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5 Things Every Mid-Distance Runner Should Know

The middle distance races in track and field can be an aggressive and brutal event. Elbows clash, spikes tear and falls can instantly take down half the field. It is in these races that stamina meets speed in a battle where the winner is whoever has the most guts at the finish line.

There are a number of things that go into training and racing to be a successful middle distance runner. It takes time to learn how to maneuver through the traffic of a race, mental strength to get through workouts and dedication to train for both power and endurance. Below are five tips for training and racing that will make you a more confident competitor and an all around better mid-distance athlete.

Types of Middle Distance Runners

Generally middle distance runners are split into the 400/800 group or 800/1500 (or mile) group. Training is similar between the two, but there are a few differences:

  • 400/800: This group tends to have more sprinter-specific qualities, like power and natural quickness. These athletes have less speed and more endurance than a 200m runner, but still do pretty well in the shorter events. But 400/800 runners often has a tough time with the longer repeats during interval workouts.
  • 800/1500: This group tends to have more qualities similar to that of a long-distance runner, but still possesses more general speed and power than someone who runs a 5k or 10k. These athletes can handle larger volume workouts but may have a slightly slower maximum speed than a 400/800m runner.

You should talk to your coach about which group you fall under and plan your training and racing accordingly.

Here are some things to focus on that will help both kinds of middle distance runners:

1. Increasing Strength Equals Better Race Results

Not too long ago, some runners believed only more mileage made you stronger. Others thought there was not enough time in training to include working on general strength, so it was not necessary. But times have changed and so has mid-distance training philosophies. More athletes are incorporating weight training, swiss ball exercises and plyometrics on top of running workouts to build strength and power.

So how does something that is not running contribute to race success? Track and field is an explosive sport and that kind of power is not reserved specifically for the shorter distances. Mid-distance runners need it too!

Hot Tip: Finish Strong

Think of the last 100 of a race or the surge at the end of the first lap of an 800m race—you need to be able to move quickly and efficiently. You also need to be in control of your body and your speed. At these points in the race, your arms may start to feel tired or and your form may falter, unless you have done the proper strength training. If strength training is done properly, it will give you a strong foundation and core so you won’t collapse when the stresses of a race takeover.

In the pre-season you can incorporate lifting weights, body weight and plyometric exercises as circuits around a track. A circuit is a series of exercises that incorporate resistance and endurance training to help build your cardiovascular and strength fitness. Here are some of the examples that can be used in a circuit or a pre-season training session.

  • Plyometrics: These exercises build your power by developing the stretch and flex of a muscle. The drills are meant to mimic the moves of the sport. Skips, bounds, box jumps, ankle bounces and abdominal exercises are some examples of plyometrics. These exercises can be done with light or medium loads.
  • Weight Training: Using weights is another way to develop power and overall strength.  Examples of exercises commonly used are: Squats, lunges, step ups and med ball twists.
  • Body weight: Examples are: push-ups, pull-ups or abductor exercises. For more details and specifics on the exercises, please see iSport’s Guide on “The Most Common weight room exercises”

Circuits use a variety of exercises in one session that targets all muscle groups. This is particularly beneficial for track and field athletes who often do the same motions over and over again to perfect the technical aspects of his or her event.

2. Run Hills

Another way to develop strength is to run hills. A good hill workout will improve muscular endurance, speed, form, drive and tolerance to lactic acid. It will also strengthen muscles you wouldn’t normally use while running on flat surfaces.

  • For the middle distance runner, find a hill that takes about 30 to 90 seconds to run up. That may be between 100 to 200 meters long depending on how steep it is.
  • Some coaches prefer a hill that goes from a gradual incline to a steep incline so you are pushing yourself through the lactic acid build up at the end of the run.
  • An example of a hill workout would be three to four repetitions at 80-90% with a jog back down.  Do 3 to 4 sets with 90 seconds to two minutes rest between each set.  As you get better decrease your rest time.

Hill workouts will demand a lot from your body aerobically and anaerobically so it should only be done once or twice a week during the pre-season and at the beginning of the track season.

3. Know How to Sprint and Surge

Hot Tip: Leave Some Room

Stay out of boxes: getting boxed-in means you have a runner in front of you, behind you and on your sides. This is the danger zone for any middle distance runner. You will be forced to shift your speed to fit theirs or risk falling, and it can be extremely difficult to get out and make a move. You are better off running in lanes two or three until the field strings out and you can find a way to get into the inside lane.

Middle distance runners do not have the luxury of staying in their own lane during a race and when the competition is very close, you have to fight for a good position in the pack. This is where sprinting and surging come in. Surging is the ability to pick up speed when it’s needed to make a move in a race, pass another runner, or respond to the lead pack pulling away. You need to train your body to make these moves even when tired.

Two ways of practicing surging is by running your workouts at race pace, or by running workouts that included shorter bursts of speed built into a longer effort. Here are two examples:

  1. Race pace: Run 8x200m at race pace with 30 seconds or less in between. You can break it up to be two sets of 4x200m if you are struggling and need a longer break between.
  2. Fartleks: For 45 minutes run 45 seconds hard then jog 3 minutes.

Running at race pace gives you an idea of how your body should feel at certain parts in your event. With a short rest period the lactic acid will build up and you will train your body to run through it.

4. Quality vs. Quantity

Long runs are aerobically beneficial and help break up the monotony of training on the track. But the amount of miles middle distance runners should clock in has been a huge debate amongst coaches and athletes for decades. Some runners have had success running less mileage, while others have had success running more.

Generally, coaches recommend that 400/800 runners should go on runs for about 20-30 minutes a few times a week and 45-60 minutes on long run days (usually just once a week). For the 800/1500 runner, the time increase with runs that average 30-45 minutes a few times weekly and 45-90 minutes on the long run day.

The biggest thing with mileage is to make sure that you do not sacrifice quality for quantity. If it is a light-run, practice relaxing your shoulders and using good form. For more intense days, practice surging in the middle of your workout or incorporate hills. Mileage should also be well-balanced with general strength and speed workouts. Do not run more miles if you should be resting. Sometimes it’s best to do a swim or bike instead to prevent injury.

5. Have a Race Strategy

The keys to a successful middle distance race include: a well thought out strategy; good basic speed; aggression; the ability to run through lactic acid build up; and getting in a position to be able to maneuver through traffic.

800m Race Plan Example

Split times break the race into sections, which makes it easier to determine your pacing. In most cases, you should plan for a three to five second differential between your first and second 400. Many runners also break the 800 into 200 meter splits. For example, if you are a female runner whose goal is to run 2 minutes and 15 seconds, your race plane may look like this:

  • 1st 200m- 31 seconds
  • 2nd 200m-34 seconds
  • 1st 400m-65 seconds
  • 2nd 400m-70 seconds
  • Total Time- 2:15 minutes
Hot Tip: Making Moves

Passing someone in a race requires strategy and forethought. You should position yourself on the outside shoulder of the other runner while going into a curve. You will want to pass them as you come out of the curve and onto the straight away.

Also, you will usually start on the turn in your own lane. After the first 100, there is a ‘break line’ where you can cut to the inside of the track—but you don’t want to cut in right away. Instead, run a straight diagonal towards the inside lane -what is called the tangent. Running the tangent will minimize the total distance you run and help you to avoid congestion.

Practice starting out at a fast pace, but efficiently and in control. You don’t want to hold back in the beginning, but you also don’t want to get carried away and run out of energy in the first 200m.

1500/1600m Race Plan

The longer mid-distance races are broken into 400m splits. A great way to see if you are on pace is determining what time should come in at the 800. For example, if a male runner wanted to run 3 minutes and 48 seconds in the 1500, his race may be divided like this:

  • 1st 300 - 48 seconds
  • 2nd 400 - 59 seconds
  • 3rd 400 - 60 seconds
  • 4th 400 - 61seconds
  • 1st 800 – 2:03 minutes
  • Total Time: 3:48 minutes

There should only be a one or two second difference between the times of each 400.

Many of the same points described in the strategy of a good 800m race also apply to the 1500/1600. Remember: Have a strategy in place before others decide it for you. Many runners will take the lead from the beginning to try and force the pace to avoid getting passed by faster finishers. If you are not a front runner, still try and maintain position with the lead pack. If you feel good, do not be afraid to take the lead and push the pace to a speed that still feels sustainable for the entire race.

More Than Just Running

There are so many aspects about the middle distance races that will take time and practice to learn and develop. But with these five tips and a little bit of aggression, dedication and passion, you will be successful.

The middle distance races in track and field can be an aggressive and brutal event. Elbows clash, spikes tear and falls can instantly take down half the field. It is in...
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