A Distance Runner’s Guide to Track Meets: The 800 Meters
At the start of the season last spring, we ran a series of guides to many of the events in track – you can check out
Now we have the 800 meters. What? Why do distance runners need a guide to the 800 meters? Well, mainly because it is not a distance event.
Appropriately, this video lasts 2:03. Also, other suggested videos include “How to Train for the 800m Sprint”
For people who are really good, and in shape, an 800-meter runner will get less than half the energy used in the race aerobically, i.e., from oxygen breathed in during the race. That means the race has many aspects of a sprint, and so will training for it. So what does that mean about watching, or running, this race?
The biggest factor is that an 800-meter runner needs to start fast. The first 30-40 meters should probably almost as fast as you can go. After that a good runner will settle into a rhythm that is a little bit slower than 400-meter pace (which is nearly an all-out sprint) but still much faster than you could maintain for a long period of time. If it looks like distance running, or feels like distance running, you are not doing it right. One way to look at this: 90 seconds into a cross country race, you still have a long way to go; you had better feel like you can hold your current pace for a long time. 90 seconds into an 800, you are hopefully between 60 and 75 percent done; you don’t have to hold the pace much longer, and are getting close to the point where you can just dig down and “sprint” to the finish.
The 800 is also the closest thing to a “full-contact” event in track. In the shorter running events, people usually go the whole way in lanes. In the longer races, there is more time for people to spread out, and they are also going slower so it is easier to adjust your pace to avoid contact, or keep your balance if someone bumps you. You might get your own lane for the first turn, but you may also be in a free-for-all off the line, or at the state meet you might even share one lane with someone else for the first turn. So there’s another reason to run really fast the first 30 meters – otherwise you probably get cut off.
If you don’t get cut off at the start, then you’ll get cut off on the backstretch, when everyone breaks to the inside. You do have the whole backstretch to move over, so you ought to take the straightest (i.e., shortest) line to the opposite turn. It’ll keep you out of the traffic on the inside a little longer. (If you started in lane 1 – oh, well.) At that point, you probably ought to not be too worried about being on the inside for the turn. Running on the line between one and two, or even in lane 2, gives you a lot more options to do what you want on the next straightaway, and cuts the chance of getting tripped or knocked around. (Note: most of this doesn’t apply in small meets, or races where people are really spread out, but all of the fun races look like this.)
The second lap – well, it’s awful. If you didn’t go out hard enough to be hurting by 500 meters, you have no chance to run as fast as you want. But if you focus on what you’re doing, rather than what you’re feeling, you’ve got a shot of making it. Sometimes people get all excited and actually pick it up the last 100 meters, but no one ever runs the second lap faster and comes anywhere close to their potential. A good kick in the 800 means maintaining your form, and slowing down less than other people (see the bottom of this post.)
Distance runners* with smart coaches will probably run the 800 more than their main events. It’s great practice for the idea that we are running fast for some distance, not running a long way. Everything else will feel easier when you learn to really run fast in the 800. (* – there are no actual distance events in high school track)
But as we said at the beginning, this event is usually more like a sprint than a distance race. To really be good – like sub-1:56 boys and sub-2:15 girls – you have to have really good speed. And while a few distance runners, including some of ours, have that, speed is more often found in sprinters. And some of them move up and figure out how to survive the 800. My guess is that most of the best college 800 runners were either mediocre at high school cross country, or did not run cross country at all.
But the 800 can be a lot of fun, because it does draw a lot of different kinds of athletes. It is great to watch a high level race. And unlike the shot put or pole vault, many readers of this blog are likely to get a chance to do it, possibly this week.
To tie this up, one of the greatest races of all time. With a British accent, the official voice of track and field.