Building Faster 400m Athletes With Split Runs

man sprinting down a track

Gail Kuhnly, PhD



Sprinting starting blockThis research is going forth with the hope of proving that using split runs can be an effective method to train the high school 400m runner. The Fife High School (FHS) 2017 track team represents the test group and the FHS 2016 track team represents the control group. In this program, the 400m runner has the potential across their cumulative track events to be a major point contributor at meets, especially in post-season competition.

Split runs provide an easy to implement a system that sets a platform that could be expanded and continually tailored as new athletes age up to the high school level. Precedents have been established in track and field long sprint events for the use of a historical control [1].

Ideally, the perfect control would be to use two identical twins who both participate in the 400m dash -A Borlee Model [2] – where the athletes studied both run nearly the same time in the 400m and have the same coaches as well as the same parents or genetic base. In the absence of the opportunity to use the identical twins, the FHS program accepted the opportunity to use the exact same athletes from the previous season as a control since this training had never been done before. The particular utility of this historical scientific control allows for a direct comparison with the exact same group of athletes in the program for both the control as well as for the test group.

Historical control groups have long been recognized by even the FDA to substantiate test results which lead to marketable pharmaceuticals [3].  This season over season comparison which has been implemented in the design will allow the coaching staff to recognize effective adaptations enabling them to modify and adjust future practice programs while at the same time maintain the continuity which can be challenging on a 150 member team. Table 1 below describes our 2016 control group and shows that historically, the  FHS 400m runners compete in more events than just the 400m*; they also competed in eight of the ten other scorable running events and, thus serve a vital role in point production[4].


Table 1

Events typically run by FHS 400m runner

400m 4 x 400m
100m 4 x 100m
200m 4 x 200m
300mH 800m




A split run is described as a track run split up into parts with the continuity of the run relying on the fact that only a short rest or recovery time is allowed in between each of the repetitions within a particular set. A split run consists of an event like run “split” into two or three shorter segments with a short recovery in between. For example, distances of approximately the 400m +/- ~50m race distance can be divided or split into 200m +  200m,  250m  + 150m, 300m +   150m, 300m + 100m etc. with a brief rest period between each repetition of the run. The rest period may vary from as little as twenty seconds to two minutes depending on the distance and intensity of the segments executed [5].

Related Article: So You Want To Be A Sprinter? – Part 1

The speed at which each rep is run depends upon the adaptation in the athlete that is sought. This will be discussed later. At FHS the split run series consisted of a one distance interval of 160m followed by a 30s recovery. This was then repeated up to two more times to complete one set. A total of 2-3 sets completed a training session.

Depending upon the number of sets completed, the total meterage would be at a minimum 640m: 2(160m rest 30s 160m) and a maximum 960m; 2(160m rest 30s 160m rest 30s 160m).  Key features of split runs include the duration of the break between each repetition of the run and the repeat series of runs. Split runs focus an athlete’s pace specifically for a shorter time period compared with the comparable unsplit run.

The non-split run distance that is subdivided to make the split run can be equivalent to a race distance, or longer, and may adjust according to the ability of the athlete to maintain proper running form, posture, and pace throughout. Coaches such as Michael Waller, while at Pacific Lutheran University, and Tonja-Buford Bailey at the University of Texas, Austin, have used split runs as early as the pre-season preparation period with good successes.4,5, Ron Grigg at Jacksonville University utilizes split runs as the season progresses beyond general prep into special prep [6].  Split runs differ from unsplit longer runs in many ways, one of which is because deceleration differs between a shorter run of 160m versus a longer run of 400m.


Utility of split runs at FHS

At FHS, the compacted nature of the split run workouts coupled with unpredictable weather in the Pacific Northwest influenced the decision to experiment with these run segments to see their effect on 400m race times as well as overall performance in other sprint events in which the 400m runner participates. While it is true that track and field provides variable atmospheric and climatic variations that the athlete must navigate through in order to participate in the sport, workouts, and training tailored to accommodate weather conditions whenever possible will aid in an athlete’s success [7].  The utility of split runs is that rest periods are reduced compared with traditional special endurance runs which require “full recovery” which can be greater than twenty minutes in length [8].

In addition, if the inexperienced H.S. athlete feels that the distance and intensity is daunting they ‘pace’ instead of race, but, when the distance is broken down and segments are shortened, they give a reasonable and a higher intensity output. As the athlete gains experience, this should not continue to be the case. In the case with the FHS team, many athletes are participating in track for only their 2nd season and thus sets of 160m x 2 with expansion into sets of 160m x 3 would give the athlete opportunity to manage the accumulation of metabolites generated.

Multiple reps at maintaining intensity through a shorter running segment can help build confidence that comes with repeated repetitions of the task and would allow the athlete to gain confidence and at the same time get “high quality” repetitions by minimizing fall off in time because the distance of each segment is truncated.

Related Article: Upper Body Exercises For Sprinters 

Because the distance of each segment is shorter than the full 400m race, the athlete can now give a higher intensity over the time of the run. The split runs emphasize the mindset of exertion during the run versus a mindset of endurance of the run. The jump down in distance from an unsplit run of 480m to 160m x 3 makes the effort required manageable by the mind and generates the perceived effort required to perform the task of the 160m x 3 at the prescribed pace. Table 2 shows the actual race target times the athlete needs to achieve at the 160m mark into the race in order to be on track to reach the goal time.


Table 2 

Goal 400 m



160 m

Goal 400 m



160 m

Goal 400 m



160 m

69 27.6 60 24.0s 51 20.4
68 27.2 59 23.6 50 20.0
67 26.8 58 23.2 49 19.6
66 26.4 57 22.8 48 19.2
65 26.0 56 22.4 47 18.8
64 25.6 55 22.0 46 18.7
63 25.2 54 21.6 45 18.0
62 24.8 53 21.3
61 24.4 52 20.8

(times listed in seconds)


Table 3 below shows the target projections for each 160m segment of the split runs. By the last set of these runs, the athlete feels depleted and must work through discomfort while maintaining form. The homeostasis of the athlete needs to be disruptive enough to generate an adaptation, however, it must be balanced against the generation of “practice regression which can be caused by failure to provide an adequate challenge in the practice environment or by providing too much demand too soon.”[9]


By using a split run progression, the athlete advances to add on reps as the defined pace becomes established through the first two reps of the split run. This also ensures that the intensity required for lactate tolerance work is maintained [10].   The athlete will get repeated exposure to the increasing intensity that characterizes the first 160m of the race.

While it is true that in order to get a training effect that at some level the homeostasis must be challenged, care must be taken to balance the psychological impact of the training against performance goals.  This allows for thresholds to expand and improvements to be made. It is also true that care must be taken in order to achieve the training effect. The training stimulus must be enough but not excessive [11]. When the athlete can maintain speed without fall off in the second or third rep. the volume increases until it is two to three times the longest racing distance.

Length of Time

The length of the training segment stays the same.   Early in the season, minimum numbers may be established when athletes run a “reasonable best”[12]  time since an athlete is not likely to be able to run the previous season’s best time or personal record (PR) early on in practice season. Exceptions exist where an athlete has participated in track-specific training in the offseason through various other avenues. The majority of the athletes in the program, however, share track with other year-round sports in which they participate, such as soccer  and  rugby and although they may have general fitness which can serve as an aid in their recovery, their track specificity has not likely been trained since their previous track season


Table 3 

200 m


160 m

@ 95%

200 m


160 m

@ 95%

200 m


160 m

@ 95%

23.9 20.08 25.8 21.67 27.5 23.1
24.0 20.16 25.9 21.76 27.8 23.35
24.3 20.41 26.2 21.95 27.9 23.44
24.4 20.5 26.3 22.09 28.2 23.63
24.7 20.75 26.6 22.34 28.3 23.77
24.8 20.83 26.7 22.43 28.6 24.0
25.1 21.08 27.0 22.68 28.7 24.05
25.2 21.17 27.1 22.76 29.0 24.36
25.5 21.42 27.4 23.02

(times listed in seconds)


Table 3 shows the speed at which the athlete aims for each 160m split which is at least 95% as calculated from the fastest 200m time for the athlete.12 The 150m time could alternatively be used but since it is not a traditional race distance, base times would have to be derived in a timed trial. In these reps the athlete reaches intensities greater than 400m race pace. The lactate tolerance training zone is >95% intensity.

This research proposes a non-traditional approach to H.S. 400m training using split runs of “special endurance 2” distances of either 320m and 480m separated into 160m segments. This training takes place following the general preparation period of two to three weeks at the beginning of a high school track season.


With such a dense meet schedule and competition beginning as early as the 2nd week of practice at FHS, focus on the split runs centered around training the athlete’s lactate tolerance since ‘competition serves as the lactaid power (tolerance) work’ when the 400m dash is run. Because of the versatility of the athletes, and the variety of the events available, athletes rotated meet event participation when possible to avoid overtraining [13].

Time Of Day

For this reason, these workouts were not performed within 2 days of a meet. Performance of these workouts only once in a ten-day cycle as the featured workout ensures that the athlete can give a great effort as well as allow adequate recovery before being asked to perform again at a high intensity on meet day. Since the athlete performs the workout splits at a higher intensity than race pace, the psychological demand warrants additional recovery[14].

Related Article: Improve Your Sprinting Technique & Form

This work, coupled with the aggressive meet schedule of up to two meets per week suggests that care be taken regarding between recovery times. While some meets have greater influence of team rankings than others, each athlete has focal points for individual competitions and is positioned with balanced training load and recovery to achieve these standards. For example, an athlete may be attempting to reach a qualifying time for an upcoming invitational. Thus, the adequate spacing of lactate tolerance work facilitates the athletes as they look to meet qualification goals through high performance. From a physiological and energetic perspective, the 400m runner must deal with and manage lactate production. After 10s of high-intensity training, initial stores of ATP from the anaerobic lactate (glycolytic) system are expended as energy is consumed. After about 10s of highly intensive training, inside the muscle cell hydrogen ions result leading to an acidic intracellular environment.

This can be illustrated as follows: [GLUCOSE + 2 P + 2 ADP ——-> 2 ATP + LACTATE + 2 H+]

Since the athlete covers 480m of total running distance they will get a feel for the actual race. The 30s break between each repetition of the split run barely recovers 50% of the recovery of creatine phosphate expended for ATP production[15].  Therefore, the anaerobic glycolytic system predominates leading to the production of lactate and hydrogen ions. The psychological strength gained by completing the split run reps when each segment is run faster than 400m race pace allowed the athlete to develop the grit necessary to race an open 400m in spite of the fact that the training runs were performed in a split-run format.


Table 4 

Control Group (FHS 2016 Track Team) Test Group (FHS 2017 Track Team)

Sample of non-split runs:


●       4 x 300m @ 400m race pace r 3-5 min.



●       6 x 300m @ 85% r 3-5 min.



●       2 x 2 x 350m @ 85% r 3-5 min. between reps. ; ~8 min. rest between sets.



●       5 x 500m @ 85% push last 150m 3-5 min.


Sample of split runs::


●  [2 x (160m r30s bet. reps )] x 3. Rest 5-6 min. between sets; @ 95%.


●  [3 x (160m r30s bet. reps )] x 2. Rest 4-5 min. between sets; @ 95%.


● [3 x (160m r30s bet. reps )] x 2; 160m Rest 5-6 min.  between sets; @ 95%.


● [3 x (160m r30s bet. reps )] x 2. 160m r30s 160m Rest 5-6 min.  between sets; @ 95%.


Table 4 presents the details of our test group and our control group. Athletes were instructed to run at the highest perceived effort and reach their 95% level as based on their 200m race pace. On two rep sets with the second run was performed with all the effort that they have after running the first rep. By the second or third practice set, the final 100m would feel like it would feel at the end of the 400m in his race. In this critical zone of training, the athlete feels the buildup of the products of energy consumption and must tolerate hydrogen ion formation.

The lactate produced makes the slowdown or deceleration more physiological than volitional. Appendix 1 shows the actual 100m split times for the 3 most recent 400m world records along with the percentage of top speed attained during each segment of the race. This rapid deceleration from as high as 99% to as low as 82% signals  the beginning of a region the athlete strives to make a “comfort zone within discomfort.”6 This “critical zone” of the race, as Olympic Coach Brooks Johnson emphasizes, is the final 25% and where most races are won.

The other days in the microcycle remained the same in the control group and the test group. These days included circuit work, drive acceleration work, and short distance speed (which included, but was not limited to, flying 20’s, flying 30’s, flying 40’s and short speedwork of less than 60m, relay exchange attacks, and tempo pace runs of less than 300m). To familiarize the athlete with the concept of a split run format the following workout was performed during the general preparation period of the season: [160m r30s 160m r 4-5 min.

Related Article: HIIT Hill Workouts For Runners

This workout was performed at an extensive tempo pace within the aerobic power component of energy system training thresholds. This contributed to the development of aerobic power, as the extensive tempo 160m window of (70-79%) r 30s 160m ] X 2 was maintained. The overall distance in this trial run was less than the usual volume range per session based on best race distance recommendation of a minimum of 1800m but served the purpose to acclimate the runner to the actual start and stop points on the track that would be used in the test group [16].  This extensive tempo running falls under the category of general endurance and in addition to improving aerobic power and anaerobic capacity served to model the test design.

The actual test would be performed at intensities of >95% and classify as a new approach to special endurance II since the runs will be split up into 160m intervals with a 30s recovery in between the reps. These runs methodically built confidence,  and as the athlete hit the target, they developed greater confidence,  they would do three sets of 2 x 160m.

The transition into a third rep added in a set would take place by adding first a “tempo pace third rep” followed by a high-intensity rep. Once the athlete performed this work, they began using three sets with a four to five-minute rest in between. An example of a split run workout in the record-breaking girls 4 x 400m relay team would be their performance of 3 x 3 x 160m runs.


These were executed as follows:

run 160m r 30s 160m r 30s 160m rest 3-4 min. This was repeated 3 times at an average velocity of (6.9 m/s) totaling 1440m in approximately 3.5 minutes of

work at race pace. (1440m/6.9 m/s = 208.7s of work; 208.7s/60s=3.5 minutes). The slowest 4 x 400m runner ran the 160m  at  23.6s  corresponding  to   6.78

m/s or 1440m/6.78s= 212.4s; 212.4s/60s= 3.54 minutes of race pace work. Each 160m segment began with a standing start compared to a walking start.



Table 5

Control Group 400m

2016 (1)


2017 Season

Opener (2)

Test Group 400m

2017 (3)


improvement from 2016 (Decrease in time)

B 1 55.96 58.92 56.02 -0.1%
B 2 56.45 57.06 53.17 5.81%
B 3 63.15 59.95 55.03 12.86%
B 5 55.02 55.05 54.04 1.78%
G 1 59.74 62.94 58.50 2.08%
G 2 59.95 63.00 58.71 2.07%
G 3 67.06 68.86 62.80 6.35%
G 5 65.54 64.20 59.80 8.76%

(times listed in seconds)



Table 5 above summarizes the results of the athletes performing the split runs and shows improvement in their 400m times. Also included in the table is the athlete’s time their first race of the season. Most athletes had an improvement in their ability to cover 400m. One athlete did not improve from the previous year but did improve from their first meet of the 2017  season.  After tossing out the outliers, the data show an average percent decrease in time of 3.79% for the FHS boys.

In the case of B1, the athlete missed some of the sessions because they were training with another event group during three of the split run workouts. The average improvement for the girls was   2.07%,   after eliminating outliers. With no subtraction of outliers, the average improvement for the girls was 4.82%, and the average improvement for the boys was 5.09%. By subtracting B1, the mean decrease in time is 6.82% for B2-B5. The data suggest that use of split runs may adapt the athlete to 400m  racing.


Table 6 


Control Group

# making League Top 16 Boys/Girls


Events typically run by FHS 400m runner


Test Group

# making League Top 16 Boys/Girls

0/1 400m 1/1
0/2 100m 3/2
0/0 4 x 100m 7*/1*
0/2 200m 2/1
nm/3* 4 x 200m nm/3*
7*/2* 4 x 400m 5*/1*
2/1 800m 2/1
2/2 300mH 4/2




Table 6 expands Table 1 and shows the improvement based on advancement to the league finals. FHS qualified at least one athlete in every running event in the test group and ended with a total of 19 placements at the league championships which is an improvement from 12 the control year or 58% improvement.



ADVANTAGE #1- Concise workouts which minimize the impact of harsh weather conditions.

Split runs provide a pinpoint route to develop endurance which holds practical advantage since the runs can be completed in a succinct manner in light of weather patterns in the Northwest, where they can be unpredictable and very extreme at times. Because of the conciseness of the split run workout, time is conserved. This training session takes approximately fifteen to twenty minutes to complete, including rest periods, but not including any warm up.

On days that athletes execute these runs, they have time for an extended warm-up in inside halls or in the gym and they have time for other instruction. Short workouts become an advantage when considering the need for flexibility to accommodate weather challenges in the South Puget Sound region.

For example, in 2017 the first ten days of the season presented 10/10 rain/hail/snow/high wind days. By using split runs with short recoveries, athletes do not stand around and get overcooled as they would in a non-split run which can have recoveries totaling fifteen to twenty minutes or longer. The necessity to consider whether and its possible impact on performance, as well as on the health and well being of the athlete must be acknowledged [17].

Lack of consideration of the conditions that present at practice or at a meet can lead to injury [18].  Having training sessions that can be completed quickly keeps the athletes hungry for training and always ready to give their best and can preserve them from injuries that can result when weather conditions fluctuate quickly and dramatically.


ADVANTAGE #2- Multiple opportunities for high-intensity repetitions.

Athletes must be able to achieve and maintain high intensities throughout the entire run. Short runs can avoid the perception of strain as the athlete perceives that running 160m and then resting 30s and repeating up to two more times is easier than running one 320m or 480m run. When running longer distances, the athlete starts off slower to conserve energy. Conversely, in a split run, since the deceleration in a longer run differs from the deceleration of a shorter run, by keeping the run distance shorter allows for less deceleration which can lead to a longer maintenance of a higher speed.

Whether a first-year or fourth-year participant, most high schoolers can generate the emotional fortitude to maintain pace in the face of fatigue when the distance is short. Additional reps or sets can be added as the athlete demonstrates the ability to maintain intensity through multiple reps.


ADVANTAGE #3- Timewise, each training rep closely mimics the actual the actual race.

Using the 480m split into 3 x 160m emphasizes intensity through the finish line of the race because each segment encourages a strong finish and a “regroup and go again” attitude. Split runs become a convenient way to keep athletes “race-ready” in addition to progressively developing them to possess the ability to withstand fatigue. Athletes advance towards the competition phase with race pace targets and adherence to prescribed recoveries as the season progresses.

In future seasons, further testing can occur. For example, timing the % improvement in the final 160m as a function of race time improvement may lead to a refinement of distances and time points of evaluation in future seasons.



Table 7

Control Group

(FHS 2016 Track Team)

Test Group

(FHS 2017 Track Team)


FHS 4 x 400m record (boys)


3:23.04 (record set in 1984)


3:35.22 Fastest time in 33 years


FHS 4 x 400m record (girls)


4:06.26 (set in 2008)




District Championship Qualifiers


(B) 0; (G) 9


(B) 9; (G) 10


State Qualifiers


(B) 0; (G) 4


(B) 1; (G) 7


 Table 7 summarizes the end of the season-high points and shows that split runs can be effective in improving not only 400m performance but also an event in which the 400m runner participates. The split run series used at FHS 2017 (Table 4) had not previously been used. The FHS boys team ran the fastest 4 x 400m relay time in 33 years.

The girl’s team won the league meet, the district meet and placed second at the state meet. The girls 4 x 400m relay team set two new school records, one in the preliminary round and one in the finals at state. The FHS girl’s team broke a total of three school records, and the FHS girl’s team had its highest podium place (2nd) at the state meet (Division 2A) in the history of the school.



At FHS, the skills of the 400m runner apply to all sprint events, and their collective impact increases team performance in the regular season and postseason competitions. The concise nature of the split runs worked well, especially considering the weather challenges, and harmonized with the group of athletes currently in the program.

In future years, experimentation with different unsplit distances may prove useful. For example, instead of an unsplit distance of 480M, one could use other distances over the 400m race distance. In addition, how often the training run occurs within each season can be examined.

One split run training day within a 10-day cycle allows the athlete to continue to improve and still have a recovery. The split run intensities of >95% intensity based on the athlete’s 200m race time sufficed to generate a 400m race improvement.  The 160m segments multiplied allowed for adaptation in the athlete’s ability to hit the target time based on their own 200m race time.

Ongoing testing and evaluation ensure that the community of athletes continues to progress. This research will serve as a guide to improvement in all of the event performances of the 400m runner. Future experiments might include varying the distance of the splits of the run as well as minimizing the rest in between the sets.


Works Cited




4: Track & Field and Cross Country Statistics.” Web. 06 June 2017

5: Northwest All Sports Clinic 2008.” Track and Field

6: “USATF Super Clinic 2016- Eugene Oregon”(Level III)


8: Joe Vigil, 2016 Running Summit West.(Level III)

9: USA Track and Field coaching education program- Level II Sprints /Hurdles/Relays. Pg.56

10: ibid p. 66.

11: Level II Training theory by the Coaches Education Training Theory subcommittee 2002.

12: ”reasonable best” might be an estimate of how fast an athlete is likely to go based on current fitness and training.

13: 4 Goals of 400m Training, Ron Grigg Jr.

14: ibid

15: USATF Level II Physiology Jack Ransone, PhD., Tinker Murray, PhD., Bob LeFavi, PhD., Robert Vaughan, PhD, Joe Vigil, PhD.

16: USA Track and Field coaching education program- Level II Sprints /Hurdles/Relays. Pg.56

17: Level II Sport Psychology by the Coaching Education Sport Psychology Subcommittee Gloria Balague, Ph.D.; David Cook, Ph.D. Richard Gordin, Ed.D., Keith Henschen, P.E.D. Rick McGuire, Ph.D., Tracy Shaw, Ph.D., Suzie Tuffey, Ph.D., Ralph Vernacchia, Ph.D., Chair. 1996

18: Championships 2017)*open or relay


Appendix 1


**  (open) race time (A)



% (B)


** 100m

splits in 43.03s

Wld Rec. (C)


**  Cum.> Split times (D)


*** 100m

splits in 43.18

former Wld Rec. (G)


*** Cum.> Split times (H)


100m (3/2016)**
















200m (6/2016)**















































(all times listed in seconds)


**Wayde Van Niekerk

***Michael Johnson


I give special acknowledgment to my husband, Craig, and my family for their continued love and support throughout all of my coaching endeavors.

I thank Brian Meyer, Head Track Coach of Fife High School, for allowing me to coach in the program and complete my research project.

I thank Sprint Master, Michael Waller, Head Coach of Christ Life Track Club and Mentor, for allowing me to coach with the Christ Life Training Group since 2004.

I would like to acknowledge and thank Coach Mike Cunliffe, Head Coach of Seattle Speed T & F Club and IAAF Level5 Coach(Sprints/Hurdles) for many conversations and hours of discussions regarding USATF Level II and Level III Sprint, hurdle, and relay topics.


Yoga warrior pose

12 days of Fitness: 12 Holiday workouts to crush this Christmas

Family outdoors

Stop Taking Loans on Your Health


Habit Stacking: How to Build Exercise Habits

Intermittent Fasting and running

Ketogenic Diet and Running: What You Need to Know

Woman running

Intermittent Fasting and Running

Female running

Are Runners Less Likely to Develop COVID-19?

Reset your health

Now Is the Time to Reset Your Health

Women playing soccer

Exercise Research is Underrepresented in Female Athletes

Woman running cold weather

Too Cold To Feel The Burn: Exercising In Cold Weather


Does a high salt diet cause cognitive impairment?

Leave a Reply