare their current 200m PR to the kids at the top of the league, division and/or state performance lists.

I remember watching a girl who won 3 or 4 All State Titles in the 600m run 25. in the 200 as a freshman. She had an MA Hall of Fame Coach who is a top flight middle distance and distance coach. But, she also ran 25. as a freshman in the 200.

This is known as being ‘naturally fast’.

That’s not to say ‘endurance’ training doesn’t have its place.

The 600m runner I reference gets the full Ron Grigg treatment.

My true 600/400 runners do 10k pace/critical velocity interval work once per week.

They also see mixed pace workouts ranging from 10k pace up to max velocity/top end speed.

And they do track tempo workouts and even 10-15 minute easy endurance runs (aka long sprinter mileage).

But, they also get a heavy diet of wicket drills and max velocity runs, speed endurance and lift with the 55m runners.

In the end, success will come back to improving their 200m times, not improving the number of 200s they can run with 2 minutes rest…

…even though improving their 200 time will directly lead to improving the number of 200s they can run with 2 minutes rest.

But, not the other way around.

Think about it.



Discover how to plan the perfect balance of speed and endurance training with Ron Grigg’s ‘7 Laws of 400/600/800 Coaching Success.’

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Latif Thomas - Latif Thomas owns and operates Complete Track and Field and serves as the Co-Director of the Complete Track and Field Clinic at Harvard University, the largest track and field clinic in the United States. A popular speaker and presenter at some of the largest coaching clinics across the country, Latif has true passion for the sport and it definitely shows. Over the past 19 years, he has coached more combined League, Division, All-State, and New England Champions in sprints, hurdles, and jumps than he can count. Follow @latif_thomas on Twitter.

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