Many runners, Olympians included, view the 100m as the blue ribbon event in track. Being the fastest man or woman on the planet is arguably the ultimate accolade in athletics. However the 100m is not the ultimate distance. Runners are free to argue the point, but the 400m is the only race that engages every aspect of running. (Check out reigning 400m World Champion Sprinter Kirani James's Secret for Success.)
The 400m requires all energy systems combined with solid technique at the start, proper running mechanics, clear strategy, smart race tactics and the right mindset to withstand the mental torture of mind versus body. This is what makes the 400m the ultimate race and why many athletes avoid it. Even Usain Bolt doesn't want to race 400m, because the training and racing are too hard. If you've done it, you understand. If you haven't, be thankful. Here's why:
Success in sprinting requires adherence to biomechanics and physics. There are slight variations among athletes, but no exceptions. Even Michael Johnson's slightly unusual technique didn't actually vary much from the norm. If you watch any sprint race, male or female, the technique and form of all the athletes are pretty much the same. The 400m is no exception. It requires very good biomechanical running form.
A 400m sprinter must have an explosive start out of blocks, typical of all sprinters as they drive hard through the first 50m, akin to a 200m runner. (Read Usain Bolt's Key to Explosive Starts.) In terms of power training, there is little difference between the 400m and 100m runner.
400m sprinters must have extremely good speed endurance, anaerobic capacity and anaerobic power.
Most coaches of 400m sprinters train for speed reserve. Improving 400m times involves increasing maximum speed so that the middle and later stages of the race can be run at a lower percentage of max speed, or on speed reserve. This allows a runner to maintain speed longer during those stages of the race.
400m sprinters can't rely on their anaerobic system alone the way shorter sprinters do. They also need good aerobic capacity, even though they may not use it for very long.
Race Strategy and Tactics
The fastest runner wins most short sprint races, but not necessarily the middle and long distance races. In the 100m and 200m, there is little in the way of race strategy or tactics in relation to the other competitors. But because it is longer, the 400m is not only run fast, there are variations in how it can be run. Athletes needs to be aware of their competitors and respond to them. In addition, the indoor 400m includes a lane break, the only individual sprint to do so.
Finally, the 400m, arguably more than any other distance, puts the athlete's body through torture—not the sustained achy pain of a longer distance race, but the acute agony that kicks in when the lactic system is overwhelmed. At this point, mental strength must trump physical weakness. It's mind over matter for the athlete, who must continue to sprint despite every fiber of his her body screaming "slow down."
Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock