If you were to attend some of our track clubs practices it wouldn’t  take long for you to realize that my favorite event is the 400m dash. The 400 is an endurance sprint that incorporates the speed of a sprinter and the endurance of a half-miler.  In my opinion the 400 is one of the most demanding and grueling of all competitive track and field events.  Usually quarter milers are one of two distinct types – the sprinter type or half-miler type.  Both types have had their share of success over the years and occasionally you’ll find an athlete who possesses some of the characteristics of both the sprinter and the quarter miler.  A prime example of the sprinter-type 400 meter runner is world and Olympic champion Michael Johnson.  Over the years Johnson had developed his strength and endurance to the point that he could better maintain his sprinter speed over a longer distance than anyone else in the world.

I’m often asked what is the best race strategy for running the 400?   Back in the day, when it was the 440 yard dash, I had a very simple race strategy based on the configuration of the track at my high school.  We ran the quarter with a one turn horseshoe.  We started out of  a long straight away, one turn and then a short straight away to the finish.  I had landmarks strategically placed around the track and my plan for my race was to be the first one to the trash can just before the long jump pit,  run at a comfortable pace to the mid point in the turn (at about the scoreboard), start to pick up speed as I came out of the turn and put the hammer down from the second long jump pit to the finish.  Now I wouldn’t recommend this race plan to everybody – but it worked for me.  I won more races than I lost at home, but heaven forbid if anyone had moved the trash can at near the long jump pit!

In all seriousness, strategically planning your 400m race is critical.   I’m a big Michael Johnson fan and  in my opinion he is still one of the greatest long sprinters since Tommie “the Jet” Smith.   Johnson’s strategy for running the 400 was to utilize the 4 P’s – Push, Pace, Position and Pray!

There are 4 common ways to run the 400 meters.

1. Go all out at the start and die at 250-300 meters.

2. Run an even pace, which means taking it easy at the start, then at 200m or the start of the curve you mentally “pick it up” or attack the curve. While the effort may seem harder for the 2nd 200m, in actual fact you run even splits.

3. Break up the race into four 100 meter segments, like Michael Johnson’s four P’s… Push, Pace, Position, Pray. Push the first 100m, relax and Pace yourself on the 2nd 200m, start increasing your tempo to put yourself in a proper race Position, and finally give it all you’ve got for the last 100m and Pray you will get there.

4. Breaking the race up into zones or phases depending on the track configuration and the lane draw, the segments (curve-straight- curve-straight) are not equal 100 meter lengths. Thus this method requires the race to be broken into 5 segments.

In the discussion that follows I’ll be covering the 4th race strategy.

The Zones or Phases

The 400 meters is broken down  into 5 distinct zones or phases

  • 0-10 meters – The First 7 steps
  • 10 meters to 40/50/60 meters
  • 40/50/60 meters to 175/200 meters
  • 175/200 meters to 315 meters
  • 315 meters to 402 meters

The Track

Usually when we are competing on at an  unfamiliar venue, I will walk the track with our guys to get the “lay of the land'” and get a feel for the track.  Although most high school tracks are configured pretty much the same, often times our Regional and National meets are at colleges and universities that have bigger turns and shorter straights so it’s important that the kids get a feel for the track well in advance of competition so they know what to expect.

In a perfect world, the track is an Equal Quadrant Tracks and if you have lane 1, the segments or zones is simple, 100-100-100-100 meters each.  There are 4 types of track ovals, and since most of our national competitions are often held on IAAF tracks we’ll use the IAAF track as an example.  The IAAF specifies a 400m or 1312.34′ (minimum distance) track, measured along the measure line of lane one, with two curves of equal radius measuring 36.80m and two straightaways measuring 84.39m.

This  means that  lane 1 is really 115.6 (curve), 84.4 (back straight), 115.6 (curve), 84.4 (homestretch) meters.

If your track lanes are 42 inches wide, then lane 8 without the stagger is 446.9 meters. Each lane is offset by 5.86 meter stagger. That means Lane 8 is really 92.1– 84.4 – 139.1 – 84.4 meters. So as this runner approaches the 2nd curve, he or she is 176.5 meters into the race, with 223.5 meters to go, and a long curve of 139.1 meters ahead.

This may be a personal preference, buy psychologically it helps to know these distances in advance when you map out your race plan. Knowing that last straightaway is only 85m means if you are behind, you don’t have much real estate left. This is why you should start your “kick” for home well before the straightaway.

Remember, whether you get Lane 1 or Lane 8,  400 meters is 400 meters – so don’t sweat it.  One of our guys won his high school conference championship with a low 48 seconds out of lane 8!

0-10 meters – The First 7 steps

Events that require strength and power utilize the ATP/CP energy stores. With the ATP/CP energy system it a matter of  use it or lose it.  So you might as well use it.  We have discussed the energy systems associated with sprinting and enhanced sports performance before but to better illustrate it for this article here is a brief synopsis of exercise physiology and how it relates to the phases described above.

  • 0-1 sec – ATP/CP (i.e. shot put)
  • 1-7 sec – Anaerobic (i.e. 60 meters)
  • 7-40 sec – Anaerobic Alactic (i.e. 100-200m)
  • 40 sec – 2 min – Anaerobic Lactic (i.e. 400-800m)

Generally speaking , an athlete takes 7 strides or steps to the 10 meter mark out of the blocks.  We use an Acceleration Ladder for optimizing and lengthening the stride pattern and stride frequency out of the blocks. If you have used ladders or a similar drill in practice, then it’s simply replicating what you do in practice a thousand times.

I like to see my guys “attack the turn” with those  first 7 steps at 95-99% speed and if they are assigned to an inside lane try to make up the stagger before they come out of the first turn.

Setting Up Your Blocks

With out getting to technical, to start with blocks on the curve, the blocks should be angled slightly  toward the inside line of your lane with your left hand will be several inches behind the line, and your right hand will be slightly behind the line, but not touching it.

Like in the 200m, you want to negotiate the curve after the first few steps.

Spacing of the Blocks

In Bud Winter’s book – “So You Want to be a Sprinter, his Speed City research shows you will get off the blocks faster with a wider spacing and closer to the line (for example, front block 13” from line, 28” to rear block, compared to a front block 16” from line, 21” to rear block setting) but this setup will lose your advantage after first 10 meters.

Ideally you will start the same way you always started in practice. What we do in practice  with our older more experienced sprinters is set up a mark approximately 24” to 28″  inches from the starting line.  Our goal is to have the sprinter clear the blocks with the back foot hitting the mark with his/her first step.  If they don’t hit the mark then we adjust the rear block until they do.  The idea being that this allows for near triple extension of leg when the front foot clears the block allowing for a more powerful start.

Some 400 meter sprinters prefer a more gradual acceleration, while others like to get our hard and then relax. When Asafa Powell does time trials without blocks, he prepares for it as a 3 point start first as if he is doing a 40 yard dash, then gets down on all fours. If you take a look at his foot spacing WITHOUT BLOCKS, they are wider than normal with blocks.

Whatever spacing or method you decide to use , make sure it’s been first tested in practice!

10 meters to 40/50/60 meters

Back in the day,when I ran the 440 I got out of the blocks HARD to about the end of the first long jump pit.  However, for my guys who don’t have the benefit of such technical landmarks, we train our 400m runners to “attack the turn.”    Like Clyde Hart,  we prefer that our athletes drive or go 100% for that first 60 meters.  Again, you have to train for this.  You can’t expect an athlete to be able to attack the turn at 95-100% and still be able to finish the 400 if they haven’t done this in practice. We spend a lot of time on what we call “technique differentiation” – where we break the race down in to phases and work on the technique required for each phase.  Based on our training approach this first 40-60m would be our drive phase.

How far you want to go hard is up to you, but make sure you have it pre-determined beforehand.  Some like 50m hard because it’s a nice even number and I’ve heard some coaches say run the turn “like your you’re running the 55m dash!”

In terms of land marks, you can use a piece of tape on the track (if it’s legal) and tell your athletes to run hard until you reach that tape. When you do a practice start with your blocks, make sure that tape is still there, then walk back slowly and take off your sweats and wait for the whistle for “On your marks”

40/50/60 meters to 175/200 meters

This will be the fastest zone of the race in terms of average speed. The initial 10-60m will be the fastest top-end instantaneous speed, but if you were to take 50 meter segments, or 100 meter segments, this is the zone where the splits are the fastest.

If you have a nice tailwind here, take advantage of it and get out fast but relaxed. Why? Because you’ll be tired on the homestretch when that 800lbs gorilla jumps on your back and deceleration starts to takes come into play.  Again, it’s one of those “use it or lose it” clichés.

In Zone in 2 we coach our athletes to Relax and Float and concentrate on their best Sprint Mechanics.

The arms

In  a previous post we discussed the importance of arm action when sprinting and this most definitely applies to running the 400m.  However, how to use your arms has 2 different camps: Easy or Hard.

I personally prefer “easy” relaxed  arms especially on the backstretch. If you watch Lashawn Merritt’s arms from the 2009 Berlin WC and can clearly see after 10-15 strides, he doesn’t drive with his arms anymore. It’s a nice relaxed pendulum type swing. (His splits also show he doesn’t run the first 200 as fast as others, despite a sub 20 second PB in the 200 meters)

Lee Evans, a contemporary of Tommie Smith,  preferred good arm action, but pumping vigorously but loosely.

The key is not to expend too much energy but at the same time you want the most speed for this zone.  Regardless of how you use them,  use them – as we tell our guys “arms make the legs go” and in the 400m you need all the help you can get to keep your legs going!

Pace judgment and differential

How you judge your pace is critical here.  If you know your competition, you could gauge your race plan while keying off on the others. However,  I coach our athletes to  just run your their own  race, which means knowing your pace.

The goal here should be to run the opening 200m within 1 second of the athletes best 200m time.  But the differential between the splits differ with every runner, even at the world level. If your opening 200m is within 1 second of their best 200m, with the 2nd half about 2 seconds slower than the first, then the simple formula to determine your 400m time potential is doubled your best 200 plus 4 seconds:

i.e. best 200 = 21, so split 22 + 24 = 46.

For the 400m specialist with the proper speed and special endurance background and training, we use the traditional “doubled 200m plus 3.5 seconds” formula to give:

i.e. best 200 = 21, so split 22 + 23.5 = 45.5

Thus a differential of 1.5 to 2 seconds between the first 200 and second 200.

If you take a look at the IAAF Biomechanical Analysis from Berlin 2009, Renny Quow from Trinidad is the only sprinter in the group with near even splits, similar to Akron Archbishop Hoban High School  alum, Butch Reynolds. Otherwise, a differential between 1 and 3 seconds is the norm.

With Lee Evans in Mexico City (43.8), his 200m PR was 20.4, and he split 21.4 and 22.4, a differential of 1.0. Then again, Lee Evans was a different beast.

175/200 meters to 315 meters

This is the zone where most races are won or lost.

If you have Lane 8, this zone is 139 meters, not 100!

Lee Evans quotes, “The race starts at the 200-meter mark”

You must be prepared to dig or attack the curve.

Michael Johnson calls this “position” and this is where you can pick-off the runners in the lanes ahead, if you haven’t caught them already on the backstretch.

In a way, it is very similar to uphill running. You must use extra power. You must mentally pick up the pace when you are really slowing down.

Somewhere around the 250 mark,that 800lb gorilla hitches along for the ride and the race  starts to hurt and you will have to decide whether you want to “win, place or show.”

Good video example of a good third segment:

Andretti Bain Running the-third-100m-of-the-400m

315 meters to 402 meters

This is the part of the race that generally separates the men from the boys and you have to finish with what you have left.   This is also where you have to have faith in your training if you expect to finish the race. As you are decelerating, you should try to increase or at least maintain stride length. Again, maintaining form is important.   If your arms are still feeling good, and they should, then by all means use arms.  Get knee lift. Stay relaxed. Stay tall.

The cue for my athletes at this phase is “lift and go!”   and I try to get my athletes to do is focus on our training cues.  “Toe up! Heel up! Knee up! Active plant! Step over knee! Hips forward!  Tummy tight! Good arms! There’s a  bit of a mind game at play here.  By concentrating on our training cues they aren’t concentrating on that 800lb gorilla that jumped on their back about at the 250-300m mark.

Always run through the finish or 402 instead of 400m and always lean for the tape no matter if you are winning or not.  Especially in timed sections or qualifying rounds, where 0.01 makes the difference between advancing and watching the Finals from the stands!

Running the Rounds

In the qualifying rounds you should always run the first 250-300 meters the same way as you would in the Finals.  This gives you the opportunity to feel out  your competitors before the next round.  I’ve included links below to show some great examples of how Michael Johnson did this in the in 1996 Olympics or 1999 World Championships that can be found  on YouTube.  And  for those of you who aren’t old enough to have experienced my childhood hero, Tommie “Jet” Smith, I’ve also included a YouTube link of the Jet in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics.


I read once that the 400 meters is often referred to as the man killer in track.  As one softball player we are training said after she spent sometime working with a couple of our long sprinters “it’s hard!”

The 400 race causes a build up of lactic acid in the muscles that almost paralyzes the runner with pain.  The untrained runner finds it nearly impossible to continue at any reasonable speed.   Folks who are familiar track call this uncomfortable feeling “rigor mortis”  – we call it “butt-lock!”

That being said,  training for the rigorous demands of the 400 meters is important and having  race strategy is critical to being successful in one of track and fields most demanding events.

Look for future post on training for the 400 meters.  If you have any questions or would like any additional information feel free to contact me at jmurdock@flight101ssd.com

In the mean time – Get Out, Get Up, Get Busy

From the Flight Deck,

Coach Jay Murdock



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