11 August 2008

How fit must a middle-distance athlete be?

Simply put, Commonwealth/Olympic runners are the pinnacle of physical conditioning.

Simply put, Commonwealth/Olympic runners are the pinnacle of physical conditioning. Many of the runners who specialise in the middle-distance races like the 400 metres and longer ones like the 1500 and 3000 metre events are less muscular than the sprinters. They tend to be sinewy and lean. All the serious competitors have minimal amounts of body fat.

Middle distance runners must be able to run at near-sprinting speeds, but be able to sustain it for several laps. An Olympic 400m sprinter runs a 100m in 12.5 seconds, then another, and another and another without stopping. He runs 400m at a pace that equals 75% of the world’s best over 100m. A 1500m Commonwealth/Olympic athlete runs 15 100m races at about 55% the pace that the world’s fastest runner completes the 100m.

These races are run fast and furious, need loads of endurance, a burst of speed in the final 50m – 100m and tactical planning.

Typical build:
Lean and mean, with strong legs and good lung capacity (good VO2 max). They are not as muscular as the sprinters, but not as slim as marathon runners.

Physical requirements:
A middle-distance athlete has almost equal amounts of white, fast-twitching muscle fibre and red slow-twitching muscle fibre to be able to accelerate in the final stretch, extremely strong core muscles, strong legs for good balance and posture, a good sense of rhythm and strength endurance. However, they cannot afford to carry any excess fat, and their body fat percentage will be very low.

The 400 metre race is essentially a long sprint, while the longer races require meticulous attention to pacing of your competitors. At the level of the Commonwealth Games/Olympics, it’s generally the runner who’s reserved enough of a burst of speed for the final lap who wins. Miscalculate that and you might lead at the halfway point but still finish last. “Breaking away” too soon and trailing in the final lap is heartbreaking.

Training programme:
At least five to six days per week, at least one to two hours per day. Focus on cardiovascular training, enhanced by power training and speed drills.

Cardiovascular fitness:
This component of training is of much more importance than for sprinters. A high level of fitness endurance is required, as well as some speed drills especially for the 400m, 400m hurdles and 800m. Hopping, jumping and plyometric bounds, as well as running with high knee action are the exercises for the 400m hurdlers.

Speed drills:
Speed drills might feature, but not to the extent as in the training programmes for sprinters.

Resistance training and muscles:
Muscle endurance plays a major role in middle-distance running, especially the muscles of the legs, stomach, trunk and back, and to a lesser extent, the arms. Leg muscles, especially the gluteus, hamstrings and calves should be trained. Athletes strengthen their legs with weights work. Exercises like skipping with high knees help to acclimatise the joints and muscles. Athletes also use gym balls to develop strength in the core muscles.

Reaction time:
A quick reaction time is not essential for a middle-distance runner, but timing plays an enormous role.

Endurance training:
This is of the utmost importance for middle- and long-distance runners. Endurance training encompasses cardiovascular endurance and muscle endurance.

Today’s athletes follow eating plans that are more scientific than ever before. Many professional athletes have their own nutritionists and certainly all the Commonwealth/Olympic teams will have at least one. Carboloading with specific combinations of carbohydrates with a low and a medium glycaemic index for sustained energy is important. Water and fluid intake should rather be too low than too high.

Visualisation of the race and tactical planning are important.

Middle- and long-distance athletes may be tempted to take EPO or other stimulants.


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