A Philosophy of 800m Running by Peter Hoffmann

Peter Hoffmann leading Paul Forbes in a Training Session at Meadowbank.

Wish upon a star

‘…Questions unanswered

Questions not asked

Some are worth knowing

Some left in the past

Go in with eyes open

Your life will be grand

Just give it your damndest

And go lead the band…’

Roger Turner

Forty years ago I ran a half mile in 1 minute 46 seconds, still a respectable performance today. At one time I even had an ambition to have raced Coe and Ovett down the home straight in the race of the century at the 1980 Olympic Games 800 metres final in Moscow.

Most runners look back on their careers feeling they never quite fulfilled their potential. As the old saw goes if is the saddest word in the English language. If only I had…Like many of you out there, from a distance of forty years I discern many good patterns of what we did well, but also some key mistakes too, which of course tear at the soul. And talking of souls, Father Gianni in the recent BBC series set in Tuscanny, Second Chance Summerexpressed it rather beautifully when he said: ‘…the problem is you only learn with age and experience, so by the time you realise you have learnt a lot of things unfortunately a lot of time has passed and many chances have been lost.’  

But for others-today’s and tomorrow’s young athletes it is not too late. Ben Jones, M.D. said ‘The saddest thing about dying is that all the stuff you’ve learned goes in to the ground with you. Make sure you pass it on before you croak.’  Following Ben’s advice, here’s my starter for ten. 

But first, a health warning. I’m neither a coach; nor a sports scientist; nor an academic, but instead someone who has run for almost 60 years – a reflective practitioner. This is not an academic nor a scientific treatise which works back from the demands of the event, relating them to your strengths and weaknesses and accordingly tailors a training programme, based on lactate tolerance or VO2 levels etc. Instead, it offers some practical, simple, common-sense tips garnered from a lifetime’s running experience from beginner, to international, to fun runner. I’m advocating a simple approach, but one which I sincerely believe will help any half miler run a best performance. I’m targeting it at international class athletes, but it’s equally applicable to aspiring youngsters wishing to run a great half mile or any master’s athlete out there too-just apply the principles and alter the times.

Peter preparing for a Track Session

  1. Dream Baby, Dream


In the 1920s, the writer and mythologist, Joseph Campbell (who also happened to be one of America’s finest half milers) wrote of following your bliss:

If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living. When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you. I say, follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be. If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn’t have opened for anyone else.

You need to have a dream to sustain you over the years; find out what motivates you to get out there season in, season out, to train in all weathers. Find your dream, then follow it; and remember   Festina lente – Make haste, slowly.

Peter in a 200m race: note the GB vest

  1. Control Your Weight


Ensure your weight is at its ideal level. If it’s not, you won’t fulfil your potential. Simple fact. But that doesn’t mean being as light as possible. Too often I see good international runners who are actually too light. Don’t sacrifice lightness for strength. Instead, what you’re really after is the optimum power to weight ratio. So it’s better to be two or three pounds heavier with good power than to be too light with little power. The best athletes glide effortlessly over the track. Think Ovett at his peak over 1500 metres at the 1977 World Cup.

Control and monitor your weight; if you need to lose anything, do so, but very slowly. Be patient. If you’ve gained weight you will have done so over a period of time. To lose it, do so similarly. A pound a week is aplenty and you will hardly notice the effort; yet over 6 months that would add up to almost two stones! Eat regular, balanced, healthy tiffins every few hours. Drink plenty of water. Most people know what they should be doing. At the end of the day, retire to bed in the evening knowing that when you awake the following morning you will be very, very slightly lighter.


Peter and Paul Forbes

  1. Practice Running FAST!


By running fast, I mean sprinting flat out several times each week. Be honest with yourself-when did you last sprint as fast as you could, putting the pedal flat to the floor? For most athletes it will be months-probably years! Unless you’re a 60 metres indoors specialist or a 100 metres sprinter, 99% of runners never practice running flat out, so how can you expect to suddenly turn on the turbo-jets come a race, especially if it’s a year on from the previous summer? So, incorporate sessions over 30-50 metres several times each week e.g. 2 x 4 x 30 metres with a good recovery. And that’s just to maintain your speed. By the time you get into your early 20s your performance will deteriorate. Incorporating pure sprints into your training programme will help make the key middle distance sessions easier andswifter too.

  1. Strength and Power


But better still, rather than just maintaining speed, let’s improve it by improving your power. Get in to the gym twice a week. Do plyometrics; weights; gym work and bounding. In the off season run fast 20 seconds hill repetitions up a slight incline wearing a weights jacket. Do a Togher body weight circuit or get along to a Metafit session which is also a valuable cardio workout too. Work your glutes. Do squats. Do step-ups. If time is scarce run a few sprints followed by your strength work; it makes for good sense. Develop a strong core-everything comes from there. Buy a pair of 1lb barbells and practice fast arm action in front of the mirror for 2 minutes each evening.

But, on top of that here’s something different. Many athletes’ performances tail off toward the end of the season. Commentators say this is due to tiredness or getting stale and lacking motivation. I believe it’s more to do with the fact that after the spring most athletes neglect strength-work through the summer months. A radical proposal-keep the strength-work going throughout the track season. In 1984 Coe was still in the gym a week before the Los Angeles Olympics. Similarly, Salazar likes to see Farah et al keep that snap going throughout the racing season. You won’t need to do so many repetitions-just do enough to maintain your power to weight ratio; and perhaps ease off altogether ten days before your main competition of the season.

  1. Cardiovascular System


To run a good half mile you need a reasonable aerobic base; equally importantly, you need to be fit enough to undertake the key middle distance track sessions. I recommend doing a steady run every third day. But you will end up supplementing this when you warm up and warm down for your track and gym sessions on other days adding another half hour of daily aerobic running. Every couple of weeks incorporate into your schedule a long, steady run of between 60 and 90 minutes. If a 5k Parkrun happens to fall on such a day, give it a go-it will give you a useful base line as well as motivating you to run fast and hard on occasion. But quality and speed and tiredness should never be sacrificed at the altar of high mileage. There’s a trade-off and that needs to be in favour of track work and gym. If high mileage was the key to running fast half miles then all those millions of runners churning out 70 mpw would be running them. Generally, they don’t. And when they do, it’s the exception that proves the rule.

6. Box Clever

There are lots of little maxims out there; some of them are wise. Amongst them, less is more, is excellent advice. The Greeks had a word for it-practice the golden mean-nothing in excess, everything in moderation. Train only once a day and rest up for 24 hours before your next session. It will prevent injuries in the long term; help you recover from the previous day; and equally importantly you’ll have a zest for the next session. Similarly, it’s better to under-train than to over train.

Try to always run with the wind-practice running quickly and with good technique. And talking technique, if you don’t have it, identify with someone who does and copy them. El Guerrouj was the most beautiful runner; as is Bernard Lagat.

It’s still useful to have heroes; adopt a phenomenological approach; identify with someone you admire and respect and when those key moments of choice come along, ask yourself how they might behave or react in this situation. What would they do?

Closer to home, find a good mentor. When my good friend Paul Forbes (a 1 minute 45 seconds half miler) and I were teenagers we trained regularly with Adrian Weatherhead, a sub 4 minute miler. He was a decade older and taught us much, mainly informally, often when we were warming up or warming down after a session.

Get into a good training environment and squad. Training should be hard, but fun. Try to run sessions where sometimes you’re the top dog-it’s good to be confident and to reinforce this attribute; on other occasions run with peers to introduce a little bit of competition and edge; and occasionally train with people who are better than you at some sessions-but not too often, as you want to be a very positive athlete and racer. But such sessions will help push you and take you out of your comfort zone.  At weekends we had the best training squad in the world featuring World number 1 David Jenkins; World Student Games silver medallist, Roger Jenkins; 8 Nations gold medallist, Paul Forbes; GB international, Norman Gregor; sub 4 minute miler, Adrian Weatherhead; as well as myself, an Olympian and European Junior silver medallist. It meant that if we were running 6 x 500 metres, each athlete would take one run from the front, with Adrian on the last rep. It meant for a much higher quality session than we could have managed alone. But, it was important to get away from that elite squad at other times to prevent burning ourselves out.

Listen to your body. What is it telling you? Athletes tread a fine line-it’s like being a tightrope walker, making continuous fine adjustments to achieve that elusive balance between two polarities-being honest with yourself and staying disciplined-getting out there and just doing it, but also being sensible and taking the occasional day off too when you’re feeling exhausted or coming down with a cold.; as mentioned above, it’s always better to under train than to over train.

And as in all important areas of life, prioritise. You only have so much energy and those aspects of training that are most important should never be at the mercy of those areas which are less so. Distribute your energy as if it’s gold and allocate it wisely. Be at your freshest and at your very best for the key middle distance track sessions of the week. Make sure you’re turning up for these sessions with an eagerness-with an appetite-you’re excited and slightly nervous and apprehensive and not knackered, tired or unenthusiastic, where you end up just going through the motions. In other words don’t sacrifice quality for quantity. And talking of quality here’s some radical advice-simulate half mile racing-regularly.