Olympic and World Championship 400-meter gold medalist LaShawn Merritt is clearly a talented runner. But he’s also a student of the 400, eager to continue to learn the nuances of his event. He shares his knowledge of the open 400 and the 4 x 400-meter relay in an exclusive interview about running technique.
What should a coach or young runner look for in a 400-meter performer?:
“You’ve got to look for heart. The 400 isn’t for everybody. If you don’t have heart you can’t run the event. Especially an event that, it’s going to hurt. So you have to find somebody who, first, has heart. Then find somebody who has some speed, some natural speed. And what you want to do is, because the 400 is speed and speed-endurance, you have to find somebody who has speed but likes to work. And when I say likes to work – you have sprinters who can sprint, sprint, sprint all day in practice. But if you give them a 300 or a 350 they don’t want to do it. But in the 400 you’ve got to have somebody with some speed who is not going to mind, and is going to work through going out there and running a 450 and a 500 in practice. That’s what makes great 400-meter runners, the ones who put in the extra over-distance work, but also can handle that speed work.”
So you need to find a fast runner, then work on his or her endurance?:
“That’s pretty much it. But you still have to work on speed, too. And they have to keep the speed aspect.
Should a 400 runner break down the race in segments?:
“It varies for different people, because you have the sprinter-type quarter-milers. You have the quarter-milers who can run even splits, who just have a little bit of speed, but they’re more 400-500 type guys. … But it’s not rocket science. It’s the same method. You’re getting out from the gun, getting off the curves, getting on the back stretch and getting into a nice rhythm. Moving some, but not exerting too much energy. Getting on the curves and getting around the curves, making sure your body is in the right positions. Your head is down – your head is not back, your shoulders are not back. And where it really starts to get to it, is while you’re coming home on that home stretch. And some people die, some people can’t hold it. It’s a matter of getting there and totally working. That’s where the work is coming in, coming down that home stretch. That’s the part where you have to learn and practice, run these different workouts in practice with short rest, so you’ll be able to know what it feels like to come down on that home stretch without a lot of energy and still have to maintain.
How important is the start in the 400?:
“The start is important. The whole race is important. I work on starts, getting out of the blocks, working on reaction. Because people lose by a tenth of a second. If you can get that tenth of a second in the start, then that makes and loses races. So I think it’s all about the whole race. I’ve won by tenths of a second and I’ve lost in my career by tenths of a second. So the start is part of the race so it’s important.”
Read more about starting block technique. And common starting block mistakes.
Are there any mechanics you’ve focused on during your career?:
“Body position. I used to have this thing which a lot of people have – coming down the home stretch (with) shoulders high and the head is back, just really running out of position. And it’s a matter of, your shoulders (should be) down, your head level. That’s the toughest part of that race, coming down that home stretch. People’s legs start to flare out, the head starts to go back. So you just have to learn to handle that and develop those mechanics through training. Like I said, running these certain distances, while you’re tired, (helps you) develop your muscle and be able to send a signal from your brain to your body that says, ‘Keep your head down, keep your shoulders low.’ So that’s why practice is really important.”
Are the mechanics different on the race’s second turn?:
“Mechanic-wise, you still have to run it like you’re running … around the bend. Obviously you’re going to be a little bit tired so you really have to focus on those more. Coming out of the first curve it’s just going to come more natural to have your body in its right position. But once you get tired your body naturally wants to kind of fall apart. So you just have to concentrate more on keeping everything the way it needs to be. Keeping your head down, keeping your arms tight, keeping your legs running a certain way – forward, not out. Because naturally, somebody who doesn’t run the event, who doesn’t train, they’re naturally going to … look a certain way, the same way. The head is going to go back, the arms are going to go back, the legs are going to flare out. But if you run the event and you train your body to know what to do when you get there, you just have to focus on doing it. That’s why a lot of it is mental – tell your body this, at this certain point.”
How much does a 4 x 4 relay team practice during a major world event?:
“We don’t do a whole lot of practice. If we run the event on a Saturday, and it was Monday, we’d probably practice twice that week with the person who was bringing the baton in, with both people, all the exchanges. And we’d probably practice like four times each day, just coming down the home stretch, in the exchange zone and passing the baton. To just get a feel of, ‘All right, my hand is going to be here.’ And then, it’s not a blind exchange. It’s pretty simple.”
Once you receive the baton, do you run a relay like a regular 400?:
“It is a little different because in an open 400 you’re on a stagger. That’s what makes the 400 so difficult, that you’re on the stagger the whole race and you really don’t know where you are until you come off of 300 meters. But in the 4 x 4 you can be in a straight line. You start running in more of like the second lap of an 800. So it’s more positioning. You probably still want to do the same things you do in a 400, but you’re more aware of where you are in the race.”
Read more about LaShawn Merritt, as he discusses his career in Part 1 and Part 2 of an exclusive interview. Also check out a brief profile featuring Merritt's career highlights.