The Science Behind Improving Your Running Performance
Running is sport in which the only real competitor is the clock, and runners are continually working to make improvements to their fitness. By running longer and faster, hitting the weight room harder, and making necessary lifestyle changes, many runners experience gains. But what is the science behind improved running performance? Here are seven factors behind enhanced performance.
Aerobic capacity, which is commonly referred to as VO2 max, measures how efficiently a person can uptake oxygen, which has implications for a number of cellular and muscular processes during an athletic performance. In a simpler sense, VO2 max correlates directly to running speed and performance: the higher a person’s aerobic capacity, the faster he or she can run.
By improving VO2 max, a person’s cardiovascular system is able to work more efficiently, which enables a runner to work harder in practice, leading to improvements during races. The ability to convert glycogen and fat into fuel is enhanced, which decreases the amount of energy required during workouts, long runs, and races. In addition, a greater VO2 max correlates to improved ability to find “gear changes” during workouts and races, leading to a faster finishing kick or ability to cover an opponent’s moves during a race.
While aerobic capacity is largely genetic, athletes are able to improve VO2 max by roughly 25% of what they were born with. One of the greatest ways of improving aerobic capacity is to run long intervals at the fastest pace you can sustain (or, at a pace that is slightly below maximum heart rate). Total interval mileage should be approximately 5000 m, meaning 6 x 800 m, 5 x 1000 m, or 3 x 1600 m, all with 2 – 4 minutes of rest (depending on interval distance), is appropriate. Workouts such as these stress the body’s aerobic system, forcing it to adapt in order to improve running economy.
Running efficiency refers to how much energy is used by a runner in order to get from Point A to Point B. In many ways, this aspect can be compared to the fuel efficiency of a vehicle. Would you rather be a Hummer, bulky and barreling down the road, required to refuel every few miles; or the streamlined hybrid vehicle, able to go many miles farther before needing to stop for fuel? While efficiency can be a measurement of internal processes (i.e. aerobic capacity), it can also be measured in a physical sense, by calculating how much energy is lost due to form inefficiencies. Ultimately, any movement that detracts from forward motion, such as poor knee drive, arms that cross the torso or a bobbing head, can decrease a runner’s fuel economy1.
Improvements to running efficiency, often in the form of strength training, can pay huge dividends in longer races. Not only do breakdowns in form cause unnecessary stress on joints that can lead to injury and muscle cramping, but the body must reroute energy that should be going towards necessary processes (i.e. thermoregulation, fuel conversion, etc) to the overworked muscles. By improving efficiency, runners improve their finishing times by having more energy to spare at the end of the race.
Common ways to improve running form are to run more mileage during the week, to run more high-quality workouts2, and to incorporate hill work into your running routine. Each of these strategies helps the body gain the functional strength required to waste as little energy as possible. For extreme form deficiencies, such as poor posture or torso-crossing arms, strength work in the weight room is necessary to overcome these problems.
Simply put, lactate threshold is how fast a person can run before high amounts of lactic acid build up in the muscles. If a runner has a high lactate threshold, then he or she can sustain a fast speed before feeling the burning discomfort of lactic acid in the legs. Improved lactate threshold leads to improved performance because the athlete feels less pain that may otherwise force the runner to slow down in order to avoid “hitting the wall.” Typically, runners correlate a higher lactate threshold with improved endurance, which is crucial for improving race times across distances from 10k to marathon.
One of the most common ways to improve lactate threshold is to perform tempo runs, where a moderately hard pace is maintained for a distance of 3 – 10 miles. Lactic acid is generated as a byproduct of energy conversion, meaning that any activity that requires the body to convert glycogen to glucose will result in lactate build up. By regularly working out in these conditions, a runner can improve his or her discomfort threshold and cover distances at a faster pace before pain sets in.
How Is Lactic Acid Produced?
All muscles need energy in order to contract properly. The energy they use is received from molecules (e.g. glucose). The source is usually the food. The vast amount of chemical energy our bodies use is released when chemical bonds are carefully broken throughout chemical reactions.
There are two forms of muscle respiration:
• Aerobic respiration: occurs during normal muscle use
• Anaerobic respiration: occurs when muscles are working hard and require extra amounts of oxygen than the cardiovascular and respiratory systems can supply. Glucose is broken down when there is insufficient oxygen available
In a nutshell:
Glucose + Oxygen Carbon Dioxide + Water + Energy
Glucose Lactic Acid + (smaller amount of) Energy
Oxygen uptake is so different in females – being only 70-75% of those of males. A recent study6 which included 1700 women and men showed average VO2 max values of 40ml/kg/min and 55ml/kg/min for women and men respectively for the age category 16-24 years. It seems that VO2 max declines with age.
This causes a sudden increase in the haemoglobin content of the blood to sustain the elevated needs of oxygen (since the haemoglobin molecules are the ones which carry oxygen to the muscles). Runners who train at altitude and compete at sea level have an enhanced aerobic performance. There are so many factors such as running economy, psychological factors, technique, nutrition, and recovery, which also have a huge influence on aerobic performance. It is for these reasons that VO2 max alone doesn’t predict performance.
What happens when a runner has maximally improved his or her VO2 max, running efficiency, and lactate threshold? This question, which is often posed to elite runners who have spent the majority of their lives fine tuning their athletic abilities, has a simple answer: improve your mental game3. The old adage that running is 90% mental and 10% physical is important once you have taken your body as far as it can go. No matter how physically prepared you are for race day, there are always improvements that can be made in your mental strategy, whether that involves pushing through pain like never before, wasting as little mental energy as possible dwelling on uncontrollable outcomes, or having an improved racing strategy.
An improved mental game leads to faster performances because it helps athletes utilize all of their ability. Confidence4 in training and racing is perhaps the single most important aspect when it comes to being a runner, but it is not defined by an athlete’s ability.
To improve your mental game, include visualization drills, the use of mantras, acceptance of uncontrollable aspects, and confidence training. Studies have shown all of the above mental game strategies, especially visualization5, can improve athletic performance – even among runners that have reached their supposed peak level of fitness.
1. Fletcher JR, Esau SP, Macintosh BR. Economy of running: beyond the measurement of oxygen uptake. J Appl Physiol. 2009;107(6):1918–22. [PubMed
2. Laursen PB, Jenkins DG. 2002. The scientific basis for high-intensity interval training: optimising training programmes and maximising performance in highly trained endurance athletes. Sports Med. 32(1): 53-73 CrossRef, Medline, ISI.
3. Jones, G., Hanton, S., & Connaughton, D. (2002). What is this thing called mental toughness? An investigation of elite sport performers. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 14, 205-218. Link
4. Taylor J. Predicting athletic performance with self-confidence and somatic and cognitive anxiety as a function of motor and physiological requirements in six sports. J Pers 1987;55:139–153 PubMed
5. Newmark T. Cases in Visualization for Improved Athletic Performance. Psychiatr Ann. 2012; 42: 385-387. doi: 10.3928/00485713-20121003-07 Link
6. Howley ET, Bassett DR Jr, Welch HG, Criteria for maximal oxygen uptake: review and commentary. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1995 Sep;27(9):1292-301. Link