Harvey Glance's 400-Meter Coaching Tips

Kirani James - coached by Harvey Glance - on his way to victory in the 2012 Olympic 400-meter final. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Developing successful 400-meter runners requires more than just teaching correct running form or smart race tactics. The longest sprint race demands not only speed, but speed endurance, so 400-meter runners must train differently than other sprinters – and coaches must use them wisely during the season. The following advice for handling 400-meter runners comes from a presentation by 1976 Olympic gold medalist Harvey Glance, given at the 2015 Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association’s annual clinic.

In addition to the base speed work that all sprinters perform during training, Glance recommends that 400-meter runners do their own form of interval training. He notes, for example, than many sprinters run descending intervals, starting with a 400-meter training run, followed by runs of 300, 200 and then 100 meters.

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“A 400-meter runner can probably do that same workout,” Glance says, “but then go back up: 100, 200, 300, 400. And you also need to go for more distance. You can go to something as heavy as 600, 500, 400, 300, 200, 100. Because they’re capable of handling it, endurance-wise. And they need to handle it, because they’re running twice the distance of a 200 runner.”

To perform the workout, the athlete runs for 600 meters, walks for 600 meters, runs for 500, walks 500, and so on. Walking between the running intervals allows the athlete to rest, while still maintaining a high heart rate.

“We want to keep that heart pumping,” Glance explains. “And the more they do it, the higher (the heart rate) is going to get. And the higher it gets up, the better shape they’re going to get in. It’s no different than when a distance runner runs 800 meters and they jog in between.”

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Pacing the 400-Meter Runner

Thanks to their combination of speed and endurance, strong 400-meter runners are often some of the best athletes on a track and field team. That’s good – but there’s a danger as well, because coaches may be tempted to run their 400-meter athletes too often, resulting in burnout, or worse.

“One of the biggest mistakes we can make as coaches, in training – especially 400-meter runners – is become a fan of our athlete,” Glance explains. “Because we think they can do anything. And they make it look good, and they make it look easy. And we think we can just get one more, and one more, and one more. … We’ve got to be smart, especially with our top athletes. I’m talking about the ones we use the most. There’s only so many races in an athlete during the year. And you can’t run a 400-meter person like you run a 100-meter person. That lactic acid, and that burning, means something, each and every time. And it wears and tears on that body.”

For sprinters in general, and 400-meter sprinters in particular, “there is no quicker way to get hurt than fatigue,” Glance adds. “It’s not that they weren’t in shape, it’s that they did a little bit too much. If you hit a higher gear, and you’re tired, your muscles aren’t ready for it.”

Glance recommends no more than six 400-meter races for an athlete during the season. That was his plan when he coached 2012 Olympic 400-meter champion Kirani James in college, and as a professional.

“I had a plan, each and every year, for Kirani,” Glance explains. “And that plan was to never run more than six 400 meters during the course of a year, at the world-class level. Now in college, when he ran for me, I had to be careful because he ran on the 4 x 1, ran on the 4 x 2, ran on the 4 x 4. But I knew I needed him for the first meet (of the season), but more importantly I needed him in June for the (championship) meet. But even then, never more than six 400 meters. Because every time the 400 meters is run I want it to be the best 400 meters. ... Because you’re only going to get so many out of them during the year, before they start to falter. If you get a good, solid eight, nine, ten 400 meters during a year, (then) you’ve got to be worried about the next year.”

Running 400-Meter Athletes in Shorter Races

For coaches looking to score maximum points in track meets throughout the season, while still keeping a 400-meter runner fresh, consider running him in some shorter events. During some less-important meets, for example, a 400-meter runner might compete in the 100 instead of the 400, or the 4 x 100-meter relay instead of the 4 x 400. “Remember,” says Glance, “the 100 meters or 200 meters, for 400-meter people, that’s play time.”

But even with shorter races, Glance warns, every runner has limits.

“You may just be tempted to say, ‘They’re just running a 100, that’s not going to hurt them.’ But it does if they do 20 of them during the season. They enjoy 100, or 200, because it’s not a 400. But you still have to be careful. You might ask, ‘Why isn’t my 400-meter runner going faster at the end of the season than he was at the beginning?’ Just kind of check yourself with that.”

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Again using James as an example, Glance notes that he “will run Kirani in the 200 meters just to work on speed. Unfortunately, when you go to the next level, there are no relays you can run at international meets. They don’t have them, unless they just throw them in toward the end of a meet sometimes, and that’s maybe twice a year. But when you’re trying to get points (during a high school or college season), you’ve got to keep up with what your athletes are doing as far as the open 400 meters and the 4x4s.”

Finally, Glance reminds coaches that races run during track meets should be considered when you plan your athletes’ training schedules. Indeed, not only should the actual distance be considered, but the increased intensity of a competitive race should also be tallied on each athlete’s training sheet.

  • “The track meets should serve as part of your training. There’s not an athlete on your team, if they’re going to a track meet, that won’t put out maximum effort. That’s what track meets are for. And it counts, on wear and tear of your body. … There’s no better way to do speed work than at a track meet. Because at a track meet, it’s maximum. And it counts.”