Does Height Impact Your Running Speed?
By now, you have probably noticed that distance runners have a particular body type, which is often much different than the body type of sprinters. Distance runners tend to be short with petite frames and little muscle mass, while sprinters trend towards muscular builds. The world’s best distance runners are short – often standing between 5’3’’ and 5’6’’ tall – while sprinters are typically taller. This observation begs the question: Does height impact running speed?
Height and Stride Length
The most obvious way that height will impact running speed is by increased stride length. Research indicates that stride length is proportional to height, as well as to race distance. For instance, researchers investigated elite triathletes and found that stride length was positively correlated with height1. However, stride length did not have a correlation with performance.
Alternatively, stride length has also been shown to be a function of running speed. In general, the faster a person runs, the longer his or her stride. This relationship was observed in the Olympic setting, where Dr. Jack Daniels determined that female marathoners had stride lengths almost 2 feet shorter than those of female 800 m runners. But, does a longer stride length necessarily mean faster running?
According to the legendary coach, a long stride length is not necessarily a good thing. As Dr. Jack Daniels notes, “The main problem associated with a [long stride length]…the longer the time you spend in the air.” This displaces your body mass higher and leads to a greater ground landing shock. A shorter stride means a lighter stride. The difference between marathoners and 800 m runners is that the 800 m runners can more efficiently sustain the longer stride length for the duration of their race.
Height and Stride Rate
A recent buzzword in the running community has been stride rate, also known as cadence or turnover. This term describes the number of times a runner’s feet hit the ground per minute. Researchers have observed that races are won by athletes with an average cadence of 180 – 190 beats per minute. Additionally, exercise physiologists have determined that higher stride rates are more efficient than lower stride rates, and that improved turnover can reduce injury risk2.
Tall runners are disadvantaged in this regard. In general, taller runners tend to have a longer stride, as mentioned above, resulting in a lower stride rate. However, this generality does not always hold true. There are many short runners with low stride rates and plenty of tall runners with short strides, and therefore high stride rates.
Tall runners (i.e. taller than 5’8’’) should first determine their stride rate by counting how many times the right leg touches the ground in the course of a minute, and then double that number. If cadence is below 150, chances are good that your stride is too long and is negatively affecting your running speed. To improve stride rate, focus on workouts that improve turnover, such as intervals, hill repeats, and fartleks.
Height and Body Mass
The other obvious difference between short and tall runners is body mass. In a perfect world weight would increase proportionally with height; however, the general rule of thumb is that a marathoner who is 10% taller will have 30% more mass. From an energy expenditure standpoint, the taller runner will therefore be less energy efficient3, and will be disadvantaged over long distances.
Indeed, a simple experiment using the popular fitness tracking website MyFitnessPal shows this theory to be true. If two runners are both running 10 minutes per mile for 60 minutes, the runner who weighs 110 lbs will burn 499 calories, whereas the runner who weighs 160 lbs will burn 726 calories.
Over the long run, the taller – and therefore heavier – runner will require more carbohydrate replacement and a more comprehensive refueling strategy than the shorter and presumably lighter runner. Again, like stride frequency and stride length, this concept is a generality. Of course, some of the additional body mass comes from larger muscles that help compensate for the taller runner’s weight while also having the ability to store additional glycogen.
Height and Calf Size
Interestingly, scientists have found correlations between calf size and running speed3. If the runner is looked at from a pure physics standpoint, this assertion makes sense. The leg is essentially a lever, and it is well known that adding weight to the end of a lever will disrupt ambulatory movement. In theory, a taller runner is likely to have a larger calf circumference, and therefore a slower finishing time.
In fact, this assertion is true to some degree, such as when comparing two runners of equal height and ability. The runner with the larger calf circumference will be less economical due to the additional mass. However, when two runners are of unequal height, this observation does not take into consideration that the taller runner will presumably have additional adaptations that aid in propulsion of the greater mass.
Scientists regularly cite the reason for East African dominance in distance running4 as a small frame. East African runners do have abnormally small calf muscles, which may partly contribute to their success, as they are carrying less weight for their frame than the average person. Similarly, a tall runner with abnormally small calves may be at an advantage relative to a tall runner with average sized calves.
Height and Thermoregulation
Perhaps the biggest detriment to tall runners is their relative inefficiency when it comes to thermoregulation, in comparison to their shorter counterparts. By laws of basic physics, a runner with more body mass will generate more heat during exercise, and the amount of heat produced is proportional to mass. However, heat dissipation is proportional to surface area. Since mass increases 3:1 relative to surface area, the taller distance runner will have a more difficult time with thermoregulation on warm days, which would negatively affect performance5.
Height and Impact Force
Another factor that affects tall and short runners differently is impact force upon landing. Height and foot size generally increase proportionally, however, we have already noted that mass increases more quickly than height, and therefore foot size. This discrepancy causes a taller person’s lower legs and feet to experience a larger force upon landing, particularly if the taller runner has a below-average sized foot.
Therefore, if all other factors are equal, a 5’4’’ runner would be able to withstand the pounding of a 40-mile week to a greater degree than a 5’10’’ runner. In a sport where increased mileage generally equates to improved performance, this unfortunate law of physics may place taller runners at a disadvantage.
Height and Elite Athletes
How does height affect elite runners? A study was performed which tracked the variables of performance among the top 100 best marathon times6 recorded per year between January 1990 and December 2011 for men, and January 1996 and December 2011 for women.
Among men, marathon times became faster during this time period, while the top marathoners shrunk from an average height of 5’8.1’’ to 5’6.9’’. For women, the results were not as clear cut, which raises questions about the physiological differences between men and women in regards to speed and stature. Interestingly, the world record holders at the marathon distance are both of above-average height: Paula Radcliffe, whose women’s world record is 2:15:25 stands 5’8’’ tall, while Dennis Kimetto (world record 2:02:57) stands 5’7’’ tall.
In fact, there are many notable exceptions to the “rule” of shorter runners being fastest. Usain Bolt, for instance, is a towering 6’5’’ tall. In order for Bolt to run as fast as he does (9.58 seconds for 100 m), he must generate 81.58 kJ of energy7 to overcome the immense amount of drag his large frame produces.
Another runner that overcomes the limitations of a tall frame is American marathoner Luke Puskedra. This 2:10 marathoner is 6’4’’ tall, which towers in comparison to top American marathoners Galen Rupp and Meb Keflezighi, who stand 5’11’’ and 5’5’’ tall, respectively. It should be noted that Rupp is also above-average in height.
The list of male and female marathoners who are over 6’ is a short one with only 15 people listed. However, that does not necessarily mean that tall people are not suited to running. Each of the factors listed here, with the exception of impact force, can be overcome with proper training. Ultimately, the question is whether height truly affects running speed, or whether tall runners simply choose sports where height is an advantage.
On a similar note, here’s how weight affects running performance.
1. Landers, G.J., Blanksby, B.A., Ackland, T.R. The relationship between stride rates, lengths and body size and their affect on elite triathletes’ running performance during competition. Int J Exerc Sci. 2011;4:238–246. Link
2. Heiderscheit, B. C., Chumanov, E. S., Michalski, M. P., Wille, C. M., & Ryan, M. B. (2011). Effects of Step Rate Manipulation on Joint Mechanics during Running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 43(2), 296-302. doi:10.1249/mss.0b013e3181ebedf4 Link
3. Foster, C., & Lucia, A. (2007). Running Economy. Sports Medicine, 37(4), 316-319. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737040-00011 Link
4. Lucia, A., Esteve-Lanao, J., Oliván, J., Gómez-Gallego, F., Juan, A. F., Santiago, C., . . . Foster, C. (2006). Physiological characteristics of the best Eritrean runners—exceptional running economy. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 31(5), 530-540. doi:10.1139/h06-029 Link
5. Helou, N. E., Tafflet, M., Berthelot, G., Tolaini, J., Marc, A., Guillaume, M., . . . Toussaint, J. (2012). Impact of Environmental Parameters on Marathon Running Performance. PLoS ONE, 7(5). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037407 Link
6. Marc, A., Sedeaud, A., Guillaume, M., Rizk, M., Schipman, J., Antero-Jacquemin, J., . . . Toussaint, J. (2013). Marathon progress: demography, morphology and environment. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32(6), 524-532. doi:10.1080/02640414.2013.835436 Link
7. Gómez, J. J., Marquina, V., & Gómez, R. W. (2013). On the performance of Usain Bolt in the 100 m sprint. European Journal of Physics, 34(5), 1227-1233. doi:10.1088/0143-0807/34/5/1227 Link