Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Winning Formula for the 800

Over many years of racing and studying others racing the 800m, I have figured out a formula that works great for succeeding at this distance. It's mostly a mental approach because the physical part of running for around 2-3 minutes is not that complicated.

Here's the main problem (which is also applicable to other distances, but to a lesser degree):

You don't believe you can finish strongly if you run hard in the middle.

First of all, let's backtrack to the beginning of the race. Everyone has about 7 seconds worth of energy to expend in a hard (almost sprinting) effort that won't hurt the remainder of your race, whether it's the 800, 1600, 5000, etc. So I tell my runners to go out hard for 5 seconds - not going for the full 7 seconds provides a little safety factor, both physically and mentally. But at the end of that 5 seconds, you MUST dial back the effort. The key to doing this is to make sure you are not "racing" the other runners. You should still be running somewhat briskly, but you shouldn't really be pushing the pace. Other runners may pull ahead of you here.

Before you know it, you'll get to the 200m mark, and you should be hitting this at about your goal time divided by 4. I think of the entire first 200 meters as a part of the race to largely ignore, in that - as long as you run that first 5 seconds hard - it will pretty much take care of itself. You will quite likely complete that first half lap just how you want to.

The next segment is very short: simply the 100m of the second turn. It's the only part of the race that you should look ahead to what is coming up. As for any turn, you should shorten up your stride, and don't worry if you slow down a bit because it's only 1/8 of the race.

The most important part of the race is the next 300m, which I call "The Middle 300." Starting on the home stretch (with 500m to go), work as hard as you can. The key to this 300m segment is that you get two straights and only one curve, so it's a part of the race that you should be able to run fast. Many other runners will slow down here because they are thinking ahead to the final 200, believing they need to "save something" in order to have a good sprint at the end. But you don't have to do that because you WILL have a good sprint at the end; everyone can sprint at the end.

During this 300m segment, you must have the mindset that you don't care how you will feel in the future (specifically, with 200m to go). The reason you can do this is that everyone will feel very, very fatigued during the final 25% of this race. So you can either be the same as everyone else in terms of where you are time-wise and fatigue-wise or you can be several seconds ahead of them and feeling the same level of fatigue. If you need a goal to get you through this part of the race, try to beat other runners to the beginning of each curve. This is actually an important tactic because you don't want to have to swing wide on a curve to pass a runner that you are overtaking.

The final 200 doesn't take any special approach - just run as fast as you can. Don't slow down on the curve, but try to speed up by increasing your turnover rate. Once you hit the straight, run like a sprinter with the best form you can muster.

One final key point is to be sure to give maximum effort all the way across the finish line. The 800 and 400 are races in which runners can almost literally become paralyzed within a very short distance of the finish line. I have seen 30m leads disintegrate within 50 meters because the leader "locks up" and almost can't move.

Will you get passed in the final 50 meters? It is possible, and if it happens, you can rest assured that the person who passes you should have been even further in front of you than they were had they run more efficiently. That is, it isn't a case of you not running well, but rather a case of a runner who is markedly better than you who just underperformed.

Good luck!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Running the Mile - OK, the "1600"

This week, our team has its third invitational of the track season. Only about half of the team ran in the first two because many runners had only been running for a couple of weeks. But this week, almost everyone will be running.

The newest runners on the team are, of course, just learning how to run the 1600 properly. Indeed, running this distance is a skill that has to be practiced in order to succeed. I put together a list of tips for those of you who are new to this race.

1. The Start. 
At the beginning of every race, your body has about 5 seconds worth of the kind of "fuel" that powers intense running, like sprinting. That fuel source is not available after the first 5 seconds of the race, even if you don't start fast, so you might as well use it. So start quickly, but only for about 4-5 seconds. After that, settle into your race pace.

2. The First Lap. 
Let the other runners go. Unless you're a freak of nature, you probably will be running with other inexperienced runners, and almost everyone runs way too fast for the first lap, then dies later on. One of the hardest things to do as a runner is to trust that you will catch up to other runners later, but it WILL happen if you run the correct pace on your first lap. Because of the adrenaline surge you'll get from the excitement of the beginning of the race, you will NOT run the first lap too slowly. It just won't happen. But if you run this lap correctly, you actually come through in a time a little faster than your desired average pace. Here's why:

Let's say your plan is to run 6:00 - that's an average of 90 seconds per lap. If you run the first 5 seconds "fast," you will cover about 30 meters. Let's say you then settle into a slower pace and actually complete the first lap in 90 seconds. Perfect, right? Well, not really. If you do the math, you'll realize that you are now running at a pace of 92 seconds per lap (because part of the lap was run at a faster pace). So you actually would want to finish the first lap about 1-2 seconds faster than your desired average pace, so in 88 or 89 seconds. Now, if you did that, you will start your second lap actually running at 90-second pace.

3. The Second Lap. 
As long as you ran the first lap correctly, you should be able to maintain your pace on the second lap. However, you will probably have to consciously work in order to do it, as opposed to the first lap, which should have felt easy.

4. The Third Lap. 
This is the hardest lap of the "mile" because you're tired, and you're thinking about how much farther you still have to go. Almost everyone slows down on this lap, and your goal is to minimize that slowing. So when you get to the back straight, focus on trying to speed up and catch other runners. Try to beat one or more runners to the beginning of the curve (since it's harder to pass on a curve - you don't want to get stuck behind someone who is slowing down). You may still be slowing down slightly, but if you ran the first two laps correctly, you will be slowing down less than others, so you'll overtake them. Also, most newer runners have a mindset that they'll run a little easier on the third lap, thinking that they should "save" something for the final lap. Don't do that. If you try to catch and pass people instead, you will probably only slow down by a second or two, hitting a 91 or 92, leaving you right on 90-second pace.

5. The Fourth Lap. 
This is when you simply run as hard as you can manage. Actually, I recommend starting your "kick" on the home straight before you begin the fourth lap. You don't want to get stuck behind other runners on the first curve of the final lap, so try to race people to the curve. If you follow this plan, you will certainly not run slower than 6:00, and will likely beat that by a couple of seconds as your adrenaline kicks in as you sprint for the finish line.

That's it - congrats!