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Olympian Johnny Gray’s 800-meter Coaching and Running Tips

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21 Jun 1998: Johnny Gray #237 runs in front of Mark Everett #194 in the Men''s 800m during the U.S. Track & Field Championships at the Tad Gormley Stadium in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Andy Lyons / Allsport / Getty Images
One of the great 800-meter runners in U.S. history, Johnny Gray turned to coaching when his Hall of Fame career wound down. He coached at the high school level and also trained U.S. 800-meter champion Khadevis Robinson before becoming an assistant track and field and cross country coach at UCLA. Gray talked about competing in, and coaching, the 800 meters while appearing the 2012 Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association clinic.

About.com: What makes a good 800-meter runner?:

Gray: “Usually an 800-meter runner can be someone – and that was not in my case – but usually an 800-meter runner can be someone that can run a fast quarter, but not fast enough to compete with the quarter-milers, and can run a pretty decent mile, but not strong enough to last the whole way for the mile, so they go 800. Same thing that makes a 400 runner – they’re fast, but they don’t have the strength to run eight (hundred). Same thing with a miler. They’re strong but they don’t have enough speed to run 8. I ran the 800 because I liked it, because it was two laps. I was able to do it all. I could’ve run the quarter, I could’ve run the 8, the mile, the 5K. I could’ve done it all because I prepared my body to be able to do it all. And I say that because I did trust my shape and I was a positive individual because of the experience I had throughout the two decades, or over two decades that I competed. But as a youngster, I chose the 800 because it was two laps. I started with the 2-mile, which was eight laps. So I was trying to be lazy when I chose the 800, but it ended up being a good move because it ended up being the race that I was able to master and do well at.”

What do you mean by ‘Trust your shape?’:

“You have kids that, they train hard … and when it’s time to go out to the race they’re scared, they’re not able to get it done. And the part I mean by ‘trust your shape’ is that – let’s use the 800 meters, for instance – they run that first (400 meters), but then the third 200, they sit back and want to rest because they think, ‘OK, I’m tired, I don’t want to be too tired to kick, so I’m going to hold back so that I can have a kick.’ Trust your shape means, don’t hold back. Keep it moving and trust that your shape will get you through. And that’s what I used to do. I would go out 49, 50 (seconds), and boom, I’d pick it up again. Because I trust that I can get it done, because I know my shape is there, because I’ve been training. And the kids don’t use their shape to the fullest because of lack of faith in their conditioning.
“I was lucky enough to have six chances at trying out for the Olympics. And ... that’s why I’m so confident in what I say because everything that I’m talking about, doesn’t come out of a book. You take these coaching Level I, Level II, Level III (courses) – which is great to have, we need that. … But nothing teaches you more than experience. And it feels good as a coach to be able to tell someone that if you do this, it works, because I know it worked, rather than reading it out of a book. And if it doesn’t work then you question whether or not the book was right. If it doesn’t work for me, I know that they didn’t do whatever they were supposed to do. Those easy days you haven’t been running. You’ve been partying at night and not resting, it’s something you’re doing off the track. So then I can call an athlete into the room and just say, ‘Hey, you know what? You’re not running what you should be running, so I’m kind of wondering what’s going on?’ And that’s when you start hearing, ‘Well, coach, I didn’t want to tell you but I’m pledging right now and I’m on line, they keep me up late every night.’ Then you start seeing what’s really going on. It’s not the training, it’s what you’re doing off the track. And that’s why I say, what you do off the track is just as important as what you do on the track.”

How do you train 800 runners, as opposed to the 400 or 1500 meters?:

“1500 and 800, pretty much similar. ... But the 1500, you want to do a little more mileage, a little longer intervals, from the 800; and 400 runners, you’re going to do more speed, a lot harder running, maybe more weight training for the power you need to generate to be a sprinter. So that’s the only major difference. In any of them it takes proper preparation, it takes hard work to get it done. If you train hard and you’re a great half-miler, you should be able to run a good mile, you should be able to run a good 400. A great 800 runner should be able to run at least 46 (seconds) or faster for the 400. A great 800 runner should be able to run at least 4:05 or faster for the mile.”

For more on Johnny Gray's career, check out his 2012 interview: part 1 and part 2.

Read more about distance running rules and get an introduction to middle distance running.

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