Track Stats

How van Niekerk broke the 400m world record

Athletes will never view lane eight the same again after watching Wayde van Niekerk in Rio. The South African joined Eric Liddell as only the second Olympic champion to win from the outside lane in a world record time. Here’s how he got there.

van Niekerk’s 50m splits (seconds)

Olympic final
Against Johnson and Reynolds

As usual, van Niekerk attacked the race hard from the start, using the best of his basic speed proven by a 100m personal best of 9.98 earlier this season (and his 19.94 from last year is no longer a true reflexion of his abilities at 200m). He reached 100m in 10.7, a time only bettered during a 400m by Tyson Gay (during 45.05 in 2010).

Quarter-milers usually reach their top speed in the 50-100m section, and Rio’s race was no exception. Van Niekerk as well as 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt and Kirani James reached about 10.6m/s speed, which is the fastest recorded. But van Niekerk had the edge here: he has the best top speed as recorded during his 100m PB (11.6m/s). This reserve of speed left him more for the final 300m of the race.

Both Merritt and James managed their speed decline in the backstretch. Merritt covered this 100m section in 9.6, easily the fastest 100-200m section ever. His 20.4 time at the half-way point is inside the 200m Olympic qualification time! The best-known split was a hand-timed 20.6 by Fred Newhouse at 1972 US Trials for a 45.3 400m.

At 300m, van Niekerk clocked 31.0—way faster than the best split ever, which was the 31.4 he achieved last year during the World champs final (final time: 43.48), tying Quincy Watts’ mark in 1992 Games (43.50). Incidentally, both van Niekerk and Merritt matched their PBs at the distance, 31.03 and 31.23 which were set in Kingston last June.

As impressive as van Niekerk was in the homestretch, it was significantly slower than his best last 100m, 11.4 last year for his first sub-44 race (43.96 in Saint-Denis) but for once, he had went out much more cautiously (11.3 at 100m, 21.9 at 200m). The previous 400m world-record holder Butch Reynolds (43.29 in Zurich 1988) did 11.2.

During his 43.18, Johnson was timed in 11.52. Although he had a huge speed reserve thanks to his 19.32 personal best (and then-world record) at 200m, he never ran the first half under 21 seconds. His best times, 21.22 in 1996 Olympics and 1999 World Champs, 21.26 at 1995 Worlds, 21.27 at 1996 US Trials, etc. makes me wonder whether he could have broken the 43 barrier. His 43.66 race in Lausanne with negative splits (21.9/21.8) was the most striking hint of his potential.

van Niekerk’s progress, 100m splits (seconds)

Van Niekerk’s season’s best progression analysis shows consistent tactics trends. Instead of displaying major improvement in a given part of the race, he shaved a few tenth out of every section, resulting in big changes overall.

His trademark is his very long strides. Standing 1.83 tall, his stride step length at top speed is 2.70m during 100m, close only to what taller Usain Bolt (2.78m step length for 1.95m body height) and Christophe Lemaitre (2.73m for 1.90m) have done during their 100m respective bests (9.58 and 9.92). Interestingly, alongside his improvement in time there has been a slight reduction of amplitude during 400m race, but with a better maintenance in the homestretch.

van Niekerk’s step length and frequency

As a result, his step frequency has compensated the amplitude loss, working harder in the backstretch. I would warn about duplicating this pattern as each career trajectory, training and above all initial aptitudes vary. However it makes sense to say that since his step length was close to the human limits; he was not going to get much improvement there. In New York 2014, he covered the 400m lap in 160 steps, same as Reynolds did in Zurich, but Johnson’s 180 steps in Sevilla 1999 shows that there are many different paths to a world record.

Correction: We initially stated that Fred Newhouse’s 20.6 split was achieved during a 44.1 400m time. Newhouse actually clocked 45.3 in that race.

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