Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Solving the 800m Puzzle

By Frank Horwill

This article was written when Frank Horwill was attached to the Vaal Triangle Technikon in South Africa

South African 800m runners have it in their power to break the 800m world record of 1 min 41.7secs held by Sebastian Coe for nearly a decade [editor's note: this record has since been overtaken].

The good signs are that in South Africa there are three sub-46secs men for 400m who are racing the 800m as well, and a further six runners with times between 46 and 47 seconds. Coe’s best 400 metres time is 46.82 but he recorded 45.7secs in a 4 x 400m relay. It is clear that in the speed requirements zone South African runners are slightly superior to Coe’s maximum speed for short distances. The problem to solve is finding the endurance to run two laps back to back in 50.8secs each.

Broadly speaking 800 metre runners can be divided into three categories:

  1. Those possessing superior speed at 400m, in the range from 44 to 46 seconds who race mainly 400 and 800 metres only. These are invariably tall, well-built athletes, who are heavier than the longer middle-distance men, their weekly mileage is around 45 kilometres, mostly high quality work. They have a poor conversion ratio per 400m in the two-lap race compared to their best 400m time. This figure is usually eight seconds, eg best 400m = 45 secs +8 = 53 secs x 2 = 1 min 46 secs. Juantorena and Courtney, both Olympic gold medallists in the 800m fall into this category.
  2. Those possessing good speed at 400m, in the range from 46 to 48 seconds, who race mainly 800m but have good performances at 1500m. They tend to weigh less than those in the first group, and run around 90 kilometres per week, about a third of it being high quality work at 1500m and 800m speed. They possess a better conversion figure per 400m of seven seconds, eg best 400m – 47 secs + 7 = 54 x 2 = 1:48. Ralph Doubell (Aus) is an example of this group, who gained an Olympic 800m medal and equaled the work record. He was also a prodigious sub 4 minute miler and sub 3 mins 40 secs 1500m runner.
  3. Those possessing moderate speed at 400m from 48 to 50 seconds who race mainly the 1500m and take part in 800m races to add speed to their main event. This group tend to be very ectomorphic in build and have a weekly mileage of 135 kilometres average. They have a good conversion figure per 400m in the 800m ranging from 4 to 6 seconds. Coe being a typical example with a best of 47 secs/400m + 4 secs = 51 secs x 2 = 1 min 42 secs. (Actual world record 1:41.7) also Steve Cram, Peter Elliot and Steve Ovett. However with regard to weekly mileage Seb Coe does not fit into this category, averaging only 90 Kilometres. It should be remembered that Coe still holds the world 1000m record of 2 mins 12.18secs (An average of 26.4secs per 200m and 1:45.6 at 800m). This time indicates extraordinary speed and endurance capabilities.

The problem facing the 800m runner is how to increase endurance on the one hand without losing speed, and how to increase speed without losing endurance. When this problem is solved a runner with a basic speed of Juantorena over 400m (44.3), and the endurance of Coe will run 44.3 + 4 = 48.3 x 2 = 1 min 36.6!

Lydiard is on record as saying that all 800m runners should build up to 160km a week of steady running and to hold it at that level for 10 weeks. This is then followed by six weeks of fartlek hill running every other day, where the athlete ascends the hill (preferably a long one) with a high-knee raise action landing on the ball of the foot; once at the summit of the hill the athlete jogs to a point 400m away, turns around and runs back fast down the hill; once at the bottom he continues to run fast to a point 400m away, and then starts another ascent. The total number of ascents is built up to 10k. The following three months is spent acquiring speed which includes running the actual 800m distance at different efforts, for example, three-quarters effort is 10 seconds slower than one’s best for the distance and would appear as 4 x 800m three-quarters effort with 800m jog. Half effort would be a further 10 seconds addition e.g. 8 x 800m 1/2 effort with 400m jog recovery.

However, the well-known coach and athletics writer, Karikosk (Estonia), tried the Lydiard method with Soviet athletes and reported a decline in actual performance, and stated that athletes possessing superior speed (44 – 46 secs/400m), were "psychologically and physiologically unsuited to long steady running and unhappy at being away from speed work for long spells".

One of the training principles being postulated with great vigour in the distance coaching world is to work the energy system indicated physiologically for the event. In 1932 AV Hill declared that the 800 metres was 67 percent anaerobic and 33 per cent aerobic. Aerobic running includes all types of running where the predominant amount of oxygen required is breathed in during the activity. This includes:

Marathon pace
Half marathon

Anaerobic work includes:

All sprint distances up to 400m (100 to 83%), 800m pace (67%), 1,500m pace (50%). The ratio for the 800m trainer is two anaerobic sessions to one aerobic. A specimen schedule in the summer based on this allocation would look like this:

Day 1
1 hour run at marathon pace (3 mins 45 secs/km) (98%)
Day 2
8 x 100m full out, walk back recovery (100% anaerobic)
Day 3

4 x 400m at 800m pace target speed, 400m walk recovery (67% anaerobic).

5 mins rest – 4 x 200 full out, 400m jog recovery. (95% anaerobic)

Day 4
Aerobic 45 minutes run at half-marathon speed (3 mins 35 secs/km) (94%)
Day 5
Anaerobic 1 x 350, 1 x 300, 1 x 250, 1 x 200 full ou, walk 400m recovery after each (83% anaerobic)
Day 6
Day 7
Anaerobic 6m x 267m (One third 800m) at target 800m pace with 2 mins rest (67% anaerobic) 5 mins rest 6 x 60 sprint.
Day 8
Aerobic 30 mins run at 10k pace (3.25/km) (90% aerobic)
Day 9
Anaerobic 4 x 200m full out with 30 secs rest. 10 mins rest and repeat (95% anaerobic)
Day 10
Start day 1 again

During the winter period the aerobic and anaerobic ratio is reversed (67% aerobic, 33% anaerobic) for three months, then to 50 per cent aerobic and 50% anaerobic for three months.

Coe’s approach to the 800m training cycle was that training had to include work at 1,500 pace, and since he always trained at paces above and below pace, his cycle involved in the summer:

Day 1
3k pace – 60% aerobic – 3 x 1,500 3 mins rest
Day 2
1 hour fast run at half-marathon speed (94% aerobic)
Day 3 800m pace – 4 x 400 in 52 secs with 3 mins rest (67% Anaerobic)
Day 4 45 mins run steady run (98% aerobic)
Day 5
1500 pace – 4 x 800 in 1:54 with 3 mins rest (50% aerobic)
Day 6
Day 7
30 mins acceleration run (10 min slow, 10 mins steady, 10 mins fast) (90% aerobic)
Day 8
400m pace – 1 x 350, 1 x 300, 1 x 250, 1 x 200, full-out, walk 400m recovery (83% Anerobic)
Day 9 1 hour fast run (94% aerobic)
Day 10
5k pace – 5 x 1k in 2 mins 40 secs with 45 secs rest (80% aerobic)
Day 11 45 mins steady run (98% aerobic)
Day 12
Start Day 1 again

It will be noted that Coe appears to have realised that he did not possess super 400m speed, and compensated for this by severe aerobic work. He was virtually able to run two 800s back to back in 1:53.5 to record a 3 mins 47.33 mile. However, he confessed that he could run 47 secs for 400m at anytime of the year.

An interesting statistic is that age 24 years is the most likely time for a male athlete to run his fastest 800m, he can run fast times up to 30 years of age but age 24 is the peak time, a comforting fact for runners like Hezekiel Sepeng, who has recorded 1:45.30/800 while under 20 years of age. Will he become the man to break the 800m world record for South Africa? He is note a strict 400/800 type runner. His best 400m/46.75 puts him in the Coe category, with a conversion figure of 5.9 secs i.e. 46:75 + 5.9 = 52:65 x 2 = 1:45.30/800. If he can get this conversion figure down to 4 seconds i.e. 46:75 + 4 = 50.75 x 2 = 1:41.50, the world record will be his by two-tenths of a second. An exciting prospect for South Africa.


Name 400m Time 800m Time
400m Differential 1500m Time Volume
Coe 46.82 1:41.73 46.82 + 4 secs x 2
3:29.71 400km/month
46.00 + 4 secs x 2 3:36.4
Juantorena 44.26
44.26 + 7.5 secs x 2
Wohlhuter 48.2
48.2 + 3.5 secs x 2 3:36.4
Wulbeck 47.83
47.83 + 4 secs x 2 3:33.74
Fiasconoro 45.5
45.5 + 6.3 secs x 2 Nil
Van Damme 46.4
1:43.8 46.4 + 5.5 secs x 2 3:36.26

It will be noted that Wohlhuter’s 800m time is two laps just 3.5secs slower than his best time for 400m. However, Juantorena could only manager a 7.5 secs differential. The latter’s training volume per months was nearly three times less than Wohlhuter.