What Makes a Runner Fast?
Runners of all abilities have undoubtedly asked themselves what makes a runner fast. When standing on the starting line, what is the difference between two athletes of similar talent? Does personality play as much of a role as good genes? Is bone structure as important as muscle composition? Listed below are many of the factors that go into the development of a fast runner.
Perhaps one of the most important considerations when determining which variables make a runner fast or slow is genetics. It is well known that world-class sprinters primarily hail from West Africa, while the world’s best distance runners are of East or North African descent. In fact, a runner of Asian or East/North African ancestry has never run one of the top 500 fastest 100 m sprint times. On the other hand, people of West African descent are notoriously poor distance runners. Therefore ancestry, and the genes you are born with that control factors that such as fast twitch muscle fibers, lung capacity and predisposition to certain body types, play a major role in determination of running speed.
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Biomechanics, or running form, is another important consideration when determining a runner’s potential to be fast. The form with which you run determines your overall efficiency and running economy. A runner with poor form, i.e. flailing arms, bobbing head, hunched torso or poor knee drive, will expend more energy with each stride than the athlete with good running form.
For races in which fractions of a second matter, such as the 100 m sprint, the difference between first and last place may be caused by something as seemingly arbitrary as too-high an arm carry. Alternatively, in long races such as the marathon, small inefficiencies can add up. Even a minor problem, such as a bobbing head, may slow a runner down by one second per mile, which ultimately may cost 26 seconds over the entire race – a lot of time by elite standards. Fortunately, unlike genetics, biomechanics can be improved to some extent.
No one would argue that world record running performances are a true testament to extraordinary physics, but many may be surprised to know that the amount of drag a runner experiences, even over the course of 100 m, can be a limiting factor in performance. In 2013, scientists published a study in European Journal of Physics1 that calculated the amount of drag – and the work required to overcome this variable – produced by Usain Bolt during his world record performance of 9.58 seconds, set in 2009.
Drag, which is simply an object’s opposing force as it moves through a medium (air), is different for each individual and is truly a measure of aerodynamics. Therefore, a person with a smaller build (Usain Bolt is 6’5’’ and 207 lbs) would theoretically have an advantage, as he or she would be more aerodynamic. Other ways to decrease drag include running with a tailwind (up to two meters per second is admissible for world records) or to run races at a higher altitude, where the thinner air produces less resistance.
Runners are notorious for not easily being able to touch their toes while stretching, and new studies suggest this may actually work in their favor. Researchers from South Africa2 tested 313 Caucasian male participants of the South African Ironman triathlon in 2006 and 2007. Each participant was genotyped to determine whether a genetic variant was responsible for decreased flexibility within the muscles (COL5A1). The results indicated that runners with the “inflexibility gene” completed the running portion of the triathlon an average of 13 minutes faster than the athletes without the gene. Swim and bike times were unaffected.
On the other hand, inflexibility may be detrimental in some cases. A runner’s degree of dorsiflexion (i.e. the ability to draw the top of the foot towards the shin bone) is often implicated in injuries, including knee pain, shin splints, IT band syndrome and tendonitis. At the very minimum, dorsiflexion should be at least 25o, however, 40o is often recommended for proper biomechanics. Inflexibility in the ankle can lead the body to believe the runner’s toe will drag across the ground, forcing the knee or hip to compensate by swinging the leg outward instead of forward. With proper flexibility in the ankle, this inefficiency can be avoided.
An interesting study that was recently performed by scientists at Penn State University used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to show that a major difference between sprinters and non-athletes is found in the bones. Two groups of people were tested: sprinters (those who had at least three years experience of continuous sprint training) and height-matched non-athletes. Imaging revealed that those from the sprinting group had significantly longer bones in their feet than non-sprinters. The first metatarsal was found to be 4.3% longer than non-sprinters, while the big toe was 6.2% longer. This finding is significant, as it shows that sprinters can utilize the longer bones to produce a greater force as they push off the ground.
Running is, without a doubt, a sport for the meticulous. A repetitive activity that requires consistency, patience and dedication to small details (i.e. calories consumed, recovery regime followed, amount of sleep received and countless miles logged), it certainly takes a distinct personality in order to excel at this sometimes mundane sport. Many people argue that Type A personalities (those who display excessive determination, competitiveness and drive) tend to have greater success in running than their Type B (characteristically more relaxed) counterparts.
However, a study performed in 1990 and published in Journal of Family Practice3 indicated that runners displaying a stereotypical Type A personality were at significantly greater risk for developing a running related injury. In fact, runners that scored highest on the Type A personality scale often lost twice as much training time due to injury than low-scorers. While having an innate drive for competition and work ethic may be an advantage initially, losing time due to injury will ultimately restrict Type A’s from reaching their full potential.
Stride Length and Rate
When you compare a professional and recreational runner side by side, a major difference that you will see is that stride length and stride rate (i.e. cadence) vary considerably between the two athletes. Researchers have found that both factors go hand in hand, as a tall runner may invariably be able to cover more distance with each stride while a shorter runner will excel at having a higher cadence. If a runner can improve both factors, however, increases in speed will be observed.
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Why is a runner with a higher step frequency is faster? In general, a high cadence equates to increased aerobic capacity and neuromuscular training. In addition, a longer stride length helps a runner cover more ground per applied force, but also contributes to a longer flight time (meaning both feet are off the ground). In this sense, a longer stride length in conjunction with increased step frequency equals more power. In running, power output is a direct determination of speed, which is exactly why these two factors are so important.
While the shoes will not run for themselves, they are extremely important when you give your best effort. The weight, comfort, fitting, sole geometry and sole material are all factors that determine your speed. Can running shoes make you run faster? At Airia, we believe they do. We even started a unique project to demonstrate that our shoes save heartbeats and we were at the Berlin Marathon last year to let runners test the Airia 1.5.
Take the Airia shoes for a run and see for yourself.
1. J. J. Hernández Gómez, V. Marquina, and R. W. Gómez, “On the performance of Usain Bolt in the 100 m sprint,” Eur. J. Phys. 34 (5), 1227–1233 (2013) (link)
2. Posthumus M, Schwellnus MP, Collins M. (2011) The COL5A1 gene: a novel marker of endurance running performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2011 Apr;43(4):584-9. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181f34f4d (link)
3. Fields, Karl B., Martha Delaney, and J. Scott Hinkle. “A prospective study of type A behavior and running injuries.” Journal of Family Practice Apr. 1990: 425+. Academic OneFile. (link)