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

Athletics Weekly - - News - PIC­TURES: MARK SHEAR­MAN

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.”

Train­ing con­se­quences

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

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