Track and field for Masters Athletes 7: 400m Training Program

News Article / December 7, 2020

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This is the seventh in a series of articles covering all aspects of Masters Athletes’ training and nutrition for track and field events. Here, we will take a look at how properly planned training will greatly impact your success.

By Major Serge Faucher

400m Training Program

I must first thank everyone who has read all of my articles thus far. One part of my motivation since day one has been to attract new athletes to my sport, and the other is to educate. Since the technical terminology will keep coming back with each and every article I write, I just could not jump right into a training program without covering the basics first. The 400m program that I propose in this article forms the basis for my own personalized training plan. It is a canvas to work from that has all the proper distribution of exercises and energy systems needed to succeed at that particular distance. 

Programs exist for all distances and disciplines on the internet, and you must choose the one that will meet your needs. At first, I would recommend that you follow any established program for your distance or event pretty strictly. As time goes by, and you become more knowledgeable about training and your own abilities, the plan will require changes and updates to meet your specific aims and objectives.

Energy Systems Distribution

As I’ve said many times, training for the 400-metre is tough. In fact, this sprinting event is known to be one of the most gruelling tasks in track and field, and the training itself is likely to induce vomiting in some individuals. I’ve met many talented short sprinters (100m/200m) that have great potential for the 400m distance, given the proper training. Unfortunately, most will shy away from the needed training, and will often say to me, “you guys are just crazy”.  Yes, I must admit that we are a special breed! As I often say, “we’re wired differently from most”.

Craziness aside, one of the major issues with the 400m is that training for this event has been confusing for several years for athletes and coaches alike. No one seems to agree with what works best. Many years ago it was stated that the 400 was 90% anaerobic and 10% aerobic. This thinking obviously led to coaches designing programs that were almost exclusively anaerobic. Such programs included flat-out sprints and long rests between repetitions. A typical 400-metre training session might have included five 150s at maximum pace, and finished off with two 300s. This leaves nothing in the tank at the end of the workout, and will surely affect other workouts that week. I can confidently say that when I’m done with a 5 X 150m @ 95% effort, my day is done. I could not envision doing a pair of 300s right after! Note that you should always finish a workout when you have enough energy to do one more quality rep. Doing this will keep you fresh for the next workout.

Table 1 shows the relationship between energy contribution and various race distances. It would appear that the 5000m, 10000m, and Marathon need very little speed and anaerobic training. This would be incorrect, since many high-level 5000m races come down to a blistering last lap after “cruising” for 4600m. If you want to be a high-performance long distance runner, you will have to pay attention to speed training as well, since it cannot be neglected.

TABLE 1 - Energy contribution vs. race distance

Research has discovered that 400m training is actually closer to 60% anaerobic and 40% aerobic. The reasoning behind the 40% aerobic value is that athletes need to build up a sufficient base by doing enough volume at a consistent intensity. Going flat-out during training means that only the first 10% of the session is actually useful. By going the distance and keeping performance the same throughout, the athlete is able to gradually build more tolerance for running a given pace over 400 metres.

According to Brian Mackenzie, one of the leading innovators in human performance on stress adaptation, the 400m sprinter derives 14% of his fuel from the anaerobic Alactic (phosphagen) energy system, 48% from the anaerobic lactic (glycolytic) energy system, and 38% from the aerobic energy system. These numbers are in line with the 60/40 ratio discussed earlier. While other experts have slightly different figures, they are nonetheless close.

Training Loads for the 400m

As a serious athlete, my goal is to have you thinking in terms of energy system training, and being ready to go beyond sets, reps and rest, and deciding which energy system you are training each week, and asking yourself why. Once you understand this, you can then ask your coach informed questions or build your own successful program.

We can divide the Alactic, Lactic, and Aerobic energy systems into “power” and “capacity” sub-segments. Some coaches and academics will use a different nomenclature such as Speed (Sp), Speed endurance (SpE), Special endurance (SE), etc., which accomplishes the same goal. These sub-segments will help guide you to the amount of volume dedicated to each rep, how much recovery you will need, the distance of each rep, and what will be your total volume for that particular energy system.

The following table provides standard training loads for the development of each energy system for the 400m athlete. You must pay particular attention to the maximum total distance (last column) in each workout.  If you don’t, you risk overtraining and injury. The "% effort" column is calculated using the 400m athlete’s current 100m fastest time.

TABLE 2 – Energy systems

The body should be put gradually under stress (load) in training runs. Repeated stress runs over several months will gradually condition the body to handle more stress. The takeaway I offer in this article is a steady progress from quantity to quality. Continually reloading will keep the 400m runner strong, fresh and able to improve and get better.

Training for Speed

You can’t lose speed if you stay strong. Speed and strength are the same, and are extremely important in 400-metre training. Without max pace training and excessive speed work as a program staple, you will need to acquire strength and power another way. This is accomplished in the weight room and through short, consistent plyometric sessions. The plyometric sessions and Olympic lifting I will recommend in a future article will aid in developing necessary strength and power.

The Plan

This basic training plan is based on three phases where each phase comprises a repeated four-week program. The workload in the first three weeks increases each week (easy, medium, and hard), and the fourth week focusses on active recovery and tests to monitor training progress. I call those my “down weeks”. Remember that a training program is athlete-specific, and the results of the tests in the fourth week can be used to adjust the training in the next four week cycle to address any limitations. The content and quantity of training in each week and phase will depend on many factors. My previous articles provided insight into the process of data gathering and preparing a training program.

Standard Program for the 400m Athlete

The following analysis is based on an example of a 400m training program for a Masters athlete that contains the correct distribution of energy systems. Before starting any training, it is recommended that you have a medical examination to ensure that it is safe for you to do so. Furthermore, each training session should include an appropriate warm-up before the session and cool-down after the session.

As I said before, each phase of this program comprises three weeks of progressively hard work followed by a testing week. For ease of explaining the concepts, I will only cover one week for each phase in order to highlight the energy systems distribution in each. Note that 3 x 400 (80%) [3'] means three repetitions of 400 metres, run at 80% effort (all percentages are based on your best 100m time), with 3 minutes recovery between each repetition.

Analysis of Phase I (Base Building)

TABLE 3 – Generic Phase I week

Aerobic Capacity – In this workout, you will run longer intervals (1600m or more) at a comfortable pace (45-55% intensity). The intensity should be close to your 10Km race pace if you’ve ever run one. The maximum volume of work should not exceed 8Km, excluding warm-up and cool down. This means that, for example, I would run mile (1600m) repeats between 7:00 and 9:24 min. These may seem long for the average sprinter, but keep in mind that this is early in the season, and you are building your base after a layoff (rest period) of one or two months. The goal is to augment the amount of capillaries in your leg muscles and push your VO2 Max up. An 800m or 1500m runner would have even more volume in his or her schedule.  Over the next two weeks (or longer), the intervals will increase to 2000m, and then to 2400m.  Since I try to keep my time on the track (running) to no more than three times a week, these long intervals might be done on a rowing machine in the same ratio as if I was running them.

Notice that there are two Anaerobic Lactic Capacity workouts each week in Phase I. Because the Aerobic Capacity workouts have quite a bit of volume in Phase I, we are trying to maintain that 60/40 ratio between these energy systems. Running 7 X 400m at 65-75% intensity with only 2 minutes of rest is quite challenging. For me, this means running them in 66 to 77 seconds each. By the third rep, I’m feeling the steady creep of lactic acid as I complete each one. I will increase the distance by 100m each week from 400m to 700m, while keeping the total volume to under 3000m of work during each session.

Anaerobic lactic power. At this stage, it is merely an introduction to some faster leg turnover early in the training process. As expected, the distance and rest period is short, and the intensity is fairly high (but not all out). I like to do those on the soccer pitch, once again due to the reduced impact on my aging body. In the past, I’ve pushed those workouts up to 40 X 100m with only one minute of rest after each rep; all done in less than 16 seconds each. Needless to say, these workouts are quite challenging as they still focus on lactic acid buildup!  One workout you may like is what I call “corners”. You essentially run the corners (112m) on the soccer pitch while walking behind the goals (50m) for your rest period, thus running in a “X” pattern (see caption). I never use a watch for this workout as a way to reduce stress and keep it fun. Easiest way is to break the workout down into sets of 8s or 10s with a 5-min break in between.

In Phase I, I take only one day off each week. While the volume is higher, the intensity is relatively low. The chance of getting injured is remote at this point unless you do too much too quickly.

Analysis of Phase II (Pre-Competitive)

TABLE 4 – Generic Phase II week

In Phase II, aerobic capacity gives way to aerobic power. As your aerobic fitness progresses, you should gradually increase the stress on your body. To accomplish this, the volume of those aerobic sessions is reduced while the intensity increases. The pace of such sessions can now be compared to a 5Km race pace. Instead of doing 1600/2000/2400m reps, I’ll reduce them to 1000/1200/1600m.

In Phase II, anaerobic lactic capacity sessions are reduced from twice to once each week. This allows the athlete to introduce a session of anaerobic alactic capacity instead. I call these sessions at the track “my bread and butter” workouts, as they closely mimic my 400m race speed. Workouts associated with this energy system usually follow the ensuing weekly progress: 5 X 150m, 4 X 200m, 3 X 250m, and 2 X 300m, all done at 400m race pace. Rest between reps in those sessions range from 6 to 15 min.

In Phase II we also see the introduction of anaerobic alactic power. This is what I call “pure speed”, which is normally done at 95-100% intensity (essentially, your full-out sprints). I’ll usually start with 10 X 30m and work my way to 4 X 80m as I progress from week to week. I try to do these sessions on grass whenever I can; it is much gentler on the body. 

Notice that we now take two days off each week in Phase II. How you arrange your training days and days off is up to you.

Analysis of Phase IIII (Competitive)

TABLE 5 – Generic Phase III week

Aerobic power is still present in Phase III, but the distance is once again reduced while the intensity increases to something akin to a 3000m race pace.

Anaerobic lactic power is back from Phase I, and replaces anaerobic lactic capacity sessions. Once again, quality over quantity at this stage.

In this Phase, you could carry on with anaerobic alactic capacity introduced in Phase II and concentrate in doing more quality runs of 250m and 300m (the long sprints). While I have done this for many years, I’ve recently introduced to my program what is known as “split runs”. A split run consists of an event-like run “split” into two or three shorter segments with a short recovery in between. For example, my workout might consist of 2 X (250m + 150m) split done at 400m race pace with only 60 seconds of rest in the middle. I’ll rest for 20 min and repeat for a second split run to complete the workout, always ensuring I don’t do more than 800m for total load. Such splits not only have you run at your race pace, but they make you tough as nails! Be aware that those are extremely hard on the nervous system.

These workouts are normally done in Phase III, when you are at the top of your fitness and ready for the big track meets. Over the weeks, I’ll increase the splits by 50m with the rest normally set at 60 sec for 400m of work, with an additional 15 seconds for each extra 100m I run. Here is a sample of some split runs I may do in Phase III:

TABLE 6 – Split run examples

My anaerobic alactic power workout (pure speed) is now taken to the next step in Phase III. At this stage, my body has adapted well enough to handle two hard sets of 120, 100, 80, and 60m sprints done at 95-100% intensity. I walk back between reps very slowly and ensure that my ATP stores are completely replenished before attempting the next sprint. I’ll take anywhere from a 10- to 15-minute break between the two sets. I concentrate in accelerating hard off the line for the drive phase, which is the first 30m. As I transition to running vertical, I strive to “run tall”, bring my hands up to my chin in a V-shape pattern, my feet strike the ground under my center of gravity (no forward overreach), keep my shoulders down, and try to relax as much as I can while I’m going near full speed. Tensing up will only slow you down!

As you are now running more sessions in the lactic and alactic zone in Phase III, it’s still important to maintain the 60/40 ratio I mentioned earlier. This means introducing an easy aerobic recovery jog in your weekly workload. This easy jog, along with two days of rest, should keep you fresh and ready to work hard!

On to the next topic!

Once again, I must thank you for sticking around through these very technical articles. As I stated earlier, one of my goals was to educate other athletes in how to intelligently and safely design their own training program, no matter what sport they’re into. I will now carry on with new articles that will be easier to understand (I promise!) such as weight training, injury prevention, nutrition, supplements, race tactics, etc. 

But first, I will tackle the question of how to include cross-training in your training program, and substitute some interesting machines to make up for the loss of running volume and intensity you would normally do.


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