How would you train a young athlete who wants to get better at running the 800m?
Thank you for the opportunity to answer a sports performance question. Like most of the answers I give, I like to give more of the whole picture rather than a piecemeal approach. Whenever you deal with an athlete who must produce force we must look at the athletes’ biomechanics and their individual ability to produce and reduce force. The essence of power is that of reducing the time between the eccentric contraction and the concentric contraction. This is called the amortization phase. Before you start any program you should do an individual assessment on your athlete. Ptonthenet.com has an excellent section called the profiling corner that will help you with this endeavor.
After you have profiled your athlete and determined what specific corrective measures you may need to take, it is time to start the performance training. We must first examine the sport itself. Because you did not specifically mention at what level the athlete is competing I must try to assume some things. Please forgive me in advance for any wrong assumptions. A good time for running the 800 in high school is under two and a half minutes. This puts us into a very challenging energy system. By the book we know that the glycolytic system is most dominant in the first three minutes. The glycolytic system is broken down into anaerobic and aerobic. Simply stated, at first it does not use any excess oxygen in its production of ATP. This is called anaerobic. After the first minute and a half, we tend to become more and more aerobic but still in a glycolytic state. This means that although sugar is being burned as the major source of energy, our bodies are starting to accept the new oxygen that is being consumed as we breathe. Our conclusion is that our athlete has chosen a very grueling and painful event in which to compete in. I say that because along with glycolysis comes lactic acid. Lactic acid is one of the by-products of burning sugar. Lactic acid is often accompanied by a pain which can be so intense it literally cripples the athlete for a brief time. The amount of time it takes before the athlete has to slow down or even stop is called the anaerobic or lactic acid threshold. Your athlete must train to increase that threshold, thus enabling her to produce large amounts of high intensity exercise without buckling under the angst of the lactic acid. This is not an easy task by any means. You can see that it was not an accident that rounds in boxing are exactly 3 minutes in length. Someone knew that at about 3 minutes, a fighter not truly well conditioned would fall to the lactic acid build-up and be pummeled by his better trained opponent. That is another article in itself.
When training this athlete it is not as important what exercises you chose as in the way in which you perform them. First, your athlete should perform mostly if not all, ground-based exercises. This means that she should perform most of her exercises using only her body with her feet on the floor. FreeMotion Fitness has an entire line of ground-based type equipment. A traditional seated leg extension or lying leg curl type exercise is a true recipe for disaster. Running is a closed chain activity that deals with the body’s ability to accept the ground reactive forces as she produces and reduces force in the most efficient manner. Each time she lands from her flight phase of running, she will land with seven to 10 times her body weight. This is a relatively high load per square inch. That is why we need to train the athlete as a whole and not segmentally, or in other words train her in a closed chain environment versus an open chain.
I have purposely tried to shy away from specific exercises because it is so hard to give specific exercises without visibly seeing the athlete or at least to have been given a complete profile of her kinetic chain and past training experience. With that said, here are some things I would try to do with any 800m athlete. First, I would focus on the core muscles. This is the TVA, multifidus, internal oblique, and pelvic floor musculature. Because she has to produce and reduce force, she must have a solid core to accomplish that efficiently. (Check out Paul Chek’s article on The Inner Unit for more details) The lumbo-pelvic-hip complex should be your center of focus. All force is generated from the core outward. She should be breathing diaphragmatically to ensure the most efficient source of oxygen and to keep the pelvis stable during her run. I feel the biggest difference between great runners and good runners is what is going on in the lumbo-pelvic-hip region. A great runner will have excellent control over this region to move efficiently and effortlessly. I would do multi planar hop and holds. This is done by starting with two feet together and hopping on to one foot in all three planes, saggittal, frontal and transverse. If hop and holds are too challenging, start with step and holds. Performed the same way as hop and holds, except instead of using a flight phase, just step. Pronation is a common problem runners have to deal with. So, watch the ankle during landing. Try to get your athlete to land with a stable base without pronating or supinating at the ankle. With this said, I would concentrate on doing most of her exercises on one leg. During the run, there will be little or no time that she will have both feet on the ground except at the starting line. You need to create for her the ability to produce force uni-laterally so it will carry over to her running. Also, try some agility drills using a standard agility ladder. Have your athlete run through the ladder using various stepping combinations. One last word of advice, don’t forget the energy system she is working in. Make her do her exercises for up to three minutes without rest. Then give her only enough time to catch her breath and start her on her next round of exercises. This will help increased her lactic acid threshold and make her more efficient in that system. Try to avoid long bouts of low intensity exercises. Too often the track coach will mistakenly send his/her 800m athletes on three to five mile runs daily to help condition them. This is a poor training technique. Athletes should very rarely train in that manner as it will eventually make them less efficient at their event, the 800m.