The changing face of 800m running
SPORTS SCIENTISTS ARE STUDYING THE CHANGING FACE OF 800m RUNNING. WHAT CAN THEIR FINDINGS TELL US, ASKS THE BMC’S MATT LONG
DATE: July 25,
1976; Venue: the Montreal Olympic Stadium, Canada. There, a 6ft 2in tall former high school basketball player wearing 217 on his white
Cuban vest crosses the line of the men’s 800m final and triumphantly throws both arms in the air.
The late David Coleman is screaming into his microphone. “A new world record for a man who is still a baby at the event,” he tells viewers.
We are talking, of course, about Alberto Juantorena, the giant of an athlete affectionately nicknamed ‘White Lightning’ who retired in the 1980s after his brilliant Olympic and world record of 1:43.50 some 41 summers ago.
But could we soon see the return of his kind of two-lap runner?
Research being conducted by Gareth Sandford, a performance physiologist with High Performance Sport New Zealand, suggests that might be the case. Why?
Sports science provides some clues. As an athlete, your anaerobic speed reserve constitutes the range of speed which you possess from velocity at VO2max (or maximal aerobic speed), up to your maximum sprint speed. Ongoing research by Sandford and his team suggests this is hugely important in terms of both identifying and training the middle distance runner of the 21st century.
The emergence of ‘positive pacing’
Using Kinovea software analysis of first lap and second lap splits over 800m races from 13 Olympic Games and world championships – from Sydney 2000 to Rio 2016 – Sandford has made some interesting discoveries.
He’s found, for example, that from 2011 onwards, the average male 800m Olympic and World Championship medallist has run a faster first lap (average of 2.2 seconds quicker) in contrast to a slightly faster second lap between 2000 and 2009. This represents a shift towards what he defines to as ‘positive’ pacing’. Sandford refers to this as potentially constituting “a new era of 800m runners, who perhaps possess different physiological characteristics”. In short, he says, it would appear that the event is moving towards greater anaerobic demands.
It could partly explain why fewer athletes are ‘doubling up’ over 800m and 1500m as was common in the 1980s with the likes of Seb Coe and Steve Ovett and which continued into this century with the stunning ‘double’ success of Dame Kelly Holmes in Athens 2004.
Gun to tape
So what are the implications of the apparent need for superior speed capability on the first lap of an 800m? Athletes are still required to have the skills to tackle both ‘gun to tape’ and ‘sit and kick’ styles, to be prepared to react to however the race unfolds. “But we have shown increasingly, that the winning tactic in the men’s 800m at Olympic Games and in world championships in recent years has been a gun to tape approach,” Sandford says. “The faster speed requirements limit the gold medal – and often minor medals – only to those with the capacities to go with an early fast pace because the gap is too much to make up on the second lap.”
So what does this mean about the way you should train? “The key point to take home is each athlete should be developing a strategy that is reflected in the training year-round approach to compete with the speed-based 800m runners, maximise your strengths to be able to compete with theirs,” he says. “Ultimately, any training approach depends on the individual whether a sprint based, endurance based or a hybrid of the two.”
Moving up from 400m
So is the Tokyo Olympic 800m champion of 2020 likely to be a 400m runner who has moved up to 800m? “This is what we are trying to find out now,” Sandford says. “How much maximal aerobic speed and maximal sprint speed – the two landmarks of anaerobic speed reserve – elite middle-distance athletes possess, and how this differs across the spectrum of speed and endurance athletes in this event group.
“No single physiological variable will explain this very complex area”, explains Sandford, “but what the research will do is tell us ‘how fast is fast enough’. We cannot escape the fact that for athletes to compete in the 800m they require both supreme speed range and strong aerobic capability.”
“Starting with this characterisation of speed ranges, we can unlock ideas for furthering the physical preparation of middle distance athletes moving forward.”
Will sub-45 be a requirement?
Sandford’s research suggests a shift towards a depth of international 800m runners who are capable of clocking 45s for the one-lap event. So let’s return to the case of Juantorena who may have been an anomaly back in the 1970s. Just four days after his ‘surprise’ win in the 800m, came the clue to his success when he ran the fastest ever 400m at low altitude, clocking 44.26 to bag his second gold at those Montreal Games. Take a look at the footage of that race on YouTube and you will see the giant striding ‘El Caballo’ – nicknamed The Horse – leading through the bell in 50.85.
Impressive by any standards, but the stopwatch tells only half the story. Take a closer look at how relaxed he looks compared to the other seven athletes in the field including the likes of Ivo Van Damme, Rick Wohlhuter and a youthful Steve Ovett.
That ability to relax at speed is the key to understanding anaerobic speed reserve and why the 800m runner of the future may in some respects need to be a proverbial blast from the past.
Matt Long is an England Athletics lead tutor and BMC News magazine editor
Alberto Juantorena: a 400m specialist who ran 800m
only twice before setting the world record
White Lightning: Juantorena won a 400m and 800m double at Montreal 1976