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Historical Approach to the 400 Meter Dash

The legendary Jim Bush of UCLA once said this about the 400 meter dash:

"The quarter mile, I think, should be broken into four segments, 110 yards each.
Each 110 yards is run a certain way, especially the first three. I tell runners to run the
first three my way and the last 110 their own way.
I have them run the first 110 very fast. They learn to come off the first curve as
relaxed as they can, and they run the backstretch without slowing down, yet without
using up too much energy.
The key is the third 110. This is where too many people slow down. We drill into
these runners that when they hit that second curve, they must start to work again.
Everybody seems to think this is the place to slow down, so they will have power to
come off that last curve and kick the straightaway.
Well, there isn't anybody that is going to kick in on the last straightaway, because
fatigue is settling in. I teach my quarter-milers to run that second curve hard. This is
not easy to teach. We work all year long, from October to May, on relaxing in that
second curve and in that second curve running it fast."

For well over twenty years track coaches have agreed with this assessment of the 400
meter dash. If we asked coaches today what they observe when high school athletes
run this event, they will all note a clear slowing down at the 200 meter mark. They
will tell their athletes to run fast but relaxed through the curve, and they will also say
something about maintaining form in the final 100 meters.

However, I've always questioned conventional wisdom regarding this event:

Are segments of the 400 run differently by choice, as Bush suggests, or physiology?

Slowing down is not a conscious effort on the part of any sprinter; therefore, what do
we accomplish by merely advising athletes to "run the backstretch without slowing
down." Rapid deceleration is the result of a physiological change that cannot be
corrected by merely advising the runner to demonstrate a different behavior in that
segment of the race.

I believe that success in coaching athletes in the 400 meter dash involves four
components. Coaches must:
1) Understand the physiology of the event
2) Develop a personal "overarching" philosophy based upon this understanding
3) Construct a training program based on these physiological principles as they relate
to the overall philosophy.
4) Assess the training data and race performances to determine the potential to
achieve both short term and long term objectives

Physiology of the Event

This is the most neglected aspect of coaching, primarily because very few track
manuals ever present research-based criteria for their recommended workouts.
Without becoming too technical, I'll give you a quick overview of what happens to
leg muscles during a high speed run of 400 meters.

If the 400 meter race were segmented into equal parts, we would find that, contrary to
belief, it is the second part, the second 200 meters, which is almost always the fastest.
Research done back in 1992 confirmed that athletes capable of running from 50.5 to
47.5 cruise along at an average speed of 8.06 meters per second during the first 100
meters, and increase their effort to 8.3 meters per second in the second 100 meter

After this second 100 meter segment, running speed falls off steadily, dropping to
about 7.64 meters per second between the 200 and 300 meter mark, before tumbling
to a low of about 7.01 meters during the final 100 meter segment. This final 100
meters is a whopping ten percent below the overall average 400 meter tempo, and 16
percent under the high speed reached between the 100 and 200 meter points. No
wonder so many coaches advise their athletes to run the final segment their own way!

Everyone talks about doing multiple (6-8) repeats to build up a tolerance to lactic
acid, but the research raises some serious questions about the effectiveness of such
training. Blood lactate levels are certainly elevated following a 400 meter run, but
they actually get even higher about six minutes after athletes have finished their
race. If an athlete tests at 11 millimoles per liter of acid build-up after his 400, in
another six minutes that level will shoot up to as much as 15 millimoles. There is a
logical explanation for this increase. Leg muscles are continuing to push excess
lactate into the blood, and as the blood flow to the liver diminishes, lactate removal is

Another fascinating observation is that blood lactate accumulates the highest

between the 100 and 300 meter marks of the 400, then actually declines during the
last 100 meters, only to rise again during recovery. Researchers believe that the rate
at which blood lactate increases reaches its highest level after about 27 seconds of
running--or for most typical prep athletes right about the 200 meter mark. This
explains why so many coaches refer to sprinters as "hitting a wall" at the start of the

What goes on inside the muscle is also fascinating. In the 400 meter dash, creatine
phosphate, a high energy compound which furnishes a great deal of high octane
energy needed in this event, drops by as much as 50% after the first 100 meters of the
race. Creatine phosphate continues to decline during the final 300 meters. Most
importantly, it takes eight minutes of recovery before creatine levels return to normal.

Overarching Philosophy

Even for distances from 1500 meters all the way to the marathon, fast race times
result from high running speeds. This is not really profound, but it is an observation
few coaches choose to build into their training programs. I believe that the higher
the maximal running speed, the faster an athlete will be able to run any particular
race. Research supports this. maximal running velocity is a better predictor of
performance than either V02 max or running economy!

If we improve 100 and 200 meter dash performances, 400 meter dash projections
will require a lower percentage of an athlete's maximum running speed. This is
also very important. Quite simply, as an athlete's speeds increases, 200 paces will
seem easier, thereby allowing him or her to step up to even faster velocities. This is
why training assessment is so important.

.Repeats of anything longer than the distance your athletes are actually running
will basically make them good at running repeats, and these repeats will, by their
very nature, be far slower than what you desire them to run in competition.

I believe in developing maximum velocity over short distances, then gradually

stretching out that top speed. I do accept that speed stamina is important, but only at
a given velocity. It is easier for sprinters to add distance at a set speed than to step up
their speed at a set distance, such as 400 meters. With younger sprinters, the wrong
kind of endurance work can actually inhibit their potential. Since the body adapts to
the work demanded of it, too many long runs at an intermediate velocity may convert
undifferentiated or transitional muscle fibers to red or slow twitch rather than white,
or fast twitch.

We never let any runner in our program get too far away from our primary pursuit:
more speed.

Training Implications

If coaches are going to use 400 meter repeats to improve running economy, these
recoveries need to be long--about eight minutes. When recoveries are shorter than
eight minutes, the most efficient motor units, those that enable athletes to run with the
greatest economy, will not have had their creatine phosphate levels restored, and will
thus fatigue more quickly during their next repeat. Athletes will simply run repeats
progressively slower. The reduced recovery time will force the athlete to rely on less
efficient motor units in order to complete the repeat. As a result, the most desirable
motor units will never be trained.

This goes back to our basic philosophy: why train slow to run fast. Short recovery
intervals of 400 meters would make sense if our athletes competed in stages. In other
words, if the event called for sprinting 400 meters, walking for a few minutes,

sprinting again, then walking for another few minutes, I suppose short recovery "run
to you puke" intervals would make sense. However, I've yet to see a race where the
winner is the athlete with the lowest total time for six to eight 400 meter efforts, yet
according to the principle of specificity, short recovery intervals basically train an
athlete for just that kind of performance. The 400 that you and I must prepare athletes
to run requires a single burst of effort on full stores of creatine phosphate. This kind
of effort is physiologically quite different from running 400 meter repeats between
short recoveries.

Coaches who still maintain that muscles need to learn to tolerate high levels of lactic
acid in order to perform better in the 400 don't realize that lactate levels don't
actually change all that much within muscles during up to 10 minutes of recovery.
In other words, current research indicates that lactate levels three minutes after a 400,
relatively short recovery, aren't that different from the concentration four of five
minutes later. However, creatine phosphate does recover fully after eight minutes.
This means that it makes far more sense to use longer recoveries, since this will
guarantee a complete restoring of CP levels which would be comparable to those the
athlete has at the start of a race.

How do you know if your 400 training is effective?

If your program boosts muscle levels of creatine phosphate and their ability to use CP
for powerful running, if you increase the muscles' maximal rate of glycolysis, and if
you work muscles to tolerate some upswings in acidity, you're doing an excellent job
preparing your athletes to run the 400.

What can you do to translate these goals into actual workouts?

First, run 100 meter intervals at close to top speed. Why? Remember, CP is
broken down at the highest rate during the first 100 meters of 400 meter running.
These 100 meter intervals will stimulate your muscles to create stores of CP and use
it as a powerful energy source.

Second, run 300 meter intervals at near maximum effort. Why? Lactic acid
production maximizes after 100 to 200 meters, but begins to decline after 300 meters
of high speed running. Thus, 300 meter intervals done at high speed will maximize
muscles' ability to break down glucose quickly.

Third, you can run 400’s (1 to 3) on recoveries of two to three minutes, because
they will ‘teach’ muscles how to perform under high acidity and depleted CP levels.

200 meter intervals might not be the distance of choice, because they are just not
physiologically practical. Creatine phosphate levels have already fallen dramatically
after the first 100 meters, and really won't decline that much more during the next
hundred meters. Also, by running 200 meter repeats, you're missing out on the super

high rate of glycolysis which occurs after 200 meters--between the 200 meter mark
and the end of a 300 meter interval.

Some coaches employ sprint bounding exercises, which require the athlete to
optimize both the length and speed of each bound so that a prescribed distance is
covered with a minimal number of foot contacts in the shortest possible time. Some
consider sprint bounding a great way to enhance leg muscle power, improve
flexibility, and heighten coordination.

How do you sprint bound?

On command, an athlete sprint-bounds down the track for 30 meters. Start timing
him or her when the foot on the start line breaks contact with the ground. Stop timing
when the torso crosses the 30 meter finish line. A second helper is responsible for
counting the number of bounds it takes to reach the finish line. This number should
be rounded down to the nearest half-bound. You can formulate a sprint bound index
similar to the one found in volume 14 of the 1992 NSCA Journal. For example, if it
takes an athlete 15.5 bounds to cover 30 meters in 4.5 seconds, the rating would be
15.5 X 4.5 or 69.875. The lower the index, the better the result.

What about other systems, such as endurance and aerobic capacity?

Consider the following chart, since duration of the workout is the important factor:
Short Speed Endurance (6-12 seconds)
Try fly 60's, 75's, and 90's.
Speed Endurance: (12 to 16 seconds)
120's might be good
Special Endurance: (1 to 2 minutes)
I'm not a big advocate of longer repeats

If you want to develop the aerobic capacity, design a continuous warm-up. A ten
minute segmented continuous warm-up has benefits equivalent to a 30 minute steady
run. Another option would be to go on a ten minute run, do circuits, then go back and
do another ten minute run. Again, this is not a workout we do, although it is
recommended by many coaches.

The alactic-anaerobic or glycolytic systems can be worked by doing 10 X 40 meters

with 20 seconds of recovery between each run. Allow more than five minutes
between sets, with a max of three sets. You can also employ endless fly 75's. Take a
twenty meter fly zone, sprint 75 meters, hit the finish line, and walk back. When
performances begin to drop off, shut down the workouts. Most sprinters can get it
about 3-4 repeats. I also advocate the 50 second run. Quite simply, the athlete runs as
far as he or she can in 50 seconds. We prefer our unique 2000 meter or Eight Minute
Drill. Athletes run twenty 100 meter repeats trying to drop below eight minutes for
their total time. They need to average around 24 seconds per 100. If they run faster,

they can then "recover" between repeats. In other words, if an athlete runs a 100 in
15, he can then take about eight seconds before his next repeat. If he doesn't rest, he
must figure on running his hundreds in an average of 24 seconds. Monitor
improvement throughout the season.

A great energy system workout would be the Peter Tegen 90:10 dynamic run. Take a
good warm-up. Run for 90 seconds at steady state pace, then sprint for ten seconds.
This kind of dynamic run should last for twelve minutes.

Assessing the Training Data

Performance Predictions for the 400:

Take the projected time in the 400 and divide by two. That gives the average 200.
Then, take the average 200 minus 1 second to give the first 200 split.
Take the average 200 plus 1 second to give the second 200 split.
53 seconds divided by 2 = 26.5
1st 200 - 1.0 = 25.5
2nd 200 + 1.0 = 27.5

Younger athletes:
200 Personal best X 2 + (4.5-7)
26 X 2 = 52 + 4.5-7 = 56.5-59

Establish each athlete's maximum 30 and 60 fly speed

60 meters in 6.1 comes out to a maximum velocity of 10 meters per second
(60 meters divided by 6 seconds)

The Fly 150 is the classic speed endurance assessment. Start the fly 150 with just
enough fly zone to overcome inertia--about five meters. Take 150 divided by the
time run; this will give you meters per second.

Next, compare the athlete's maximum velocity in meters per second to his or her
meters per second over 150. If the time for 150 meters is 20 seconds, the "speed end"
is 7.5 meters per second. For a maximum velocity of 10 meters per second, this speed
end is 75% (7.5 divided by 10)

Speed endurance should be as close to maximum velocity as possible. Most prep

athletes can run about 80% of their max velocity over 400 meters. The top quarter
milers are between 85 and 90%.

The higher the athlete's speed end, the better suited that runner will be for the 400
meter dash. A fly 150 in 20 seconds is excellent, but remember these efforts should
be viewed in comparison to maximum velocity.

Here is another example. If an athlete run his 30 meter fly in 3.6, his meters per
second (mps) = 8.3 80% of 8.3 = 6.6 meters per second.

400 meters divided by 6.6 = 60.6--

Therefore, an athlete with 3.6 fly speed, and a speed end of 80%, should be able to
run 60.6 for the 400 meters. This same athlete will be running the 100 in 12.4 to
12.5 range.

You can even run these 150's not just as an initial test of speed endurance, but to
assess this athlete's progress. For example, for the athlete with 3.6 fly speed, his time
for 150 should be 22.7 (150 divided by 6.6) Remember, 6.6 is his 80% speed end for
a max velocity of 8.3. As his meters-per-second improves, so will his 400 time.

You can do this with 300's as well. Running 300's in 6.6 meters per second would
give a time of 45.5. This comes out to 15.1 per 100 meters, or 60.4 for 400. Times
faster than 45.5 will indicate increases in the speed end.

You can even use these tests to assess goals. Let's say you wanted your athlete to run
the open 400 in 52.0. The meters-per-second needed to run this time is 400 divided
by 52, or 7.7 mps. For this athlete, 7.7 meters per second is 93% of his maximum
velocity of 8.3 meters per second. Clearly, your athlete with 3.6 fly speed is not
going to negotiate the 400 in 52 with this speed component! To get to a 52.0, he
would need to have a maximum velocity of 9.6 meters per second. For a 9.6 meters
per second maximum velocity, this athlete needs to run his 30 fly sprints in the 3.1 to
3.2 range. This sprinter is then running in the 11.4 to 11.5 range in the 100 and
between 22.9 to 23.2 in the 200. Going back to our original formula: 23.2 X 2 = 46.4
+ (4.5-7). 46.4 + 5.5 = 51.9 It is always better--and easier-- to lock in speed before
speed endurance.

Here's an example of how this relates to world class performances:

In order to run 44 seconds in the 400, an athlete needs to run 9.1 meters per second.
Using 80% as the speed end, this athlete needs to be able to run a maximum velocity
of 11.4 meters per second. For 30 meters, this athlete is running in the 2.5's. On our
sprint projection chart, an athlete running 2.56 to 2.59 is capable of running 10.2 to
10.3 in the 100 meters. The best male sprinters can actually run 12 meters per
second, and the best women sprinters 11 meters per second.

On the basis of this data, what is the most effective means for improving meters per
second for the 400 meter dash?

To answer this, consider the following closing thoughts:

I believe that prep athletes can be frustrated by endless repeats designed to build
special endurance. This special endurance, the element that some coaches seem most
inclined to work during training, will actually lock in an inappropriate dynamic

Further, movement patterns are dictated by what is most rehearsed. If your athletes
consistently train for this event by running longer repeats, they will be rehearsing an
ineffective sub maximal motor pattern. In my opinion, concentrating on speed is the
easiest and most sensible way to improve meters per second.

Fly 30's will make your athletes pretty good 400 meter runners.

As Owen Anderson once said:

The best gains in performance will be achieved when key part of our training closely
mimic what we do when we compete. To put it another way, the more specific to
training, the greater the impact of training on performance. As the specificity of our
training increases, the likelihood that training induced physiological gains will
actually be beneficial in competition also increases.

To run fast, train fast. This logic should never be overlooked in any sprint races--
especially the 400.