Physical Needs of Middle Distance Runners

The physical needs of middle distance runners are pretty obvious right? I mean they run 800 metres, 1500 metres, 1 mile and 2000 metres. Pretty easy to figure out their needs, just train them to run faster over their chosen distance. Simple method of coaching.

The only problem is that doing only highly specific training will lead to weak links.

There is no doubt that through my years coaching athletes I have been primarily focussed on strength, speed and power development. This seems exclusively suited to power athletes like sprinters and weight lifters. However, to my own surprise I have been hired countless times by endurance and middle distance athletes. In response I decided to adapt and apply my area of athletic specialty to this other group. This was a bold move and led to a much broader focus, but it led to much success for myself and the athletes I coached.

Here we are discussing the physical needs of middle distance runners. However, in application the principles apply to a much broader scope and extend to any athlete with similar energy system needs.

The physical needs of middle distance runners are obvious for the bulk of their training. They need to possess the ability to perform at near maximal capacity over their primary running distance. The only issue with traditional middle distance training is that it leaves weak spots in the athlete’s ability. In my experience the training currently used for most athletes is not adequate. There is a far greater potential than is currently being realised by even the gold medal winners. This is due to the weak links in their training. Now there’s an onion in the ointment for middle distance coaches.

The following is an outline of the physical needs of middle distance runners based on my experience with such athletes…

The Need: Sustained, near maximal capacity. This means that a middle distance runner is operating far over their anaerobic threshold for up to five minutes. That’s a huge toll on their capacity to utilise energy during a race. They are spending most of the event in oxygen debt.

The Solution: To cope with sort of demand the athlete needs to physically over-prepared. Having an athlete that can only just sustain above anaerobic threshold output will result in a weak finish. If the other competitors run a strong race this athlete has nothing in reserve to beat them to the finish line. They are already performing maximally just to keep up, it is at the end where it all falls apart because athletes that have been coached to finish strong while still sustaining a strong start and finish will inevitably turn up the juice on the home stretch.

To physically over-prepare a middle distance runner for this near-maximal, sustained effort and develop the ability to find the extra energy to finish strong, as a coach you need to have the runner training above their normal, sustainable threshold. This can be achieved through distance periodisation. It may seem counter-intuitive but middle distance runners need to sprint train. The faster they can sprint the bigger the margin between sustainable and maximal. So begin with short stuff and periodise up to longer distances. I have even started 1500 metre runners on 50 metre maximal sprints and worked up to 400’s. A strong 400 can make a load of difference to their 1500.

The Need: Sustained Power and Muscular Endurance. This relates to the last one but they kind of all do because it is all specific but at the same time foundational.

The physical needs of middle distance runners includes sustained power output. The 1500 is at a level now that it’s almost a sprint event just as the 800 metres has become. In order to run at the pace the middle distance runner does, there needs to be power, not just endurance. It’s not just a skinny person’s race anymore.

The Solution: The middle distance runner needs to develop power, power and more power. They also need strength to carry themselves powerfully over a relatively short duration. It’s not too dissimilar to a sprinter, the only difference is that less overall volume is required and individual efforts need to be sustained.

So what should you do as a coach of this sort of athlete? Train for it, prepare your athletes for the demands by doing more of it. Begin with basic strength training, this needs to be a part of the programme from the outset. And I’m not talking about the airy fairy kind like light weights with super high reps either. There is a misconception that lifting heavy weights and gaining large amounts of strength will lead to large muscles, excess body weight and compromised performance. It’s hogwash. The amount of distance covered in an average week by a middle distance runner will simply not allow for large gains in muscle size. Why do you think bodybuilders rarely perform large volumes of cardiovascular training?

So get them lifting heavy but infrequent. A middle distance runner needs extra recovery from strength training and they also don’t want to compromise their specific training. One heavy weight training session per week using only major compound movements is enough.

Now they need to convert much of that strength into power. This is done through plyometrics mainly. The reason I say that is that plyometrics is the most efficient power training modality for the least amount of time investment. Stick to basic plyo exercises, do them infrequently like once a week and make each effort sustained by doing higher reps. It’s important though not to sustain the set beyond the athlete’s capacity to perform maximally.

The Need: Efficiently Coordinated Respiration. This means breathing needs to be coordinated throughout the race to ensure there is no wasted breath. It has been stated before that breathing rhythm means nothing in sports but new research suggests that it plays a major role, especially in largely anaerobic sports that last more than 20 seconds.

The Solution: Coordinated breathing training. The physical needs of middle distance runners, believe it or not, should include the rudimentary training of breathing rhythm. In a race and under stress, the natural response is to become tense and breathe shallow. This results in unnecessary energy expenditure and compromised oxygen uptake. This is especially important for middle distance runners due to the massive output over the duration of the race.

In order to optimise breathing, the athlete needs to be conditioned to breathe efficiently through monitoring and correcting continuously until it becomes second nature. Don’t overlook this aspect, it will make a difference, a small one, but a difference nonetheless.

The physical needs of middle distance runners are not as obvious as it may first appear. I’m sure as a coach you realise this and have catered to it in some way. I wrote this article as a guide and as a reminder. Often coaches can get stuck in a rut of familiarity. Hopefully as a coach you can take some of this on-board and start catering to ALL the physical needs of middle distance.

The physical needs of middle distance runners, and of all athletes for that matter, are maximised through a well-rounded approach where there are no weak links.



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