A Review of 400m Training Methods

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A couple days ago it occurred to me that I had one more blog entry to reach 400 and figured it would only be appropriate if my 400th blog post was about the 400m (thanks to Nick for the suggestion). The 400m is one of the weird birds of track and field. Probably more so than any other event (other than the 800m) the ‘Many Roads to Rome’ concept seems to hold true. I’d like to take a look at why this is and maybe see what kind of ramifications this can have on a coaches choice of selecting the most appropriate training methods for their athlete’s training.

What?When training for the 100m it’s fairly well recognized that regardless of whether you follow a short-to-long or long-to-short periodization plan, that some form of speed training must be present in the training plan to achieve optimal performance. For marathon training, it’s pretty clear cut you’re going to have little to no chance of running an elite marathon by training under 80 100 miles per week. For the 400m though, things aren’t nearly as clear cut. We see programs like Baylor turn out loads of top collegiate 400m runners and 4x400m relay teams with a program is is solidly based on over-distance tempo running. This setup is arguably the most successful training program as it counts Sanya Richards, Andrew Rock, Jeremy Wariner, and Michael Johnson as current or past champions using the setup. In general, the tempo-based programs have much larger volumes of running, most of which is performed at intensities below 85% of maximal sprint speed, and if weight lifting and plyometric are performed at all, they tend to not be highly sophisticated plans and the intensities are again not very high. On the other end of the spectrum, we frequently see short sprinters and even some jumpers and hurdlers step up to the 400m and run world class times with little ‘event-specific’ work. Marion Jones, Asafa Powell, Walter Dix, Allen Johnson have done it in the past and collegiate long and triple jumpers from all around the country do it every weekend on high school and collegiate relays. Athletes in these types of training protocols generally incorporate regular doses of true speed work (95+% with full recovery), and lots of plyometric and /or strength training work. Somewhere in the middle, we see training plans used by collegiate teams like LSU. LSU has the men’s collegiate 4x400m record, has produced such elite 400m runners as Xavier Carter, Derrick Brew, Alleyne Francique, and Kelly Willie and has had more success with both 400m runners of both genders than any other collegiate program in the country. These programs use a combination of tempo and speed work throughout the year. They also typically integrate well-planned weight training and plyometric schemes to complement the track work. Quite clearly, the 400m is unique in that many training philosophies can be used to produce top level results.

Why?The reason we can see such diverse training methods produce such similar results is clearly because of the diverse metabolic demands and necessity for both speed and endurance in the 400m. Despite the 400m being considered a sprint event, recent research indicates that the contribution of the aerobic energy pathway is around 30% of total energy production for elite male 400m runners. That’s right….ONE THIRD of the energy supplied to run a sub 45 second quarter mile comes from the aerobic energy system. This contribution is likely inversely related to the performance level of the athlete. So slower runners will have an even greater aerobic contribution. What’s also clear is that you’re going to have a hard time being an elite 400m runner without very good speed. Even the top 400m runners who many consider to be endurance based quarter milers with ‘slow’ top-end speed (Butch Reynolds and Jeremy Wariner come to mind) are still extremely fast at shorter sprints (20.46 and 20.19 respectively). So it’s clear that the event requires a unique mix of nearly world class (or better) sprint speed and extreme speed endurance.

Who?I think this is an important question to ask. Obviously a wide range of training protocols have produced equal success in the 400m. Does this means you can just do whatever you want? Not really. Most coaches recognize that not all training plans work for all people. So as a coach, it’s important to either tailor an individual’s training to their specific response-type or only recruit and train athletes that you feel will respond well to the training you feel comfortable using.

How?So how is it that such seemingly varied programs can produce such similar results? I think this is partly explained by the above point but there’s certainly more to it than that. Let’s take a look at the extreme ends of the training spectrum. On the tempo-based side, I think that the reason these programs work so well is because:

  1. They develop the 30% aerobic component much more efficiently than programs that focus on anaerobic speed-power development.
  2. While many consider these programs to lack true speed specificity, I think this is only partially true. While these protocols do not use as much speed work at maximal intensities, they do incorporate quite a bit of volume at the 80-85% intensity level. The running volumes are probably twice as much as what we might see in the typical anaerobic speed-power based training program. That means that compared to their anaerobically trained speed-power 400m counterparts, athletes in a tempo-based program are getting in nearly twice as much volume in a highly specific activity, at an intensity that is still pretty darned close to the intensities observed in their competitive event. To make this a little more simple to understand, think of it in terms of strength training. Most people recognize that to increase maximal strength levels optimally, you need to train with loads that are 80-85% of maximal intensity. Within this guideline though we see different people using different methodologies successfully. We see people getting equally strong using routines with set, rep and intensity schemes as varied as 10 x 1 (average intensity of 95%) and 5 x 6 (average intensity of 80%). If the same guidelines hold true for sprint training, then it’s easy to see why tempo-based programs would work because they’re getting in a considerably larger volume of work that is still highly specific to their activity.

Now let’s go to the other end of the training spectrum and look at a jumpers program- athletes who train primarily the anaerobic energy system and typically incorporate frequent doses of high intensity plyometric and strength training. There have been quite a few very good jumper / 400m combos athletes over the years. Anthuan Maybank (8.25m long jump and 44.15 second 400m) is the most notable, but Melvin Lister, and more recently Michael Morrison and several others have been great jumpers AND run on championship 4x400m relay teams. What could possibly explain this very obvious contrast in training producing similar results? In this case I think it’s the following:

  1. These athletes typically do a considerable amount of speed work on the run way and on the track and this creates a large speed reserve for the 400m. In other words, they train to be capable of running 11 m/s so running a race at less than 10 m/s is less of their maximal effort than someone who did not have the same top-end speed.
  2. The extended and endurance bounding that is often found in these types of programs carries over nicely to developing the elastic abilities that are so important to 400m running.
  3. Due to the nature of their primary event they may be more in-tune with rhythm and speed of running (because of needing to be accurate on the approach) than other runners.
  4. Despite not doing much if any longer interval work they are still able to achieve very high lactate levels through acceleration development workouts which may carry over to 400m performance.
  5. While the running volumes are drastically less than those observed in tempo-based programs, the total cumulative training load after weights and plyometric work is factored in is likely quite similar.

Those are just the two extremes and it seems obvious that in the battle for supremacy between these two ends, the tempo-based group clearly wins out. But it’s important to note that the pure speed-power training can sure come mighty close without much ‘400m specific’ training at all. If we were to look at the programs that take a more balanced approach, it’s easier to see why they would be successful as they take many of the strengths from both sides of the continuum and leave out many of the shortcomings.

When?Based on some casual observations of various training systems I think it’s fair to say that for many athletes it’s probably best to start off on one side of the spectrum and move towards the center as there career progresses. It seems that most of the athletes that have stayed ‘far-left’ or ‘far-right’ seem to see their progress stall out if they don’t make a switch.

Mike Young

Mike Young

Founder of ELITETRACK at Athletic Lab
Mike has a BS in Exercise Physiology from Ohio University, an MSS in Coaching Science from Ohio University & a PhD in Biomechanics from LSU. Additionally, he has been recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength & Conditioning Association, a Level 3 coach by USA Track & Field, a Level 2 coach by USA Weightlifting.
Mike Young

@mikeyoung

@AthleticLab Owner. Strength/Speed Coach. Former MLS Fitness Coach. Sport Scientist. Entrepreneur. Coach Educator. Fitness Enthusiast.
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Mike Young
Mike Young
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