Thoughts from James “OPT” FitzGerald on the 400 meter and the 800 meter

Kirani James and David Rudisha

The track and field events at the 2012 London Olympics have been exceptional – how about 19 year old Kirani James with a 43.94 Gold medal performance in the 400 meters?  I wonder if he will eventually break Michael Johnson’s record.  What about 800 meter super star David Rudisha and his NEW WORLD RECORD of 1:40.91?  All I can say is WOW.

While we might look at these athletes as “genetically blessed,” the reality is that these guys have put themselves in a position to succeed as a result of hours and hours of painful training.

This past March, I had the pleasure of spending an hour with James “OPT” FitzGerald, the winner of the inaugural  CrossFit Games held in 2007.  In addition to being a great all-around athlete and coach, James has a personal interest in the long sprints, specifically 800 meters.  And given that I have a goal of running a sub-60 second 400 meter, I took advantage of that time to fire questions at him about long sprint training.

And thankfully, I didn’t completely annoy him, as he graciously agreed to answer a follow-up question via email:

James, how would you characterize the demands of different energy systems for a 400 meter sprinter vs. an 800 meter sprinter and how should a training program be different for those events?

That is a tough one with no answer, but I think that giving you some of the things I think about when the design of the training relative to the demands will help.

When we speak of energy used, we have to understand that they all work together in unison.  Then we have to consider the characteristics or what I refer to as “essence” of an athlete to determine how to best suit them for the training that relates to the distance.  For example, lets for fun break the “essences” into 5 different people naturally best into:

1. explosiveness and pure speed

2. powerful and not as pure speed

3. all rounder, not the best at anything but good at a lot

4. grinder, powerful, enduring

5. enduring, less powerful

Now believe it or not, you can have these various people compete in the 400 and 800 events, as there are MANY more variables that make up the effectiveness of runner in technique, volume, training age, experience, physiological genetic code, etc.  AND if we know this we can get insight into seeing that the training will vary for all people based on what they are “good” at in relation to the demands of the race and what they need work with.

There may be some athletes that require only mobility, good nutrition and technique work to create a masterful performance; just like there may be some that need metabolic changes and specific work hardening training that makes them better, it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Which is why when the athlete learns more and more about themselves, the better they become based on this “essence.”

Back to the topic, to answer the 1st part of the question, the demands of the 400 are “moreso” on the powerful side than the 800, just simply due to the time of effort 40’s to 50’s to 60’s in seconds as compared to the 800 with times varying from 1:40 ish to 2:20 ish (of course including all times of various athletes in both the 400 and 800).

This however does not mean that there is one energy system demand more used for this shorter event than another, based on the variation in athletes, the training leading into it, etc.  We know this from the simple “look and feel” on how people are post 400 and 800.  And from this, especially with our studies of various energy system work in conditioning models, we know that the higher the more powerful demand of energy system usage, i.e. lactate as a fuel source, the worse it simply feels and looks when people finish.

We also know that there are times when we have trained people to maximize their aerobic power alongside pure strength, and they have almost done personal bests in powerful events and it did not hurt as much as when we have trained folks for power development using “powerful” glycolytic training and they set personal bests on those powerful events and were rolling around in agony for 30 min after.

Now all fun aside, this HAS to be a sign when you see it so often of various systems that are developed and how they interact and are used when “doing” an event of this nature, make it the 400 or 800.

Personally for me and my journey for the 800, I know that the background of the various longer running events that i have done; from mountain running to long back country easy runs to CrossFit style run combination workouts provided me with upper bulk and tighter hips but a great engine and volume base; therefore for me, I needed more technical work on body posture, landing, and other technique pieces more than hard workouts to get my system in place, if that makes sense; and using myself as an example, you can see that the demands are varied based on the person and the training varies as well based on the person.

So you can see that the demands are based on what “kind” of person you are dealing with and the training that goes alongside it is based on what the person presents with in regards to their make up.

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