What Makes Great Runners Great?

In his classic book titled "Good to Great", Jim Collins tackled the question -- How do you get from being "good" to being "great"?. You can read the book for the complete answer, but one statement profoundly impacted me - "Good is the enemy of Great". It is not that being "great" is just a little better than "good", being "great" is entirely different than just being "good".

When it comes to runners, I believe this same statement holds true. There are things great (elite) runners can do that good runners cannot, whether due to genes or other factors. But, let's be honest, you are reading this article, not to LEARN about great runners, but how YOU can be a great runner. So let's see…

To begin with, let's talk about the obvious factor -- genetics. Yes, who your parents is important. If both your parents were accomplished distance runners, you have a greater likelihood of such feats. Aerobic endurance, muscle endurance, muscle strength, bone length and lung size all have large genetic components to them. But since we can't change your parents, let's focus on the two things that can be improved:

1) Running Economy -- Great runners use less energy and oxygen at a given speed.

Some of the reasons great runners are more efficient relates back to genetics. For example, an increased percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers, longer shin bone length, greater upper leg/lower leg weight ratio, and lower Q angle (angle formed by the thigh bone and the shin bone) all improve running economy -- and are largely inherited traits (Williams and Cavanagh, 1987; Daniels and Daniels 1992; Weston et al. 2000)

However, the following biomechanical changes can improve running economy (Larsen, 2003; Saunders et al., 2004; Catlin et al., 1979):

                                · Limiting excessive arm motion

                                · Limiting arm motion across the body's midline

                                · Having greater acute knee angles (i.e. heel kicking) during the leg swing

                                · Lowering vertical oscillation (bouncing) of the body

                                · Decreasing shoe weight

                                · Altering the nature of foot strike (see last week's article!)

Running economy is also known to improve with changes to training programs, For example:

                                · Increased training improves muscle endurance and alters muscle fiber type -- both improving running economy.

                                · Strength training, specifically plyometric training, has been shown to improve running economy by altering some of the biomechanical factors listed above.

                                · Altitude training has a profound impact on running economy when running at sea level (Bailey et al., 1998) -- although this does not help the average high school runner much.

2) Anaerobic Threshold -- Great runners have an ability to run at a higher percent of their maximum endurance level.

The anaerobic threshold (AT) is the point at which your body can no longer balance increasing lactic acid accumulation, causing fatigue. We often call this "hitting the wall" -- appropriately so.

Maximum endurance is measured by VO2max -- the amount of oxygen that can be delivered to and used by tissues in the body. It is the product of 1) how much blood (and oxygen) the heart and lungs can send to the muscles and 2) the ability of the muscles to use that oxygen. Think of VO2max as horsepower, the higher the number the more energy the person can use to perform exercise and the faster they can go in an endurance activity.

Here is the amazing thing - great runners DO NOT have higher VO2max values than other good runners (Saunders, et al., 2004). It's true! However, great runners can run at a higher percentage of their VO2max for longer than other runners. Elite runners can run at 85-90% of their VO2max, while average runners near only 60-70%.

Thankfully, the AT is something that can be altered by training. Specifically, training at speeds above and beyond this point is essential. For runners, hard tempo runs are the classic means for improving AT. Half mile or mile intervals also improve AT. By pushing the AT to higher and higher limits, athletes can compete at high levels of intensity while limiting lactic acid production, and thus not fatiguing. 

That's all, have a "great" week.

Next week: What is the best time of day to run?

Dr. Matthew Mitchell's Bio:

Matthew currently lives in Wellington, Florida and teaches Physiology, Biomechanics and Nutrition at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Florida, Wake Forest University and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. While completing his doctoral work at the University of Florida, he served as Assistant Women's Soccer Coach. During his tenure, the team won three SEC championship and one NCAA Championship in 1998. Matthew is an avid runner and currently coaches elite youth runners in Florida.