Training for Speed – 400m Workouts

The Quintessence of Quick

From the July/August 2004 issue of NER)

Let’s talk 400-meter repeats
. One lap. You know, quarters. (It’s what we who grew up in a pre-metric era called them.) A 400-meter lap of the track is barely less than a quarter-mile, or 440 yards.) If you ran in high school or college you did them, and right away you learned that they were hard. But if you were dedicated to your craft, you also learned how valuable they are. Their very difficulty may have bred in you an aversion to them that you carry to this day. Well, friend, the jig is up.
George Sheehan said it:  Every runner must do quarters. (Or was that Dylan?) If we do most of our racing at 10K or longer, even 5K, we can rationalize doing longer repeats instead. We complain all winter about how hard it is to train in New England, but; now, in midsummer, is the time to rediscover quarters. What’s beautiful about ’em is that they are so wonderfully adaptable:  if you’re a miler or-yes-a marathoner, doing quarters can develop dormant speed just waiting to go on display.

Note on Method I: The ground rule for this and all 400m-based workouts is: each hard 400 repeat is separated by a 200m, or half-lap, very easy jog for recovery-one half the distance of the hard effort. Coaches and athletes may differ slightly over this: some prefer a time-based interval, usually a minute.  I like the 200m jog because it’s easy to remember, it fits the track well, and a slow jog keeps the heart rate up while allowing for recovery.

Note on Method II: If you are new to these or to track training generally, know that your goal is to run the hard efforts as fast as possible yet as evenly-paced as possible. You want to finish the last one feeling like you could not do another. If you’ve not done track training before, you may not start out fast enough, since your pace-sense is geared to your daily road-run speed. Others will run the first one or two way too fast and run out of gas well before the end of the workout. Don’t give up: like learning to ride a bike, you’ll get the hang of it after a few times out, and be much the better for it.

The Basic Quarters Workout: 12 x 400m. Serious runners should do this at least once within a track-training phase. It’s a total of three (metric) miles of hard efforts, enough for most of us to do within time limitations and still enough to tire us out. Warm-up to cool-down, this can be done in about an hour. If you’re really squeezed for time 10 x 400m will do in a pinch, but no fewer-and don’t make excuses to cut it short! It’s a solid, strength-building session, and the leg turnover you get from doing quarters combined with the shorter recovery interval will help develop your ability to run fast while fatigued in a way that long repeats can’t. Suitable for anyone from milers on up.

Really Serious Quarters:  15-20 x 400m. Workouts like this one are the reason a lot of people my age (50) quit running after high school track. For years, the 20-quarters session was No. 1 on my Most Detested Workout list. It’s never been exactly fun. But even though you don’t find too many people doing them these days, higher-volume quarter workouts can be terrific, offering the same speed benefits and even greater endurance-strength. If you have an extra 20-30 minutes to spare, you can fit one of these in. It’s not a pre-race taper workout and fits within the heart of your track training. Best suited for 5K racing and up.

The Zatopek-Cassidy Zone: 24 x 400 and up. The great Emil Zatopek (the only athlete to win the 5000, 10,000 and marathon in the same Olympic Games, 1952) was the pioneer of really high-volume interval work, and it made him the greatest runner of his and perhaps any era. Quentin Cassidy is the fictional hero of John Parker’s cult-status novel, Once A Runner, and one scene has the miler Cassidy doing four sets of 10 x 440 yards. (Parker was familiar with the fact that Jim Ryun, the last American to hold the world mile record, actually did this once.) I’ll confess that 28 x 400m is the most I’ve ever done, years ago, and admit that very few have the time or the energy to do this kind of thing. At the end of one of these workouts, you’re cooked. But if your body is up to it and you’re serious about finding out how good a runner you can be, this’ll get you there. Nobody said it was going to be easy. Best suited for racing at 10K and up.

You Deserve a Break: 8 x 400m: After all that, you’re ready for some pre-race tapering. Whether your race is track or road, a mile or 10K, there’s a place for this workout. The volume is less, so you want to run them faster. If you’re training has been consistently at a moderate-to-high level (50+ miles per week) for an extended period, you can enhance the taper effect by increasing recovery to a full 400m lap jog between each, enabling the quality (speed) to be even better. If you’re a miler you might do this one 10-14 days out from race day, while a 10K runner could do this a week away.

Permutation No.1: The Relay. I get funny looks whenever I suggest this, but one of my favorite ways to do quarters is by pairing up with someone and doing them as a relay, running alternate laps. Runner A runs a hard lap, taps the hand of Runner B at the line who then does a hard lap and taps the hand of Runner A again, and so forth until each runner has completed the requisite number. Why do it this way? (1) Since your recovery is the amount of time it takes your partner to run a hard lap, it’s probably going to be a little less than normal, thus enhancing the anaerobic oxygen-uptake-development quality of the workout; (2) It adds interest to the workout, as you and your partner are dependent on one another for the session to be effective; and (3) it’s uniquely suited to the track-you really can’t do this effectively at any other distance. Old-timers (pun!) will note that actual records used to be kept for this: In The Jim Ryun Story Cordner Nelson writes of Ryun and his 1966 Kansas teammate,  John Lawson, alternating quarters for 10 miles (20 each) in an average of (gulp) 61.7 seconds, the best ever recorded. I bet it still is.

Permutation No. 2: The Miler’s Special. Here’s a short, sweet, gut-busting and great sharpening workout. Warm up as you would before a race-get nice and loose, add some stretching and quick strides. Then do 3-pairs of quarters (for a total of six) as follows: Run 400m almost as fast as you can, about 95% effort. Recover for 30 seconds, then run the second 400m on whatever’s left in the tank. That’s the first pair. Between pairs you jog two laps slowly (or 5:00), for “full recovery.‰âÂVbCrLf For 5K-10K runners a permutation on the permutation involves doing five pairs (10 quarters total) and increasing the mid-pair recover to a minute.
There. Now I’m exhausted and exhilarated just from writing all this. Time to go out and light up the track-care to join?

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