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Speed and ambition

Thursday 13 August 2009

On the eve of the IAAF World Championships in Berlin, something different. Wilson Kipketer is the world record holder over 800m and one of the most stylish runners the world has seen. He took Seb Coe's record that many thought would itself be the ultimate. Tony Ward was a middle distance coach and is a provocative commentator on athletics. He has written an interesting article on the importance of speed in middle distance running which is reproduced in full. Click more to read it.

SPEED - by Tony Ward:

In 1973 Andy Carter stormed to an AAA Championship 800m win at London’s Crystal Palace in 1:45.12, slicing a full second off the UK record. Thirty six years on his time would, to date, head the 2009 UK rankings.

Mel Watman wrote of him: “His attitude is refreshing, he does not like slow races and usually avoids them by imposing a fast pace.” Here was a 'can do' runner of the type we are sadly lacking today.

His attitude is exemplified by his run at the 1971 European’s in Helsinki. In the final, despite having had attacks of asthma and tonsillitis earlier in the season, he was full of aggression leading at halfway in 51.3; after slipping to fourth he stormed back and took the bronze. He finished fifth in the 1972 Olympics and won the European Cup in 1973. Significantly, as we shall see, he also ran 48.0 secs for 400 metres.

Only three British athletes this century have beaten Carter’s time. We haven’t had a global finalist since 1993. Steve Ovett beat Carter’s record in 1978 and a year later Sebastian Coe set a new world record of 1:42.33. In 1981 he amazed athletics by taking it to unimaginable heights with 1:41.73.

Peter and Seb Coe transformed the world of 800 metre running. Peter’s work, as a recent Blog discussed, will surely form the basis of the, as yet, elusive 1:39 man. The problem is that the lesson that Seb and Peter taught us in Britain has palpably been forgotten. Speed is the essence in the event; not that of a Usain Bolt but of a Johnson and Warriner.

What Seb also demonstrated with his two world records was that a British athlete could set extraordinary times. When he ran 1:41.73 he was around 18 metres ahead of the next fastest Brit ever, Steve Ovett and 26 metres ahead of Andy Carter. This was phenomenal and when middle-distance runners got their breath back we entered a golden era of British two lap running.

In the eighties and early nineties Steve Cram and Peter Elliott ran below 1:43, three others below 1:44. Medals came our way. Following Ovett’s Olympic win in 1980, Coe won silver in 1980 and 1984; Coe, McKean and Cram won a clean sweep of medals at the 1986 European’s; Cram won Commonwealth gold in 1986; Elliott won silver at the 1987 World’s; McKean won the European in 1990 and the World Cup in 1991 along with a string of European Cup victories. Indoors, Coe, Harrison, Sharpe, Heard and McKean all won European titles and the latter won the World Indoor in 1993. But, once the Scot left the scene we have been but a pale shadow of our former selves.

How can this be in such a relatively short space of time? The lesson that we have forgotten is that world class times at 800 metres are the products of extended sprints.

Seb ran a 4 x 400 metre relay leg in 45.5; in his fastest world record run he completed the first lap in 49.7, a differential of 4.2 seconds. Now assuming a more reasonable differential of 3.5 seconds it means that a current British runner hoping to sustain a first lap of 51 seconds should be capable of 400 metres in 47.5. Of the current UK top six, those who have raced 400m at all are running in the late 48 to 49 second range. Only the second ranked Darren St. Clair and Sam Ellis have run closer to 47 seconds. Peter Coe believed that a world class 800 metre runner should be able to run between 46 and 46.5 seconds.

Although he never advocated moving 400 metre runners up to 800 he recognised that 400 metre training had to be part of the armour of the 800 metre runner. He had to attain repeatable 400 metre sprinting speed.

“There is no way you can escape from speed in middle distance running, including 5000m,” Peter said. “So you should never get too far away from it in training.”

He felt that once the developing athlete has achieved a high level of cardio respiratory efficiency he can reduce the volume of steady distance to that which will maintain the condition. He believed that there is more time spent in steady winter running than is necessary. But in the present day, isn’t that still the conventional wisdom?

I conjectured that, as 800 metre running became faster with sub-50 secs opening laps, the anaerobic/aerobic ratio would move more towards that of the 400 metres (75:25). All such ratios, of course, assume that the distance is covered at the athlete’s best running speed, i.e. as fast as he is able. So if a runner runs 49 secs for an opening 400m but is capable of 45 secs then obviously the ratio 75:25 would not apply. The closer to his personal best he runs then the nearer to that ratio he can get. The question then surely is: is he doing the necessary training to sustain the momentum into the second half? In a recent race in Monaco Michael Rimmer went with the pacemaker and reached the bell in circa 49 seconds. His second lap was around 60 seconds. It was a hard way to discover that presently he cannot sustain such a fast lap.

British coaches and athletes today seem content with mediocrity. This century the number of runners under 1:47 in the top ten is 38, the number over, 62. There is an aberration as well. In 2006 the ratio was 9:1 in favour of runners under 1:47. This was thanks to a British Milers Club (BMC) paced race in Watford where three runners – Hill, Rimmer and Ellis, all broke 1:46; two more, Watkins and Coltherd, both ran under 1:46.5. It was heralded as a moment of truth, the breakthrough the event had been waiting for, the plateau for faster times. It didn’t happen.

There is another factor that coaches should ponder. The top performances of the three men, McIlroy, Hill and Rimmer who have attained the UK all-time top 25 this century have proved transient. McIlroy (who ran fourth in the European Championships of 2002) ran only twice below 1:46 following his best of 1:44.65 in 2005. He retired last year bitter at the lack of support he had received. Hill has run below 1:46 only once since his lifetime best of 1:45.10 (2006). It is too early to judge Rimmer for he only set his best last season and this year, as his coach Norman Poole told me, he has had a recurrence of asthma.

And what of Sam Ellis, the bronze medallist in the European’s in Goteborg in 2006? His only excursion below 1:46 has been the aforementioned BMC race at Watford. He has cruelly suffered both from injury and in 2006 misguided advice regarding future coaching.

What the running of McIlroy, Hill, Ellis and Rimmer has shown is that the tap of talent hasn’t been turned off as some believe but has been left dripping. To continue the analogy it needs a new washer. What coaches must ask themselves is: am I training athletes correctly for what is fast becoming an extended sprint? Am I stuck in old approaches to the event?

Should we treat the 800 metres more specifically and uncouple it from the 1500?
Some critics will say that all this talk of the 800 being an extended sprint is nonsense. They feel such a suggestion is heresy. They reasonably point to the fact that Coe, Ovett, Cram and Elliott were all highly successful at 1500m.

However a study of their major races at both distances shows that 800 metre races were not a priority. Only Coe ran an equal number of 800 and 1500/1 mile world class races during his long career. Ovett virtually abandoned it after his Olympic win; Cram’s ratio is 3:1 in favour of 1500m/1 mile, Elliott’s 2:1. What these great runners would have achieved had they concentrated, like Tom McKean, on racing two laps would make an interesting debate. McKean (47.60 for 400) never ran a serious 1500 in his life.

Investigation of this sick patient is urgently required. It should be carried out by the British Milers Club whose formation came about in 1963 because of the dire state of British miling. The current 800m situation is no less atrocious.

We need to interview our leading athletes and coaches; we need to know the basis of their training (not for any recrimination but for knowledge); we need to know about attitudes to racing; we need frank discussion between coaches and athletes about training methods; we need to talk to the greats of the past. Until we have the facts we cannot move forward. The short-term aim should be a modest one: to have three runners in the 800 in 2012 and at least one in the final. Achieve that and we can move on and up from there.