The ability to run fast at the end of a middle-distance race is a handy weapon to have, writes coach David Lowes
What does a middle-distance athlete need in their armoury to be successful? An abridged list of attributes would include the following: strength (general and specific), speed endurance, strength endurance, suppleness, coordination, efficiency, a big aerobic engine, tactical know-how and a dogged determination.
In a nutshell, if an athlete’s specific event is 1500m, they also need to have good capabilities over 800m and 3000m – giving them the confidence and knowledge that they have decent pace and endurance which can be used to full effect over the metric mile.
And what about speed? Ask any endurance group after a session of 16x400m if it was a good session and the answer will invariably be positive. Give the same group 4x400m at 100% effort with a long recovery and the response will inevitably be much different (if they can manage to speak at all). Both sessions have their place in the training plan, but you can hopefully see where I’m going.
Types of athlete
There are basically two types of endurance athlete: those with natural speed and those who struggle to generate much momentum at all. It’s always said that it is better to work on your strengths than your weaknesses – although these need great attention as well.
For example, Paula Radcliffe at her very best would be giving almost all of her attention to endurance and very little to speed. That isn’t to say she would be neglecting faster repetitions, the more efficient you can become at a quicker pace, the easier it will become at a slower pace.
Many athletes think that a 300m or 200m session, even with short recoveries, is going to help with speed. This is speed endurance and an essential component for running well over the middle-distance events, but it isn’t pure speed work. A very basic definition of speed is “rapidity of movement”. Therefore, Usain Bolt is lightning fast and Mo Farah is pretty quick too, but they are certainly poles apart.
In an interview, middle-distance great Peter Elliott said he spent years doing 150-200m efforts at maximum speed in sessions and kept picking up injuries.
It wasn’t until he sat down with his coach, Wilf Paish, and they worked out his top speed over 800m (the first 200m), that it was deemed unnecessary to be running at that pace in sessions. He began running flat-out efforts over 6-8 “flying 40m” at the end of his sessions. That became his pure speed work.
Of course, in middle-distance events you are expected to run at a fairly fast pace for the laps leading up to the bell and then pick the pace up with increasing levels of fatigue. This is where speed endurance comes in, but with the line in sight you also have to find an extra gear from somewhere. Improving leg speed can be the most invaluable thing that you do – it can be the difference between a medal and finishing nowhere.
If running quickly regularly isn’t the only way to improve speed, then where else can we find it? Specific drills are a good starting point if only done properly and dynamically. I see athletes performing drills so badly that little or no benefit will gained at all. Slow, cumbersome and unbalanced efforts serve no purpose whatsoever. Think about what a drill is trying to improve – what muscles it is targeting? Drills are done for strength, flexibility, good form and coordination as well as firing up the fast-twitch fibres in a fairly dynamic and controlled way. There is a case for doing some quick running down a slight incline where the leg turnover will be much faster. Like the “flying” 40m sprints, try 30/30/30m at the end of a session (30m at 1500m pace, 30m at 800m pace, 30m flat-out).
Focus on form
Youngsters with an apparent lack of speed will try to run quickly by moving the arms as quickly as possible in the hope the legs will follow. Although you have to use the arms purposefully, for running quickly it is propulsion that’s needed. A good knee-lift, slight forward lean from the hips, excellent contact of the feet with the track will all help to maintain good form and give the long levers a chance to affect the propulsion that is needed in order to run quickly.
For this age group, some “form running” should be part of any training plan on a regular basis. The more good form that is practised, the better it will become when fatigue becomes a factor in a competition. Top runners can look as if they are moving their legs slower than those with lesser ability – it’s all down to better biomechanics and power generation from the hips down through the feet and the elasticity off the track.
Poor speed dynamics can be down to several reasons, including bad technique and underdeveloped strength of the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles, all of which all help to propel an athlete forward with dynamic power. Weak technique can come in many guises through postural maladies and also because of weaknesses in vital areas, which can lead to some lack of coordination and the misuse of the levers that need to be utilised to the full to ensure good efficiency.
And while it may sound odd, many runners just don’t know how to sprint. It isn’t unusual to see someone looking fairly smooth until they try to sprint when their coordination becomes poor. Remember, in sprinting mode, the knees will be much higher and the stride length extended.
This can be easily proved on a track by measuring stride length at 5km pace from a marker and using that same marker at maximum speed.
Hit the gym
Work with bodyweight exercises, Swiss balls, weights and box jumps are just some of the things that can help improve weak areas quickly. Of course, short, steep hill running and even doing some selected drills up a part of a hill, including hopping, bounds, skipping, lunges and high knees, will help the cause.
A final word of caution, particularly for young runners: if you are a heel-toe runner, then you’ll never be able to sprint as fast as a forefoot runner – that’s why we wear spikes. Practise your drills and form running and get up on your toes in your spikes – you’ll be amazed how much difference it can make.
» Learn how to run fast, it’s not all about pumping the arms and legs as quickly as possible
» Get off your heels and get up on to your forefoot
» Understand where the power is being generated and utilise those areas (glutes, hips, hamstrings, calfs, feet)
» Practise form running – run smoothly, but powerfully
» Give areas of weakness great attention, the better physical condition of an athlete, the better the chance of a higher power output
» Decide how and which drills will give the most benefits
» Get a good instructor who knows their stuff about specific strength and conditioning Get someone to not only show which drills are best, but who can give useful feedback and give video analysis
» Running quickly isn’t all about fast running in training – look at other means to gain improvements
» David Lowes is level-4 endurance coach, an England Athletics national coach mentor (Midlands) and former international runner