The Myth of losing speed
The 800m is perhaps the most interesting distance to coach. It’s always intrigued me from a coaching standpoint because, unlike the 10k for example, the ways in which an athlete can train to cover the same distance in about the same time varies tremendously. There are successful 800m runners who may never run over a few miles and perform interval work 3-4 days a week, while there are others who may have 15+ mile long runs, 80+mpw, and they all can accomplish relatively the same thing.
While training for a marathon we argue of nuances in training that is essentially all cut from the same cloth, in the 800 we can argue wholesale philosophical differences. The differences often can be boiled down to their emphasis on this nebulous term “speed.” By invoking the term speed, coaches often mean a lot of different things.
One of my pet peeves when discussing endurance work is the concept of losing speed. In the middle distance world, this concept of losing speed is widespread. Go to any coaching conference, hang around enough coaches, or just talk to your athletes and you’ll hear this concept over and over. It’s used as an argument against doing any kind of aerobic work, regardless of sport or event. It’s thought that only those “slow” distance kids should do long work because speed doesn’t matter much in their world. So they can afford to be slow.
But here’s the thing, if you are losing speed that much during training, it’s not the long aerobic work that is doing it, it’s that your training sucks.
I like to break down things into simplistic models that I can then translate over to making practical decisions with. One of the ways I envision training is this balancing act between speed and endurance. These variables interact a bit so that my whole goal as a coach is to keep these at the right balance for the right person for the right event. Each event might require a slightly different balance, and it’s my job to shift that balance around.
And here’s where the misunderstanding comes along. You, as a coach, determine where that balance of speed and endurance goes. While doing lots of aerobic endurance work might shift the emphasis more towards the endurance side and result in a slight loss in speed, the reality is that most of the time, the shift comes in not doing enough speed to maintain that speed.
If you are losing speed, it’s because you aren’t doing enough pure speed work to maintain it.
Even if I ran 100mpw, I can theoretically maintain my pure speed (maybe not enhance it that much, but that’s another argument) if I was doing enough sprint work. It’s a use it or lose it idea on both sides. If the balance shifts, it’s most likely because I started neglecting one of the sides.
Last fall, when talking to my team, Alan Webb, when asked about his crazy range (1:43 800m all the way up to 27:3x 10k on the track) made a fantastic point.
I’m paraphrasing now but he said ‘people make the mistake of thinking I was capable of that all at the same time. When I was in 1:43 shape, I couldn’t run 27:30 in the 10k and vice versa. I had that ultimate range, but never at the same time.
And that’s a profound point. Where his speed/endurance balance was depending on what he was trying to accomplish. When he ran that 10k, he was coming off a massive base designed to enhance his aerobic abilities. His speed was undoubtedly pretty good, but not good enough to run 1:43. Likewise, when he ran 1:43, his aerobic abilities were no doubt very good, but not 27 mid 10k shape good. It’s very very hard to be all things at all times as these events require different demands. The point is, there are times of the year, when it’s okay to lose a little speed or a little endurance. The key is not losing that much where you can’t get it back to where you need it, when you’re emphasizing it.
Short term loss for long-term gains.
Everyone freaks out if they start the year slightly slower than they were before. The middle distance athlete, after running a base or XC season, and running perhaps a tenth or two slower in those 100m accelerations yells “I’m losing my speed!” But does this same athlete while he or she is tapering for their final 800m race several months later, freak out and yell “I am losing my ability to run 15 miles slow!”? I’ve never encountered it. It’s because they intuitively accept that they might be able to feel as aerobically strong in a long slow run at the end of the season as when that was the main emphasis in the beginning of the year. It’s not a big deal. It’s not even thought about. Because it’s a harder to manage concept to realize that now that 13mi run that used to take 88 minutes feeling pretty good, now takes about 90 minutes and feels just slightly less comfortable. The shift is subtle.
The point is that it’s okay to see a subtle shift.
XC to 4×400
Which brings me to the example of one of my college athletes, Drevan Anderson-Kaapa. In the fall, he put in 50-60 mile weeks to work his way up to top 25 at our conference meet in XC. Throughout that we were doing some hill sprints, short accelerations, and so forth throughout the fall to maintain speed. When it came time to shift gears towards track, we tried to maintain our aerobic abilities with a slight reduction in mileage and keeping the longer run there with the occasional high end aerobic workout. The emphasis shifted towards more specific 800m work and just last week he split 47 low on our 4×400, which was a huge “PR” for a 400m.
Even after emphasizing XC (he didn’t run it the year before), we didn’t “lose speed” because we didn’t forget to do it. We maintained it at a high enough level so that when it was time to use it, we’d bring it back into the fold.
In the original and classic Lydiard training, his schedules often included weeks of very heavy mileage with not much else, even for his middle distance athletes. Then as they progressed towards the season, they would shift towards doing 3-5 days of quicker intervals a week with some pure speed work thrown in with a single long run on the weekend to maintain that aerobic ability they built up. The idea was essentially, get a huge aerobic base, let the speed drop off a bit, then bring the speed roaring back while doing just enough to maintain the aerobic side. In other words, we might have an athlete come off the base period and run 64sec for 400m and then after the 4-6 week interval intensive phase they’d be able to run that 58sec 400m they sought after.
The difference in modern training (and more modern applications of Lydiard) is that the degree is different. Instead of being able to run 64sec for 400m during aa heavy base period and then doing crazy fast work to get that down to 58sec during the pre-competition phase, now we start at 60. In essence, we’re always much closer to being where we need to be, because modern training is a mixture of all kinds of training stimuli.
It’s the reason why working on pure speed during the base period is now seen as a normal thing to do in modern training circles. (You can see a simple sprint progression we’ve used before here)
In the graphs below, I’ve provided an example. You can see the lactate curve and then for this discussion, the 400m time of the athlete during each time frame. This was for a world-class distance runner, and you can see that while her aerobic abilities improve during different phases, you can also see how her 400m time subtly shifts. Coming off break and some easy mileage, she runs, 61sec for 400m. Following some mixed training during the fall and early part of the year, the aerobic abilities improve and the 400m is 59.8. Following some more specific work, the aerobic work is slightly improved, while the 400m comes down even more.
This is a simple demonstration of how speed may change and interact throughout. If we were to look at pure sprint speed in terms of 100m times, for example, the shift would be even more subtle. And we’d see that most of the improvement in 400m time, comes from a speed endurance component.
The point is, and this is an incredibly simple point, you control the balance of speed and endurance. It’s shaped by the training you do.
Endurance work doesn’t cause you to lose speed unless you do a ton of it. What causes you to lose speed is the lack of stimuli in that direction. During heavy endurance work, it might take a corresponding higher amount of sprint work to maintain that pure speed. As a coach, you need to determine how that balance works, how much you need, and when you are ‘okay’ with losing just a bit of either.
In essence, you lose what you don’t train. If you are a middle distance athlete, and you lost speed, it’s probably because you didn’t do enough to maintain it. I can’t harp on this enough, but it’s why you need a blend of aerobic and pure speed work throughout the year.
So the final point is this, stop screaming that you’re going to lose speed because of doing endurance work. If you lose it, it’s because you neglected it. You lose what you don’t train.
*(Please note: I’m talking in a mixed demands environment, if we are talking about a 60m dash for example, then obviously we are trying to maximize one thing, and while that balance of speed and endurance shifts, it shifts a lot so keep that in mind.)