400m Training - A Scientific Approach

Last week I was asked a good question. If, for example, you are aiming for a fast 400 metre time, why don’t you run 400 metres in training every day and just try and run faster. I suppose the same could apply to 5km or 10km races. Why don’t you just run the distance of the race and try and run faster and faster each day.

The above scenario would not work if you wanted to get faster. A good programme is about running faster by training all the body’s energy systems. The training processes teaches your body to run efficiently and recover quicker. To start, you need basic endurance so that you can put your body through anaerobic workouts. A lot of books call this the base phase. However, it is something that you can build on throughout a year. The next phase builds lactate threshold. This allows you to hold onto a given pace for longer. The final phase is race specific. Breaking training into these 3 phases helps give your overall programme focus and balance.

The body uses lactic acid as a fuel, however during some workouts the body produces lactate faster than can be processed. This is called lactate threshold. To run faster and further, your training needs to lift that lactate threshold by learning how to clear the lactate more efficiently or not produce as much at an elevated level. Everybody has a critical threshold point. You cannot maintain race speed if you get beyond it. This means an intense training session should have you running just below and (briefly) just above that threshold. You are then training at your maximum speed without being forced to slow down. Doing this regularly, gradually increases your body's tolerance to that intensity and then you are able to then push the boundary higher. To build both power, speed and endurance your training should mix long and easy sessions with shorter high-intensity ones.

Assuming that a runner has a good basic base level of endurance here is a practical example, of a runner who wants to run a fast 400 metres. There are two major energy sources for racing the 400 - creatine phosphate and glucose (which breaks down to form lactic acid). Creatine phosphate is depleted by almost fifty percent after the first 100 meters of running at your 400m pace. By the end of the race it is nearly exhausted and takes approximately 8 minutes to return to normal levels. To increase the muscles’ efficiency and ability to use that creatine, 400 metre runners need to run full effort 100m sprints with eight-minute recoveries. Lactic acid levels are usually highest at the 300-meter mark of a 400m effort. This means training by running full effort 300m sprints will also help maximize the muscles’ ability to break down glucose. Finally, your body has to be trained to process the excess lactate faster. Therefore, running 300m or 400m intervals with between 1 and 3 minutes rest helps teach the body to clear the lactate faster.

Speed is a runner’s greatest asset. Training at speeds faster than race pace makes it easier to run at that race pace. In the case of a 400-metre runner, sessions such as 30 metre or 50 metre reps with a full 5-8 minutes recovery provides that acceleration and speed component.

Understanding how the energy systems work for your event helps you plan a training programme. Notice how I have included example sessions of pure speed (creatine phosphate energy), there are then sessions designed to efficiently use and increase lactate tolerance. Both types of sessions could be practised twice a week. On the other days, the oxygen system and basic endurance can be built with aerobic jogs of 20 – 40 minutes. Rest days allow your body to fully recuperate.

In answer to the original question, just running a particular race distance each day will not train the body’s energy systems to their fullest potential. Using science and knowledge of our current pace and ability allows us to train at distances above and below our race distance. It is smarter training and allows us race faster.