Usain Bolt recently ran his first 800m race. As I’m training for this distance, my interest was piqued to see what he achieved. Bolt, of course, is generally seen as the best sprinter of all time winning multiple gold medals in the 100m and 200m at consecutive Olympics and the World Championships from 2008 to 2016. As a junior his coach had wanted him to become a 400m runner, his best time was 45.28s, but he didn’t enjoy the longer training sessions and it became apparent he could be a champion at the short sprints. Running his first 800 race would be a big step up.
Out of athletics for the past four years, he said he’d been training for this race but it turned out to be part of an advert for a used car dealership. Its premise was that you can get an online valuation for your car quicker than Usain Bolt can run 800m. Bolt in lane 1 versus the customer in lane 6 sat in a comfy chair typing her car’s details into her phone. I’ll embed the video at the bottom, if you want to watch it, but Bolt appears to be jogging round on his way to a 2:40 time for 800 metres. The commentary is overlaid and there’s no sound from the track so I’m tempted to believe it’s masking the director telling him to speed up or slow down to ensure he finishes just slower than the customer. After all it wouldn’t be much of an advert if Bolt wins easily. Actually it’s not much of an advert anyway because I thought they were providing insurance quotes, not a price for your used car.
What I could glean from the footage is Bolt is running at a cadence of around 160 steps per minute which equates to a stride length of 1.88m per step. That’s not unbelievable given he’s 6’5” and when he’s in full sprint mode he’s averaging closer to 2.50 metre per step (and his cadence also up at 250 per minute). It’s deceptive watching the video because it really doesn’t seem like he’s covering much ground until you see his strides around the start-finish line. The slow cadence really does make it look like he’s taking it casually.
Even allowing for some play-acting, I doubt Bolt could currently run it that much faster – bear in mind his pace is 5:20/mile, it’s not that slow. He’s not overweight or unfit but of course he has detrained from his peak athleticism. As the best sprinter in the world, his genetics are geared towards speed. He stated in a 2013 interview that he could run the 800m in 2min05 so that gives us a reference for his ability when he was a trained sprinter. There’s also a segment from Superstars in 1986 on Youtube of Carl Lewis, who was the Olympic champion in the same events as Bolt – the 100m, 200m, 4x100m, where he ran 2min15 for the half mile. So I’m inclined to think a detrained Bolt couldn’t have run 800m much quicker than he did in the advert.
A short postrace interview with Bolt shows him lying on the ground having his legs massaged and breathing hard. His splits for this 800 were 35s and 39s for a 1:14 first lap followed by 44s and 42s for a second lap 1:26. That final 200m being faster suggests he did try to pick up the pace. These splits are fairly consistent with what I experienced in my 800m time trials – when I ran 2:53, my splits were 39 / 43 / 45 / 46 secs and I tried to sprint at the end but my legs were tying up with lactate. It’s a fast start and then struggle to hang on.
One difference is that Bolt can run a significantly faster 200m than I can – his world record is 19.19s – yet at 35sec his opening 200 isn’t much quicker than when I time trialled at 39s. His controlled start may have avoided building up the oxygen debt that leads to heavy breathing.
What I’ve found with all my distance races is that it doesn’t matter how hard you train for speed and to handle oxygen debt, there comes a limit to how fast you can go because the by-products seize the muscles up. When your body is trained for speed lactate and waste products are being produced from start to finish. It’s why for in distance running you need to build a good aerobic system to delay their production so they are only produced at higher speeds.
I can remember finishing parkruns when I was speed-trained, saying there was more to come because my legs never felt tired, yet it was only when I did more easy running that my times got quicker. I had to build aerobically through daily easy, steady and long runs to improve at parkrun and longer distances.
Some people are naturally full of slow-twitch muscle and therefore find it easier to build their aerobic capacity – they’ll start with a bigger base. For those with more fast-twitch, either you stick to the sprints as Bolt did or commit to doing the miles that will develop them aerobically.