Running a PR in Track: 12 Tips for a Breakthrough Performance
This article is for high school runners who run the 800m or 1600m or 3200m and are “stuck” at a certain time/performance. I know this is extremely frustrating for you. Here are 12 tips from my 20+ years of coaching that will help you break through to a new PR.
Before we dive into the tips, I need you to embrace two ideas.
The first is that you and your coach must agree on the “next logical step” is in terms of PRs. So often we look at barriers – 2:20 in the 800m for girls and 2:00 for boys – are two common goals for athletes. Whether you run the 3200m or the 1600m or the 800m (or all of them), you need to identify your next logical step.
The second thing you need to do is to be honest that when it comes to racing...
If you want to do things you’ve never done before, you’ve got to do things you’ve never done before.
Specifically, you’re going to have to take a risk in the race that you haven’t up to this point. I know this is scary, and that your fear of failure is real.
If you want to have a breakthrough performance and run a PR, you’ve got to do this.
Talk to your coach to get confirmation that you have the fitness to run the PR. Then coach yourself by telling yourself, “I do hard things.” I know this is true, that you do hard things, even though I don’t know you. You’ve trained for months, and you’ve done dozens of hard workouts, right? You’ve trained in bad weather and still executed the day’s training plan, right? Trust me – you’ve got the mental skills needed to PR! You’ve got this!
So be honest about the next logical step is and be honest that you’ve got to do something in the next race you’ve never done before.
On to the 12 tips. There are two for the 800m, two for the 1600m, and two for the 3200m, as well as tips that apply generally to running PRs.
Here we go!
1. Honesty and 800m
When you’re racing 800m be honest that with 500m to go, you’re going to be uncomfortable. There’s almost no chance that you’re going to run a PR and feel great down the backstretch on the second lap.
The good news is that when you go into the race knowing that you’re going to have to endure a lot of discomfort in the last 300m of the race, you’ll race faster. Just be honest that a great 800m race is going to hurt...and then say to yourself, “I do hard things.”
2. Honesty and 1600m
If you want to PR in the 1600m against quality competition, be honest that you’re going to have to cover moves. Typically, this is going to happen on lap two or three, but it could happen at the end of the first lap. When someone starts to pull away from you, you’ll need to go with them (assuming they don’t make a crazy move and sprint for 20m-30m). Covering a move could also mean going with someone who passes you and is speeding up.
The bottom line is that you’ll almost certainly have to cover at least one move, if not several, to run a breakthrough PR.
3. Honesty and 3200m
Be honest that you can’t let the pace slow on lap 5, 6, and the first half of lap 7 if you’re going to run a PR. You’ve got to go into the race knowing that you’re going to be uncomfortable in those laps, so you’ll have to “be comfortable being uncomfortable.”
Go back to the fact that you’ve done hard things for months to be ready to run a 3200m PR. The race is so short compared to progression runs and your long runs you’ve done.
If you can just get to the 200m mark on lap 7, where you have 600m to go, all you have to do is “Compete!” and beat a person or two and you’ll likely PR.
This is a simple plan, but as the jazz pianist Thelonious Monk said, “Simple ain’t easy.”
A PR won’t come easy, and, you’ll feel fantastic when you run one.
4. 800m: Consider a 3-4 Second Positive Split
As you probably know, the best way to run the 800m is with a positive split race – which simply means that the first 400m is faster than the second 400m (check out this article if you’re unfamiliar with this concept).
Most of the time, you want a 1-2 second positive split (2.5 seconds often makes a lot of sense, too).
What you and your coach should consider is going out hard the first 200m-300m in your next 800m race and possibly running a 3-4 second positive split. This is aggressive and it may not work, but two things will happen.
First, the race is going to continue to improve your ability to deal with lactate. This leads to the second reason: your ability to run the second 400m faster in subsequent races increases because it’s in that second lap that your body is dealing with more lactate.
Another way to look at it is if you don’t change the pace of the second 400m that you’ve run in the past few meets, but you do run the first 400m faster in your next race, then you’ll PR.
The issue here for most athletes is the fear of failure. “If you want to do things you’ve never done before, then you’ve got to do things you’ve never done before.” Embrace this, remind yourself that you do hard things, and as I said above, know that the hard thing you’ll do in your next 800m race is endure discomfort from the 500m mark to the finish.
5. 1600m: Move with 500m To Go
Most 1600m runners will finish a race and have their third lap be the slowest lap.
Kelly Christensen, the girl’s and boy’s coach at Niwot High School (CO), calls this the “3rd lap problem.” It makes sense that if you can fix this lap and not let the pace slow from the pace you ran in the first two laps, the chance that you’ll PR is high.
Making a move with 500m to go helps with the third lap problem.
First, you’ll be mentally engaged with 600m to go, a time in the race when the pace often slows because you’re anticipating speeding up in 100m when you come off the curve.
Second, when you make a move with 500m to go there is 100m before the bell lap that will be faster than what you typically run.
The third reason is simple: When you commit to going with 500m to go, the chance that you can run down people in front of you is very high.
I wrote a concise article on going “Fast, Faster, Fastest” in the last 500m of a 1600m.
6. 3200m: Chunk the Race into 600m/2000m/600m
Above, we agreed that a 3200m runner mustn't let the pace slow in laps 5, 6, and the first half of 7. One way to ensure this is to break the race into three chunks.
The first chunk is the first 600m of the race. The goal here is to get into a good position by the middle of the second lap before you head into the second curve. There is plenty of time to do this. You want to “latch on” to other runners that are running the pace you need to run to PR.
For the next 5 laps – 2000m – you simply need to “groove and move.” You need to groove the pace and stay as relaxed as possible. “Be comfortable being uncomfortable” in these laps. If you feel the pace slowing, you need to move up to the runners in front of you. If someone comes past you, you will probably want to make a move to follow them and tuck in behind them.
Lap 7 is typically when things slow, but you’re going to start to run faster halfway through that lap. With 600m to go, the goal is to run “Fast, Faster, Fastest” in whatever way feels right or that you and your coach decide going into the race. The key with 600m to go is that you commit yourself to moving up and passing people. Most of your competition is checked out at this point in the race because they feel like they’re too far from the finish. Don’t make the same mistake, and instead, start to move with 600m to go.
There you go – two tips for each track distance you’ll be racing.
We’ll go through the rest of these a bit faster yet know that they are just as important as the racing tips.
“Sleep is like the secret ingredient in the recipe of running success.” - Consistency Is Key, page 117.
I’ll keep this one simple. You must support your training and racing with sleep. I know this is extremely hard in the last 4-6 weeks of the track season. Not only are you training and racing, but the academic year is coming to an end, and you likely have end-of-the-year school functions. And...
You must be honest that sleep is crucial for performance, so do everything you can to get as much sleep as possible.
It’s so easy to get behind on hydration over the course of several days. One of the simple things to do is to always have a water bottle with you and drink throughout the day. You and your coach (and parents and family doctor) should understand hyponatremia, so make sure you’re getting plenty of electrolytes in addition to water.
9. Do Some Soft Tissue Work
I’m leery of massage guns/tools as I think they can easily beat up your tissue/fascia, but I’m very much a fan of a modest amount of soft tissue massage. Just 5 minutes of work on the calves, hamstrings, and quads with your hands will help your legs feel better for the next workout. That said, be mindful that you don’t overdo this work, especially when practice gets shorter and there is more time for this work.
...and don’t go crazy with foam rolling in the final weeks of the year as you can do more harm than good if you overdo it.
10. Do Some Mobility 60-90 Minutes Before Bed
Doing some mobility work 60-90 minutes before bed is going to help you feel better in the next run/workout/race. Leg swings and the six exercises that are done on the ground in this routine are all great and will take just 6-7 minutes.
11. Trust the Plan (and Trust Your Coach)
You’ve got to trust the plan you and your coach have come up with when you toe the line. Start this process of trusting the plan at least 48 hours before your race. Double-check that you and your coach are on the same page with the plan. Trust that they are giving a plan and a goal that’s achievable – they want you to succeed just as much as you want to PR!
Running a PR will be hard, and, you do hard things. Say that to yourself a few times during your warm-up - “I do hard things.” When you toe the line, you’ll be a bit nervous, but you should also be excited because you’ve got a great chance of running a PR.
It’s worth saying again...
If you want to do things you’ve never done before, you’ve got to do things you’ve never done before.
12. Remember That the Chance to Compete Is a Gift
The opportunity to compete in high school track is a gift. Don't assume you'll have more fun as a collegiate athlete or as a fast adult road racer. Focus on this week's meet and savor the chance to compete in your school's uniform.
I wish you the best! When you run a PR, thank your coach, and thank your teammates for pushing you in training. If you’re on social media you can tag me at @coachjayjohnson on Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube – I'd love to see your smiling face after your new PR!
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