[DJ Hicks is a recent graduate of Houston Baptist University and the Athletic Lab Coaches Mentorship at Athletic Lab. DJ is currently an assistant coach at Valparaiso University]
Similar to the 100m dash, the 400m relay is an event that hinges on the slight manipulation of many variables that have a large impact on the overall result. There are many aspects of attaining success in the event that are uncontrollable by the coach and athletes, such as lane draw or poor weather conditions, but there are also many significant training points that can be utilized to enhance performance. These training points include all the common controllable methods of preparing a relay for competition. Below, there are 5 important training points of the event that are sometimes overlooked, and if exploited well, can prove to be of great benefit.
1.Train Vision: Unlike the open running events, and excluding first leg, the 400m relays is unique in that the athletes are required to react to a visual cue (incoming runner) as opposed to an audible signal (starter’s pistol). This means that instead of waiting for a distinct and precise single sound, athletes are forced to make a sudden decision about the location of a body with fast moving limbs coming at them with great speed. Additionally, to add another factor, the outgoing runner is also forced to make this decision while other teams are operating around them in a random fashion.
There are a few different ways this training need can be met. Obviously, full speed reps and run-by’s are a viable solution, but you are limited in terms of volume here. One simple solution I like to use is to practice run-by’s away from actually relay practice. When athletes are doing anything from build-ups to speed in a warm up all the way to something like a fly 20m, you can have the ” outgoing runner” create a makeshift acceleration zone small triangle with tape, count their steps off, and practice their vision by going when the runner sprints by. The outgoing runner only needs to take a few steps and this drill can even be incorporated into a warm-up on a non-sprinting emphasis day. In doing this, the outgoing runner gets to work on their vision, get plenty of reps if they desire, and get better at the relay any day of the week.
2: Incoming Runner’s Run-In Distance: I personally do not see the value in anything but full speed rep’s to practice for this relay, anything else encourages false ideas about what should be taking place (this opinion excludes standing and chase drills). With this in mind, it’s necessary for the incoming runner to be moving at a realistic speed that will be present at the exchange in competition. An incoming runner practicing reps coming in from 35-55m out is not very realistic because this runner is most likely closing in on or at their max velocity speed, something that is not present is a competition exchange. If being done for any reason other than training vision in an over speed manner, then rep’s like these can be hurtful by enforcing poor timing between the runners in completing the exchange. Instead, perhaps back the incoming runner up at least 65-70m or slightly more to mimic the speed maintenance phase that will be occurring in a race situation at this point.
3: Watch Your Volume: It’s very easy to get caught up with getting an exchange correct at practice if things are not working out well. You missed the first one because one of the athletes was not focused, you miss the second because the steps are off as a result of a heavy headwind on the back stretch, you miss a third because the outgoing runner trips…and this cycle continues until you look up and realize 5-6x70m later that your incoming runner has done a significant amount of high intensity sprinting. Now there is nothing wrong with this rep’s x distance scheme, but if it was not appropriately planned, prepared for, and executed with correct rest intervals, problems can occur.
Sprinting that occurs at relay practice is equal to and should be treated as high intensity sprinting that occurs in any other area of track practice. The same workout prescriptions and the same rest intervals should be utilized. It is important that the coach remembers, and athletes are communicated to, that these particular workouts are prioritizing fatigue free speed that cannot be harnessed well in the presence of poorly recovered reps.
4: Exchange Location: Just because two athletes are able to get an exchange off within the exchange zone doesn’t necessarily mean it was a good exchange. Yes, it is better to get the exchange off in a less than optimal location than to not get one at all, but if we are really talking about pushing four individuals to their best performance possible, this is not good enough.
The later the exchange occurs in the exchange zone the faster the baton speed will be because it’s being handed off to a sprinter who has at this point been allowed to accelerate for about 30m. If we are considering a faster athlete who does take around 30 m to accelerate to top speed, as opposed to one that reaches max velocity much sooner, then it is beneficial for this exchange to occur as late as possible in the exchange zone because anything less creates a slower baton which equals a slower time. With this in mind, however, it is probably wiser to aim for a 3m window from 25-28m instead of 27-30m because you will be putting the exchange zone judge in a very difficult position that might not turn out in your favor.
5. Athlete Bond: If someone were to ask me to support this point with research I could not do it. I cannot explain why, but in my experience of competing in and coaching the 400m relay, it seems that there is great value in a team filled with friends instead of strangers. It’s better to have four consistent practice partners than four athletes who come together informally as an afterthought…even if slightly faster. Just like in any other team sport, chemistry matters. At the end of the day, a team that consists of four faster sprinters in the open 100m should be faster in theory, but without chemistry, they are vulnerable to a slightly slower well bonded group.