What are elite distance runners doing differently?
Genotype vs Phenotype. Running Form. Biomechanics. Nutrition.
What does it take to become an elite runner? While there is one major factor that sets elite athletes apart from average runners – they chose their parents well – it is possible for someone who has little or no talent during the first years to improve significantly through very hard and sustained work, eventually reaching world-class status.
“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” ― Kevin Durant
While you may say this is unlikely, remember that hard work is the essence of mastery and progress. Champions are champions because they are willing to strive and suffer through pain. They are willing to be disciplined. They are willing to make that extra step further. The grind is what makes elite runners peak performers.
In the previous post, I discussed the link between genes and running performance. I feel a second part is a must. This article is focused on things that elite distance runners do to achieve titanic results. Why distance runners? Leaving aside the fact that research shows sprinters are born, not made, there’s simply not much one can do in addition to high amounts of training and proper nutrition. There’s not much planning you can do for a 100-meter race, and many of the ideas presented in this piece apply for sprinting as well.
“Long-distance running, or endurance running, is a form of continuous running over distances of at least three kilometres (1.86 miles). Physiologically, it is largely aerobic in nature and requires stamina as well as mental strength.” – Wikipedia
The genotype of humans is the genetic code in the cells. It’s a genetic constitution of individual influences. The phenotype is the visible or expressed trait, such as hair color. It depends upon the genotype, but can also be influenced by environmental factors.
In other words, you can’t change your parents, but you can choose who you want to become. You can change the phenotype. You can run farther and faster with smart planning.
What are Elite Distance Runners Doing Differently?
Seemingly out of nowhere, distance running has recently experienced a large insurgence of interest and participation. For instance, what used to be small events, held in obscurity with little fanfare, no frills, and a few headlamps, have now turned into events where the number of participants have reached capacity and wait lists and lotteries are required for entry. According to ultrarunning.com, just in 2013 alone, ultrarunning saw 10% more participants finishing races than in 2012. The recent popularity has also incentivized running fast during these long races. Records are rapidly falling, and elite ultrarunners such as Rob Krar, Max King, Camille Herron, and Magdalena Boulet are making their mark on the scene.
On the same note, marathon and half marathon races saw a huge increase from the 1990s until 2013, according to runningusa.org.
The question is: what sets elite distance runners apart from the masses?
There should be no surprise that elite distance runners train differently, but their methods can, and should, be emulated for others to see improvement as well.
Elites Balance Hard and Easy Running
When training for an ultra, it can be extremely tempting to forgo speed work completely and instead focus on running a lot of long, slow distance runs. Instead, elites balance their training with up-tempo work and shorter races, running hard on hard days and easy on easy days. By incorporating fast workouts such as tempos, fartleks, intervals, and hill repeats, elites improve their efficiency at running slower speeds, and improve their aerobic capacity.
Elites Have Heavy Training Volume
A big difference between the elite racers and the rest of the field at an ultra event is how many miles the elites are able to run each week. Some of the top ultrarunners, such as Camille Herron, who won the 2015 World Championship 50k and 100k races, run in excess of 100 miles per week. Elites understand that the more time spent on their feet, the better they will be able to withstand spending 12 – 24 hours running during a race. While it may not be feasible for the average runner to have such a heavy training volume, even small increases in the number of miles (or time spent running) weekly can have big rewards.
Elites Work on their Form
When racing 10Ks, marathon or ultra distances, elite runners understand that even small inefficiencies in their running form can cost them precious time. Elites spend part of their training doing form drills as well as ironing out kinks in the weight room to ensure the most efficient stride is achieved. Focusing on arm swing (pick your pocket, pick your nose), knee drive, and minimization of lateral movement is important for faster finishes.
Elites Understand their Nutritional Needs
Elite marathoners and ultrarunners respect the distances they are running and understand that proper fueling is important for not only training and racing, but recovery as well. Injuries are an unfortunate part of training and racing the ultra distance, but elites can help manage this aspect by acknowledging the needs of their bodies. Many ultra runners follow specific diets – some, like Scott Jurek, who recently set the record for the fastest known time on the Appalachian Trial, are vegan; others, like Tim Olson, who won Western States 100 in 2012, follow a low-carb/high-fat diet. The difference is not that these elites follow alternative diet strategies, but that they have thoroughly researched the proper way to fuel their bodies and have worked with nutritionists and other diet professionals to offset any nutritional imbalances.
Nutrition is key to success in running, and almost every other sport.
Besides following different training and nutrition plans than most runners, elite ultrarunners have perfected their strategies on race day.
Elites Embrace Power Walking
As Magdalena Boulet, Olympian and 2015 Western States 100 winner, stated about her transition from marathon to ultrarunning distances, an important concept for ultrarunners to grasp is that power walking, especially on technical or hilly terrain, is sometimes necessary. Not only does power walking conserve energy during tough portions of the race, but can also save a runner from injury. Knowing when to slow down, and even when to walk, can mean the difference between finishing the race and burning out early.
Elites Run Fast on Downhill Portions
Even though elite marathon and ultrarunners conserve energy on the climbs, they know how to make up for lost time on downhill segments. By practicing downhill running, focusing on increased quad strength, and using good form, elites can strategically use downhill running to their advantage. For the average runner, incorporating downhill repeats that are controllably run close to mile race pace, can increase downhill efficiency.
Elites Carry Less Gear
When standing on the starting line, the elite runners are often easy to pick out: they are lean, lanky, but, most notably, are often carrying a much lighter load than other participants. For the majority of elites, you will not find them hauling much more than a handheld water bottle. Why? The elites understand that carrying additional weight beyond what is truly needed can decrease running efficiency and slow them down. During training runs, the elites have found, through trial and error, exactly how much is necessary. They know what is essential and what can be picked up at aid stations. Even carrying just a few extra ounces can add up over 50 or 100 miles.
Elites Have a Knowledgeable Crew
In ultrarunning, especially over the 100+ mile distance, having a crew that understands the course, conditions, and needs of an ultrarunner is crucial. Elites handpick their crew and pace team to fit their needs on any given day. At the later stages of the race, when mental and physical exhaustion set in, the crew is responsible for making important decisions, including keeping the runner fed and hydrated. Having a knowledgeable crew can be the difference between finishing strong and not finishing.
Elites Have a Detailed Nutrition Plan
Elites approach their nutrition and aid station planning as thoroughly and methodically as they approach their training. For races in notoriously tough climates, such as the Javelina 100 or the Badwater 100, plans must be set in place for extreme temperatures and dehydration. Elite distance runners know that drinking ice cold when it is hot outside can drain excess energy, and plan accordingly. Elites also know their bodies and their specific needs, such as their sweat rate, and target exactly how many ounces of fluid, how many salt tabs, and how many calories are required at each aid station.
Ultimately, a lot can be learned from the distance running professionals. Ultramarathons and marathons are not simply races to see who is fastest, but also who can strategize the best. Attention to detail, such as form, biomechanics, nutrition, downhill running, and crew members are only a few pieces that set elites apart.