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Advice for high school milers
April 9, 2009 - Erik Brown
This post goes out to all you high school milers.
Over the past seven years I have watched hundreds of you run the 1600 meters (the 1600 is actually just over 10 yards shy of a mile). I have enjoyed your performances and appreciated your efforts, but there’s a problem that we need to talk about (and you know what it is). Most of you commit the sin of uneven pace! Your splits are quite predictable, but not in a good way. You run the first lap much too fast, the second lap, a little too slow, the third lap, much too slow, and the fourth lap, about right depending on the strength of your finishing kick. As an example, the splits for a 5:03 mile would be very close to 70, 77, 81, and 75.
Well, you’re driving your coaches and parents nuts! That 5:03 could be a 4:59 with a different approach. So, here’s a little unsolicited advice (from a guy who never broke 5 minutes). Race smart. You can bring your times down, and maybe even exploit your competition’s uneven pacing!
Disclaimer: None of this matters if you aren’t adequately conditioned. As every champion will tell you... without hesitation... you don’t win in the game… you win in the preparation.
Lap 1 – The conventional wisdom says that you need to get out quickly and establish a good position near the front. But most high school mile races begin with a 200 meter dash that would make Jim Ryan and Alan Webb hustle to keep up. OK, that was a slight exaggeration, but I’m telling you at 400 meters, virtually the entire field is slowing down. If that first 200 meters feels too fast, then it is! Don’t get sucked into that trap with everybody else. They’re running that uneven split pattern from my example above. Relax. Stay within yourself. Your opportunity to reel them in and pass will present itself in laps 2 and 3.
If you’re feeling a little skeptical at this point, take a break and watch this short (4 minutes) YouTube video of the mens’ 800 meter final from the 1972 Olympic Games. Hint: keep an eye on the guy with the hat in lane 3.
True, Dave Wottle had an incredible kick (you did watch the video, didn’t you?). But if he could make up that much ground in a two lap race, you can afford to relax and hang back through the first 300 meters of the 1600. This is true even at a big invitational, or at your district championship meet, in a field of talented runners. But, you cannot slow down with the rest of the field in lap 2 (see the disclaimer, again).
Lap 2 – Take another look at those splits from my 5:03 mile example (70, 77, 81, 75). That is what is happening on the track in front of you as you begin lap 2. So... Carpe Diem! Focus on the runner ahead and start reeling him or her in.
Lap 3 - USATF-certified coach Greg McMillan calls the third quarter of a race the most critical stage. Here is a link to his short article titled “Go Zone Racing” from the April issue of Running Times. It offers some excellent suggestions for improving your racing performance in the critical third lap.
Lap 4 – I could easily devote an entire post to lap 4 tactics, but this post is less about tactics and more about getting you running faster times. Naturally, you want to finish strong, but don’t save too much for the last 200 meters. When you begin lap 4, give yourself a quick, mental pep talk. As Coach McMillan would say, you’re in the "Get Time Zone". Focus on your breathing and maintaining good form while gradually ramping up to your maximum effort. As you come off the last turn, try to find one more gear and stay in it all the way through the finish line.
Here’s another YouTube video. This one is Hicham El Guerrouj setting the current world record for the mile – an astounding 3:43.12. Be sure to listen to the commentator as El Guerrouj begins his critical 3rd lap. In case you’re wondering, his splits were 55.07, 56.51, 56.33, and 55.21.
The women's world record for the mile is currently held by Svetlana Masterkova of Russia at 4:12.56. She set the record in 1996. I couldn't find a YouTube vidoe of that race, but here is a video of her winning the 1500 meters at the 1996 Olympic Games.
See that disclaimer one more time!
Pop Quiz for you older readers (also a shameless attempt on my part to generate some comments):
1.) Who were the two ABC announcers who called the Mens' 800 Meter Final in the 1972 Olympics? (Hint the "color guy" was also a great miler).
2.) Who was the ABC announcer at the very end of that same video?