The Science Behind Running Faster

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At some point almost every runner wants to be faster. May it only be the fear of coming in last in a race or wanting that new PB in your favorite distance. Training to be a faster runner is what a lot of beginners as well as advanced runners focus on.

And that’s a good thing. Increasing your body’s capabilities to run faster makes you a fitter and healthier person. So if you don’t overdo it, trying to become faster will result in a very positive way for you and your body.

On the way to ideal training it is not just important to copy a random training plan you found online. I think it’s beneficial to know what exactly you want train and what processes of your organism you’re trying to improve.

That’s what this post is for. I wanna take you on a journey through the human body and show you the contributing parts and mechanics that are related to running faster. This knowledge will help you understand the different training techniques that I’ve written about and I’ll write about in the future.

So let’s waste no time and get started on some basics.

The Basics: Supercompensation

Supercompensation is the basic principle of physical training and shows you the three phases you body goes through for every improvement oriented workout you do.

1. Training
At the beginning is the workout itself in which you give your organism a training stimulus. After a training your fitness abilities are lower than before training. You are exhausted.

2. Recovery
In order to be ready for setting another training stimulus you have to recover and regain the fitness level you had before the last workout.

3. Supercompensation
And after you recovered to the level you had before, supercompensation comes into play. Supercompensation is your bodies mechanism to overcompensate your exhaustion and adapt to the training stimulus you set with working out. You are now fitter than before the workout.

The three phases of training, recovery and supercompensation

The three phases of training, recovery and supercompensation

Knowing this helps you plan your training and wait with intense training until you’re „supercompensated“ in order to get the best results.

Of course you need to get to know your body so you feel when you are fully recovered and ready to go for the next heavy training session. You also need to have discipline and hold back until you’re recovered. This is maybe the biggest mistake beginning runners make. They go back training before being recovered which results in overtraining and injury. And being sidelined doesn’t make you faster, does it?

If you wanna learn more about Supercompensation, check out this post.

Perfomance Level: VO2max

The VO2may is like your bodies performance index and might even be used to calculate your race pace and finishing time before a race. Basically the VO2max shows how much oxygen your body can consume during exercise. But wait why is oxygen that important?

Oxygen has a very important function in our energy metabolism and is needed in the biochemical process of burning carbohydrates and fat into the energy needed for your muscles to contract. The more oxygen you can take in and transport to you muscles the more energy can be provided. Your maximum oxygen consumption therefore reflects the running speed you can obtain for the distance of your race.

The VO2max is measured in mililiters of oxygen per minute and per kilogram. So if you’re 70 kilograms and have a VO2max of 50 your body can use 3.5 liters of oxygen per minute for your energy metabolism.

For untrained healthy men a normal VO2max is between 35 and 40 and for women 27 – 31. Elite runners can have values of 85 (men) and 77 (women).

The most common way to estimate your VO2max is the Cooper test in which you try to run as much as you can for 12 minutes. With the distance in meters (d) you can calculate your estimated VO2max:

VO2max formula

VO2max formula

Power House: Mitochondria

This is the power plant of your muscles. In order to contract and move you forward, your muscles need a molecule called ATP. ATP or adenosine triphosphate, needs to be produced from other energy sources (like fat or carbs) together with oxygen. And this is where your mitochondria comes in. A mitochondrion is a small part of your cells that has many functions, the most important one is energy conversion.

As you might imagine having as many mitochondria as possible comes in handy when you need your muscles to do some work. The amount of mitochondria in your muscle cells varies widely. However with specific training you can increase the amount of mitochondria in your cells.

Mitochondrium

Mitochondrium

Mitochondria get built especially when you lack of carbohydrate. So there are basically two ways to help increase your mitochondria count:
1. Train after you burned all your carbohydrate reserves
2. Low carb diet

So the main training for that purpose are slow long runs with a limited food intake. It helps you generate more of the power house mitochondria which also helps you maintaining a high running pace while burning a higher share of fat instead of carbs.

Your Fuse: Lactate

When there is not enough oxygen available for energy metabolism the lactic acid (or lactate) produced in your muscles while converting energy cannot be fully abolished. If that happens you run faster than your lactate threshold in an anaerobic intensity. The concentration of lactate in you muscles increases and you muscles start burning. Most athletes can perform in this intensity only for around two minutes. However there are some pros like Norwegian cross-country skier Petter Northug who can suffer quite a bit longer.

So lactate is the fuse that prevents you from runner too fast and your organism cannot keep up with the work. The goal in training is to level ip your lactate threshold so the pace you can maintain for certain increases. Your lactate threshold is at about 90% of your maximum heart rate. To increase speed you should train at this intensity. Intervals, tempo runs or hill runs are great workouts for this.

Endurance Engine: Heart

Human Heart

Human Heart

This is most certainly not news for you. Your heart is the engine that keeps all the processes running. It’s probably the most important organ when it comes to endurance sports. Your heart pumps the blood through your organism and therefore supplies your muscles with the energy and oxygen that’s needed.

If you run faster more energy and oxygen is needed and your heart starts to beat faster. What you try to achieve in training is the capability of your heart to transport as much blood with each heartbeat as possible. This results in an increased volume of your heart which is also named an athlete’s heart.

Efficient Transportation: Red Blood Cells

Red Blood Cells

Red Blood Cells

As already described having enough oxygen available in your muscles for energy conversion is key when you want to maintain a high pace for some time. The oxygen molecules you take in while you breathe is picked up in your lungs and gets transported through your organism on red blood cells. So having a high amount of red blood cells is one of the things that is very beneficial for endurance athletes.

The hematocrit is the volume percentage of red blood cells in your blood. Normally this value is less than 50%. Endurance athletes try to increase the amount of red blood cells with intense training and altitude training.

When endurance athletes use performance enhancing drugs it often is for the purpose of increasing the hematocrit. This is not only illegal but a too high hematocrit can also be dangerous because your blood gets thicker and the risk of blood cloths increases. That’s why for many sports the maximum allowed hematocrit is limited and one of the measures to find the use of doping in an athlete.

Energy Efficiency: Biomechanics

Now that we’ve talked about the general processes of your body that play a role in getting faster, let’s focus on some other factors that impact your speed. One of them is your biomechanics or your running form. Running in the most energy efficient way will obviously result in a faster pace with the same energy output.

In my childhood running days what you’ve normally been told in a running store was: Buy a shoe with as much cushioning as possible, land on your heel and roll over your foot. This common sense has changed quite a bit in the past years. One reason was the famous book „Born to Run“ which is very much in favor of barefoot or minimal running. This gave the whole minimal running movement a boost and spread the discussion which style of running is healthier and more efficient.

I’m not strictly recommending one or the other, I suggest you try anything and figure out what works best for you. However I’d like to share some thoughts on running style. For me running is like constant falling and transforming the energy of your falling body (gravity) into a forward motion. Striking with your heel first keeps you a bit leaning back so you give away the energy from falling. I made pretty good experiences with trying to land on my fore- to midfoot. Imagine your foot on the ground, your hips and your shoulder form a vertical line. But try to lean forward just a bit.

Another thing that helped me with maintaining a proper running form for hours of running was strengthening my core. It’s not very efficient to have a posture like a potato bag and strengthening your core muscles helps you keeping your body upright.

Travel Light: Weight

Losing some pounds can also have a big impact on your running pace. This is quite logical as you need far less energy when you don’t need to transport extra weight. This energy can then be used to run faster.

According by a book of a German marathon coach, losing 1kg can result in a 2 minute faster marathon time. So if you have some extra kilos you can get rid of, that’s an easy way to make you faster and helps protect your joints as well.

Getting Pushed: Social Networks

I wanna close this one with a new insight that I recently read about: Social Networks. In short a study showed that when you see the recorded training and achievements of your friends it has quite an impact on your own running. So recording and sharing your training can not only help you improve but also your friends. Check out the full article here: Nature Article.

So that’s it for now with some scientific aspects that should help you getting a better understanding how getting faster really works. Let me know if I missed anything and let us all know on which aspect you are working on next!

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Happy running,
mikula

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