I came across this old 2007 NY Times article on Alberto Salazar and Running Economy.
While the article applies to distance running, it certainly has a lot of parallel to running the 400 meters.
Let me explain.
With distance runners, running economy determines how fast you can run with the same amount of oxygen coming into your lungs.
The article states Paula Radcliffe improved her running economy by 1-3 percent every year for 11 years which resulted in racing at a speed 40 seconds per mile faster. (That is why I tell everyone years of consistent injury free training is the secret to success… no shortcuts!)
A 1% improvement for a 11.00 second 100 meter sprinter results in a 10.15 in Year 8 and 10.05 in Year 9! I’ll take those numbers any day!
400 meter sprinters
For sprinters, running economy is not that easy to calculate, as you can’t measure ATP/CP production or test for the lactic and alactic energy systems easily. Speed is all about about how fast you can cover ground.
As a baseline, I tell 400m sprinters to run the first 200m about 1 second slower than their 200 meter personal best, and a 1.5 to 2 second differential between the first and second 200m (hence the double-200 plus 3.5 or 4 second formula)
A 22.0 second 200m PR means splits of 23.0 (with blocks) and 25.0 (with a running start). So a good workout is 2 x 200 meters with 1 minute rest, with the first 200m with blocks or standing rolling start, and the second 200m with a running start. If you want to do a split 500m, then do 300m/200m with 90 seconds rest.
But is running the first 200m 1 second slower really the best advice?
Or having a differential of 2 seconds between the 1st and 2nd 200m splits the best advice? According to the Berlin 2009: IAAF Biomechanical Analysis, a differential between 1 and 3 seconds is the norm.
I believe success at the 400 meters all boils down to how fast you can run your first 200m fast, but relaxed. If you are still struggling (energy costs, biomechanics, etc) over the 1st 200m, then you have to re-adjust your strategy. Remember that you reach top speed somewhere between 40 and 80 meters, then the race become one long deceleration phase.
A lot of coaches feel endless 200m repeats at medium intensity speed between 80-90% speed (i.e. those butt locking workouts) help with your running economy or help you stay relaxed during high lactate production. Those coaches are always yelling “relax relax” or “high knees” on intervals 7, 8 and 9. At #10, everyone’s racing!
Some rare athletes like Lee Evans or Innocent Egbunike could run the first 200m within 0.5 seconds of their 200m personal best and still have the strength to finish the 400m. Lee Evans PB was 20.7 and he ran his first 200m in 21.2, or 0.5 sec slower en route to his 43.86 WR.
Thus, the 22.0 second 200m PR means testing splits of 22.5, 23.0, and 23.5 for a 200m with blocks or standing start. Your mileage may vary, or should I say, your quarter-mile may vary!
800 meter runners
Certainly running relaxed for the first lap helps! Especially with a paid rabbit in front of you to break the wind!
But the key is how fast your open 400m time is, and that will determine how efficient that first lap will be in terms of energy cost. I covered that topic in the article 400m Sprinter Moving up to the 800 meters. If you like to see some 800 meter split analysis and differentials, read here, here and here.