400 Meter Training by Ken Jakalski

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A few years ago I had the good fortune to coach a young man who won the 400 meter dash all for years of his prep career. As a result, many coaches became interested in the Lisle 400 training program. It was rather amusing, because such interest seemed to suggest that this young man’s successes automatically meant I had some special formula for success that would guarantee improvement.

It is typical of track, at least at my level, that coaches are often presumed to have some “secret” training insights if they happen to be training a state caliber or even national class athlete in a particular event.

Well, I don’t think I have a “secret formula,” and I certainly never deserved that short lived guru status, but at the time it did give me a chance to share a few insights that I still believe might be helpful. Here goes:

Historical Approach to the 400 Meter Dash

Many long sprint coaches have either heard about or believed in a philosophy similar to this one:

The 400 should be broken into four segments, 100 meters each. Each 100 meters is run a certain way, especially the first three. I tell runners to run the first three my way and the last 100 their own way.

I have them run the first 100 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 100. This is where too many people slow down. Drill into your 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 setting in. Teach your 400 athletes to run that second curve hard. This is not easy to teach. Work on this all year long, on relaxing in that second curve and in that second curve running it fast.

For well over twenty five years, many 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 note a clear slowing down at the 200 meter mark. As a result, 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 thinking regarding this event:

Are segments of the 400 run differently by choice or physiology?

If slowing down is more physiological than volitional, 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.

Here is the way I’ve tried to maximize potential for athletes in this event.

I believe that success in coaching athletes in the 400 meter dash involves three 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 their overall philosophy.

4) Assess the training data and race performances to determine the potential to achieve both short term and long term objectives

It is important to note that the different approaches of highly successful coaches like Charlie Francis and Clyde Hart are the result of different overarching philosophies. Such philosophies will reflect their training backgrounds, as well as their personal competitive insights and instincts.

With this said, here is a brief discussion of each of the elements, based upon my own interpretation or “feel” for the event:

Physiology of the Event

For prep coaches like myself, this may be the most neglected aspect of coaching, primarily because authors of track manuals and books, at least the ones I read years ago, did not present research-based criteria for their recommended workouts. I often referred to these as “workouts for the sake of a workout.” Here’s 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, as some coaches believe it should, we would find that, contrary to belief, it is the second part, the second 100 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 section.

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 part of the classic strategy involved telling athletes to run the final segment their own way!

Everyone talks about doing multiple 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 slowed. Owen Andersen did quite a bit of work on this subject several years back.

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 of my high school colleagues refer to sprinters as “hitting a wall” at the start of the curve.

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

These are some of my fundamental beliefs:

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 as the distance goes up, its importance seems to diminish. I believe that the higher the maximal running speed, the faster an athlete will be able to run any particular race. Research supports this. Anderson, for example, noted that maximal running velocity may be 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. The young man who won four successive state titles in the 400 for Lisle also ran the 200 in 21.7. For him, a race speed of 24 seconds per 200 seemed tolerable because it was well within his speed reserve. Quite simply, as an athlete’s speed increases, 200 paces will seem easier. For example, when this same young man was a sophomore, I doubled him in the 800-400, reminiscent of the great Cuban sprinter Alberto Juantorena, whose effort at Montreal in ‘76 is still one of the greatest efforts I’ve ever witnessed in track and field. My sophomore ran 1:56.79 to win the 800, then on 19 minutes recovery took the 400 in 48.38. Because of his speed reserve, I knew that a 1:56 would be, at best, comfortably hard for him, and in the smaller class of our state’s two-class system, a time of 1:55-1:56 could win it.

This speed component has been important for Olympians as well. Ouita of Morocco, for example, ran repeat 200 meter intervals between 22 and 23 seconds before his world record 5K performance in ‘87. Illinois’ legendary Joe Newton often talked about the incredible 200 meter repeats Seb Coe ran in “secret workouts” he did on York’s track in preparation for Seoul.

Many believe that repeats of anything longer than the distance athletes are actually running will basically make them good at running repeats, and that these repeats will, by their very nature, be far slower than what we’d desire them to run in competition.

Perhaps I’m more like Charlie Francis in that 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. I’ve found that my athletes generally find it easier 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.

Some believe that, 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. I think it was Loren Seagrave who once noted that working the lactate intolerance system results in what he colorfully descibed as a poisoning of the nervous system, and that endurance work will lock in patterns of movement that are incorrect for the event.

We never let any runners in our program get too far away from our primary pursuit: more speed. We don’t ‘build’ to speed some coaches do, and I’ve always kept in mind Charlie’s unique insight on conventional pyramid peaking for sprinters: If American track coaches had designed the Great Pyramid, it would have covered 700 acres and topped off at 30 feet!

Training Implications

If coaches are going to use 400 meter repeats to improve running economy, these recoveries need to be long–some believe as much as eight minutes. When recoveries are shorter, 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. The result is that 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. If this occurs, the most desirable motor units will never be trained.

This goes back to my 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. It’s like what boxing analysts used to say about Canadian legend George Chuvalo: if every boxing match went 50 rounds, Chuvalo would be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. Unfortunately, bouts were never designed to best suit a training regimen that was prepared to go well beyond 15 rounds.

The 400 that I need to 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 may not 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, a relatively short recovery, aren’t that different from the concentration four or 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 teach muscles to tolerate upswings in acidity, you’re doing an excellent job preparing your athletes to tun the 400.

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

First, run 100 meter intervals at close to top speed. Why? CP is broken down at the highest rate during the first 100 meters of 400 meter running. These 100 meter intervals will stimulate 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 those 400’s on recoveries of two to three minutes, because they will teach muscles how to perform under high acidity and depleted CP levels.

You might reconsider 200 meter intervals, because the research indicates they may not be 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.

I like 100 meter repeats at near max with long recoveries, 300 meter repeats at near max with long recoveries, and short recovery 400’s.

I’ve also become a proponent of 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. Sprint bounding is 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. If I recall, some sprint bound tables appeared in an NSCA Journal several years back. 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?

* For short speed endurance (6-12 seconds) you could try fly 60’s, 75’s, or 90’s.

* For 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 aerobic capacity, consider multi-directional movement patterns. In previous posts, this has often been referred to as the continuous warm-up. However, I believe it’s a workout in itself and not a “warm-up” in the conventional sense. Some believe that a ten minute, continuous multi-segment “workout” 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 do a repeats of fly 75’s. Take a ten 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 tops. I’ve also used 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 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 what Peter Tegen called the 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.

What about taking all this and putting together a weekly program?

First, choose a “focus” for each day of the week. Note that I’ve used the term “focus” rather than “block,” because I don’t believe we can isolate and target one specific component–and that component only–each day of the week.

  • Monday:

    Active/Dynamic warm-up with drills that emphasize strength and power. Block
    30’s and 60’s

  • Tuesday:

    Energy Systems:
    Try any of the extensive tempo workouts I mentioned above, like the 90:10 or the ten minute run, circuit, ten minute run. You could use our Lisle Eight Minute Drill.

    These workouts allow the nervous system to “recover.”

  • Wednesday:

    Contrast training–lots of fun stuff involving multi-plane movements, deceleration, and re-acceleration

  • Thursday:

    Speed Development:
    Begin with 20-25 minutes of multi-plane skips, hops, etc. You could then do your 300 repeats, or your 100 meter repeats. Remember to take longer recoveries.

    Your speed development day might also be structured this way:
    Place cyclical activities in your warm-up;
    Workouts involve fly-in sprints (30’s-60’s-75’s)

  • Friday:

    Return to an energy system workout. Your could do the 10X 40
    Here is where you might do your repeat 400’s with shorter recoveries

  • Saturday:

    Sprint Bounding or hill work

Assessing the Training Data… Performance Predictions for the 400:

The following assessment has been around for years.

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-in 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 the 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. Many speed charts will note that 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 seems the most sensible to work during training, may actually “lock-in” patterns you don’t want.

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.

I’ve found that many of my athletes have become pretty good 400 meter runners often through fly-in 30 meter sprints.

As Owen Anderson once said:

“The best gains in performance will be achieved when key parts 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. I believe this logic should never be overlooked in any sprint race–especially the 400.

Kindest regards,

Ken Jakalski
Lisle High School
Lisle, Illinois

*Don’t forget to sign all letters with full name and city of residence if you
wish them to be published!

Submitted by DMorgan on Sun, 09/02/2007 - 12:02am.

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