The 800 Meters Should Be Run In Lanes

This article is guest blogged by Shon Grosse, a physical therapist, athletic trainer and performance coach at www.shongrosse.com

First, let me qualify things a little bit before the arguments start:

  • 1) The 800 meters should be run in lanes – at least for 500 of those meters.
  • 2) It should be run in this fashion at least at some, but certainly not all national and international meets.
  • 3) The use of starting blocks should be an option, not a requirement.

As a track and field fan, the 800 meters remains the race on the program most likely to be diagnosed with “multiple personality disorder”-an endurance sprint, as well as the gateway to the middle distances. An event populated with more middle distance runners than long sprinters, at least at the elite level, even though it is romantically referred to at times as the ultimate sprint. It is a race that should allow an athlete to express the best and the ultimate in speed endurance.

What the 800 has become however is a monotonous tactical game, especially at the championship level. For many spectators the 800 is a frustrating race-not fast enough to count as a true endurance sprint, yet too short to allow true middle distance tactics to emerge. For many athletes, being boxed in, dealing with flailing elbows, as well as collusion in the pack do not allow the realization of their true running mechanics to occur from 150 meters through up to 700 meters, all of which can have drastic effects on performance and ultimately outcome.

So what is the solution? Realize that the only way to keep the 800 “honest” is to run the race in lanes, just as all other sprint events are. Let’s clarify a few things below, lest I alienate more athletes, fans and coaches than I already have. 

(Editor’s Note: The International 800 meters had a two turn stagger from 1973-76, including the 1974 Commonwealth Games and 1976 Olympic Games.  In some states, like Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio & Iowa, the high school 800m still uses the two-turn stagger.)

Run the first 500 meters of an 800 meter race in lanes just as the 4 x 400 meters is run for the first two legs. The athletes can then break for the pole on the second lap, at the “traditional” break line, just 400 meters later than usual.

Running the entire 800 in lanes would be counterproductive. The stagger would be too long, and the race would essentially become a glorified time trial. However, running 500 meters in lanes and then breaking for the pole with 300 meters would add a very interesting flavor to the race. Each runner would be responsible for setting their own pace prior to making a decision about how to handle the penultimate part of the race. The “pack” aspect would also largely be dissected from the race, allowing improved running biomechanics to be utilized by the competitors through the heart of the event.

Additionally, talented athletes who had a prior dim view of the 800 (such as good, if not great 400 meter runners as well as 400 meter hurdlers) could be coaxed to train and compete in such an event without the downside of pack running tactics. A Jeremy Wariner-David Rudisha-Breshawn Jackson showdown, for example, especially with 300 meters to go after the break, would no doubt be scintillating for fans of the sport.

The 800 should be run in this fashion for at least some, but certainly not all national and international meets. This is a no-brainer, as track and field purists (and more than likely many federation big wigs) will balk at such a drastic change initially. However, introducing it as an exhibition race, or making it a marquee event with an above average purse to lure great talent at a larger Diamond League meet or a meet such as the Prefontaine Classic would be ideal. Once competitors get a taste of a cleaner, more honest race and spectators see how the 800 now resembles both a traditional long dash as well as an exciting velodrome cycle sprint, you can bet the event will develop at least a rabid cult following.

The use of starting blocks should be an option and not a requirement. This goes without need of further explanation. Drive phase mechanics will become even less important in a longer race, and energy may be wasted in a block start that could be better utilized in the closing moments in the ultimate test of speed endurance.

That said, if a 400 meter convert wishes to use blocks in an 800, why should we not let them? Psychologically, this may play games with 800-1,500 specialists, as a new type of runner with a different strategy will likely be next to them (right of left) for over a lap. Again, an interesting twist in an event that could use a bit of a facelift.

Hopefully, this topic will make it to other message boards and allow some spirited debate. From my vantage point, however, the 800 meters is one race where a simple rule change as discussed here will inject fan interest, open the door to additional world class competitors, and allow a different kind of excitement in a race that deserves to be the culmination of speed, endurance and mental toughness. Make the 800 what it truly is- an endurance sprint- and help it become realized as such by allowing it to be run in lanes.

About the Author

Shon Grosse is a physical therapist, athletic trainer and performance coach with a private clinic/ studio located in Colmar PA.  In addition he is masters’ sprinter and an avid collector of vintage track spikes.  You can read more from Shon on his blog at www.shongrosse.com.  He can be reached via e-mail at shon@shongrosse.com.

  • I know that when they did run the Olympics with a two turn stagger in 1976, Steve Ovett from the UK was in one of the outer lanes. He went off too slow, never saw his main rivals in the inside lanes and never realised how quick Juantorena had gone off. By the end of turn 2 he was so far off the pace the race had gone for him. If my memory is correct he fought back to finish third, I remember an interview with him about this race and he was adament the running in lanes to 300m cost him a better place. (I can’t remeber the splits but I think he might even have run negative splits; faster on lap 2 and almost unheard of at elite male level). The beauty of 800m is the variety of the tactics. If you enjoy fast andf true watch David Rudisha, if you enjoy tactics and people out-thinking opponents watch semis at any major Games and the finals. However to tempt some interesting Head to Heads money and 600’s run 300 in lanes and 300 as a foot race would be really intruiging.

  • It appears that one of the main points contributing to Shon Gross wanting a 2 turn stagger or the 1st 500m in lanes for the 800m is that “the 800 has become….a monotonous tactical game, especially at the championship level. For many spectators the 800 is a frustrating race-not fast enough to count as a true endurance sprint, yet too short to allow true middle distance tactics to emerge.”

    At the Elite level 800’s are run at roughly (in my opinion) 1:42 high -> 1:45 low with a few being sub 1:43…….I can only wonder if Shon Gross realizes how fast that is? As a short sprinter who also enjoyed the 800m as a runner and fan I look at 1:45 runners in total amazement and anything under that as ridiculous (in a good way), I would love to see more 1:43 and faster but anyone that thinks that running in lanes for more than a stagger would help the results is just not giving enough credit to the athletes and what they run. (Just my take)

    • I think if we start seeing collisions at the break (@100m) then we might see a rule change. The other problem is when you have more than 8 runners on a 8 lane track. Today, we commonly see 2 runners share a lane, or 3 runners share a 2 lane “box”. You cannot be a lane judge/official and track 2 runners in the same lane.

  • I think the author is wrong about the nature of the 800. the 400 and 800 are light years apart. 400 speed well get you 1/2 of the way through the race as you suffer an agonizing death over the last 400. The 800 is an speed and endurance event. The reason that you don’t see a lot of 400/800 guys is because you simply cannot sprint for a half mile. I moved up but I have always had a fair amount of endurance and some speed. There is speed and then there is speed. Most 800/400 people an faster than average, but would never beat a pure sprinter in the 100 or 200. People like easy classifications like sprinter or distance, but a good 800 person is neither a sprinter nor distance guy or gal. they can run fast and can run long. Indeed they must train all 3 energy systems. This makes the 800 complicated, but beautiful. Running in lanes simply tries to make the 800 into a sprint but it is not. I like the pack and the tactics.

  • Times would be significantly slower:
    1. No drafting/rabbiting, meaning each runner must deal with air resistance for at least 500 meters.
    2. The 800 is a race of deceleration. Running a 3 turn stagger would result in people racing to the cut-in and then hanging on for dear life in the last 300.
    3. Drawing the outside lanes would be an enormous disadvantage. Not being able to see where you stand in relation to the competition until approximately 250 meters to go.

    Author’s idea is almost as bad as making an 800 meter steeple chase.

  • A very bad idea. Tactics are great in the 800m, and making it into a long sprint for the first 500m would make it less interesting. We need to make our sport more interesting, not less interesting.

  • I’d even opt for a waterfall start for the 800 over a 2-turn stagger or longer if push came to shove. The 800 is best described as a tactical sprint. Racing an 800 requires tactical abilities, and nothing tests one’s tactical abilities like a waterfall start. As was mentioned above, with a staggered start the runners in the outside lanes are at a disadvantage tactically. I see no real difference between potential problems in a waterfall start and the observable merge problems evident in the current one-turn stagger.

  • David,

    I am tired of everyone saying that the 800 is a sprint. I think that because long distance types are so slow, they view anything faster than 5K pace as a sprint, but it is not. Try sprinting the 800 and you will be dead after 300 meters. The 800 requires speed and but also requires endurance. You can’t succeed without one or the other. The waterfall start is not ideal. I have been in many races, where a slow person dashes to the front and the slows down in a waterfall start and causes all kinds of chaos and falls.

  • I must say that everyone, including the author of this item, is overlooking the fact that the existing 1 turn stagger is already unfair on the runner in lane 1; a 3 turn stagger would multiply the unfairness.

    The solution numerically is to take the stagger off of the bend and put it in the straight This would mean that the starting/winning post would be about 25 metres down the home straight to accommodate 200 and 400 metre races as well.

    This is not a perfect solution, but it does minimise the current unfairness. It makes no change to the runner in lane 1; but the runners in all other lanes would run a full bend and the product of force required to negotiate the bend multiplied by the time on the bend would be the same for all lanes for a given speed. I think that moving the stagger to the straight would be absolutely essential when considering a 3 turn stagger.

    My idea of a novelty 800m race would be like a sprint race in cycling: half the competitors starting on the opposite side of the track. It would cut down the unfairness between inside and outside lanes with only 4 lanes in use. Moreover, it would be a real test of pace judgement. To “sit and kick” might “win” one half of the field, but end up as 5th overall in the race.

    • @Colin, that’s why an outdoor 500m would be awesome. Start everyone at the normal 100m line, then break for the pole… it would be ~60 secs of pure hell.