XC Training System

How the 800m is different from XC - John O'Malley Weighs In

Transcript - 6 min read time

This excerpt is from the Mental Skills for High School Runners course.

John O'Malley - MS - 800m Mentality for High School Runners 

Jay: I want to start this off with a very simple question: How does the mentality change from somebody who's successful in 5k cross country who's also going to be on a state qualifying or even a state champion 4x800m relay?  

John: Well, I think there's two significant things. There's probably many things, but the first thing I think of when I hear that question is the obvious one, which is the 800m is incredibly more intense. When you think about your tactics... A lot of the way you mentally digest the 5K cross-country race is about pacing and tactics are much less significant in a cross country race or even a 3,200m race than there are in an 800m race. There's just way less time to make up ground. There's mistakes that you can make in the first 10 seconds of the 800m that will impact the next 700 meters.  

And while that's true of every race I just think it's amplified when it's shrunk down to two minutes vs. 15 minutes. And in some ways, your tactics in a 3,200m are kind of boring. When I think about kids, I have taken to state in a 3,200m it's kind of like, “Well, here's the time we're shooting for – this is the pace.”  

Jay: You just got to lock in and grind it out.  

John: I'm going to be calling out splits... 

Jay: and we're just getting on the train and going. 

John: Exactly. And that's definitely not how the 800m is.  

We’re getting rid of the “comfortably hard" thought process. You've got to be ready to be a hundred times more intense.  

If you think about the duration of it, the 800m is 12% of the duration of a 5k. It's the difference between like a 200m and a 1600m, that's a huge proportionate difference.  

Jay: Wow. I've never thought of that. That proportion's so interesting when you put it in that context. 

John: Yeah. We tend to lump distance runners into that, but that's a huge range. You would never lump a 200m runner with a 1600m runner.  

So just wrapping your brain around the intensity of it. You’re not wading into the water. You are diving in and embracing that intensity. And that it's going to start hurting quickly in that race. And, you know, you got to be a little crazy mentality with that, kind of like a pole vaulter mentality...just embracing the craziness of it.  

So those are the two things.  

Your mental approach to how it's going to feel, how you're going to get off the line and then the tactics of it. I think those are the two things you got to kind of translate and kind of change and adapt from the cross country or a longer race to the 800m.  

Jay: Are you somebody who believes we're probably running a negative split race or at the most an even split race in the 800m? You just described it well, how they're different. But for somebody who's been successful in cross country running a negative split race, they’re probably going to run a positive split 800m, meaning our first 400mm is faster than our second 400m. 

John: Yeah, absolutely. And that's something you’ve got to know. It is a very unique race in the idea that it is one of the few races that running a little bit slower in the second lap is actually optimal. It's the best way to do it.  

And as you point out in the longer races, that's certainly not true. You don't want to be dying and dying and dying as the race goes on.  

The thing is, it doesn't feel that way.  

You're slowing down (in an 800m), but it doesn't feel like you're slowing down. You think you're kicking -  and you are kicking - but you're really not speeding up. So, when you get the feedback, if you're looking at splits for your race, you may initially look at that and say, “Oh man, I got to go out slower next time. I've got to really focus on that second lap.” 

The reality is you need to have a balance there. You need to get out fast. But you're not going to be able to run as fast in the second lap, because there's something more efficient. The positioning - and there is some free energy early on that you take advantage of - that you don’t need to in the 5k. It's not really going to show up in the 5k, but in such short races, it does show up.  

To give you an example, I have done ridiculous amounts of research on 4x800m relays at the Illinois State Championships for 12 years. I went back and looked at all the videos and I had a stopwatch for every single team. And to be clear, you're talking about other teams. You're not just talking to your team, you're trying to figure out what is this event in our state. Basically, doing research. 

Jay: John, this sounds like a football coach or a basketball coach looking at film.  

John: Exactly. And I want to talk about that later too.  

One of the most valuable things you could do is watch. And you think something is going on in the race, and oftentimes you look for information that confirms what you think is going on in the race, but to sit down and objectively look at it with a stopwatch is totally different.  

In any event, I broke down the top five teams in Illinois. These are all teams running 7:40s in the 4x800m every year for 12 years. Other than the anchor leg, which will have a stud on it, the first three legs, there were a total of three athletes who broke 60 seconds on the second lap, over 12 years. In the first three legs.  

Now the anchor legs, those guys are studs, and you'll have some guys closing still under 60, but you're talking about kids running 1:56, 1:55, 1:57, and none of them are breaking 60 the second lap.  

All of that is to say is if you're slowing down a little bit, that's normal and that split is not something to freak out about or say, “I got to overcorrect that.” Because you need position in the 800m, you need to embrace getting out in an intense way.  

Now, if your split difference between the first lap and the second lap is five seconds, that's too much. Then you went out too fast.  

But if it's two seconds, if it's three seconds, you're right on. You want to run about two or three seconds slower the second lap than the first lap, and if you're near there, you're good.  

The other way I'd evaluate that is the way I evaluate it when I'm looking at splits early on in the season. That gap is going to be much larger early on because the amount of work you've done - specific work - is less than what you're doing later on. You haven't raced as much 

Jay: So what you're saying is, in an early season race, this idea of we are aggressive in the first "X” number of meters...it almost sounds like at the beginning of the season, your first 200m is still pretty good, maybe more similar to the first 100m, 200m, 300m, is actually pretty similar to what you're aiming for in May.  

John: Bingo.  

So, a sub 2:00 runner - obviously easy to do the math - you're talking 32 second 200s. I'll have guys who run sub 2:00 every year, and the first couple invitationals, they may lay down like a 34 on their last 200m, and I'm thinking, “Yep. We're good. Don't change the first lap.” That's going to come down because that intensity and that anaerobic quality is just going to improve, and improve, and improve. 

And then that's the part of the race that shrinks. I'm fine with that. What I don't want you to do is hit the break on the first lap. This will come around in May.  

This excerpt is from the Mental Skills for High School Runners course. Make sure to get my weekly emails for High School coaches - just share your email below.