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How Fast Should a Sprinter Be?

In the last month I was approached by a 400m runner who was a bit disillusioned by her last few years in athletics. As a 16-year-old she had run 57.4s, as a 17-year-old 57.1s but as an 18 and 19-year-old had only managed 57.3s. Her coach kept telling her that she was still young and should stay patient. Each year she was managing to win many club and provincial races, but her goal was to go to World Championships and Olympics. She had looked at overseas rankings and results and was not satisfied with her progression. She had seen me training girls at the track and wanted another opinion.

It is always easy to look back and be an expert. However around the world there are many teenagers that can run under 57s for 400m. To consider yourself a female 400m competitor (at 20 years of age) then you should be able to run 53s. This requires you to run 24s for 200m. If you are not close to that range, if you are not significantly improving your times, if it doesn’t look like those times are within your reach then you are in the wrong event.

Talented runners are fast. It is very difficult to significantly increase your speed over the 100m to 400m distances, but it is possible to increase your speed endurance. Today’s top 1500m and 5000m women can all run 55s for 400m. Most could do it as teenagers and they are faster than most of our New Zealand 400m sprinters. You can either choose to be amongst the top 10 sprinters in New Zealand or you can aim to be a world class competitor and train towards the best possible event for you.

Too often athletes waste years training and competing for very little or no improvement in the sprint events. When they are older they generally give up athletics without even considering whether they could have been successful in another event. In any event from 1500m upwards the usual winner will be the fastest among those athletes with the same endurance. My advice to the 400m runner above was that she should consider the 1500m events. With the right attitude and training she could then be more realistic about reaching her goal of competing at World Championships and Olympics.

Sprinters are used to doing full out efforts. Making the transition to middle distance events takes at least 3 years. This involves gradually increasing weekly mileage and number of training sessions. You have to experience longer runs and races, either over cross country or road to help build a middle-distance runners’ mentality. These get you used to running through the fatigue that comes from longer runs. There are longer interval training sessions, but for the runner above there would still be the power intervals such as 5x400m in 59s with 8 minutes recovery. With increased emphasis on distance training and with the right attitude, I predict any reasonable sprinter can become competitive in middle-distance events.

If you are fast but not improving as much as you would like, then don't be afraid of distance. Unfortunately, speed comes from good genetics. Improving 1 or 2 seconds over sprint events is very hard. Successful training is about adding what you don’t already have. If all the ingredients are present in a programme: aerobic work, interval work, and very fast work, then an athlete can substantially improve over the middle and longer distances. Instead of making up the numbers in a sprint event, with very average times, aim to become New Zealand’s next star of middle distance.