How anaerobic is the 800m?

The 800m might not be as anaerobic as you think. In terms of energy produced from aerobic/anaerobic processes during the race itself, common knowledge used to be that it was 50/50. Which makes some sense, right? I for one, really starts to feel the acidosis at the bell, which is half the distance. The 800m is the middle distance, it requires both speed, endurance and the ability to tolerate lactic acid really well. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to experience the anaerobic nature of the 800m, you know what I’m talking about. But how anaerobic is the 800m?

Science explains:

A study has been conducted. It consisted of five 200, 400, 800 and 1500m-runners that were all instructed to run on a threadmill at race pace for their respective distances, while the aerobic/anaerobic energy contribution was measured using the AOD-method (Accumulated Oxygen Deficit). The results can be seen in the table below:

aerobic anaerobic energy system distribution

As can be seen, the energy contribution from aerobic processes is a lot greater than first assumed. The 400m is even closer to being 50/50, than the 800m, which seemingly is dominantly aerobic.

So what are the key takeaways?

  1. First of all, even 200m and 400m sprints are substantially aerobic, which means that sprinters definitely should pay some attention to aerobic conditioning if they want to reach their maximum potential. It also explains why coach Clyde Hart’s 400m runners consistently are among the worlds best; his 400m training philosophy includes more aerobic conditioning and interval training than those of other sprint coaches.
  2. This explains why some 800m runners succeed on high milage. Runners like the only double Olympic 800m champion Peter Snell, or Olympic 800m champion Steve Ovett were running respectively 160km (100miles) and 180-190km (115miles) weeks for base training. Aerobic capacity is a really crucial factor in an 800m-performance. However, I am not saying those guys also didn’t do anaerobic training, they had their fair share of that before they were ready to race.

How should this affect the way we train?

One important thing to remember while we draw conclusions are that since these distances are more aerobic than previously assumed, the training for these distances might also be more aerobic than previously assumed. Therefore it might not be necessary for you to go rip apart your training plan and build a new and more aerobic one yet. Traditional 800m-specific “anaerobic” training is probably a lot more aerobic than previously thought, so the question one should be asking is wether that kind of training, because of it’s aerobic component, also improves aerobic capacity.

Personally I think the question above all boils down to individual differences. Some people develop aerobic capacity easiest by doing high milage and lots of volume, while other runners just get their life pounded out of them by doing that and would benefit a lot more from lower volume and interval training. Runners respond differently to different training, especially for the 800m where runners have run fast and won Olympic gold with anything from 40km/week (Juantorena) to 190km/week (Ovett). Try out different approaches to training and listen to your body and you’ll soon find what you respond the best to.

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