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Why We're Running Faster Than Ever

Five reasons why athletes can cover more ground in less time than ever before – with three ways to help you improve your performance.

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Why We're Running Faster Than Ever
Photo Credit Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images Sport

Overview

One hundred years ago, on the eve of the 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games, the world records for 100 meters, 1500 meters, and the marathon stood at 10.5 seconds, 3:55.8, and 2:40:35.

Today the records are 9.59, 3:26, and 2:03:30. Clearly, runners keep getting faster. Indeed, women have been improving at an even-more-dramatic rate than men, probably because they had few opportunities until the last 50 years.

Since humans have evolved little in the last 100 years, runners, unlike cars, aren’t getting faster due to bigger, more powerful engines. Instead their improvements depended on a variety of other factors.

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“Elite athletic performance involves integration of muscular, cardiovascular and neurological factors that function cooperatively,”

- -Michael Joyner, M.D., co-author of “The Physiology of Champions,”

“Elite athletic performance involves integration of muscular, cardiovascular and neurological factors that function cooperatively,” says Michael Joyner, M.D., co-author of a Journal of Physiology paper titled “The Physiology of Champions,” which was published just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The runners themselves use slightly less academic terms. Reflecting on her American Record marathon performance (2:19:36) in the 2006 London Marathon, Deena Kastor says: “My personal bests came from a combination of physical and mental acuity. On the physical side, I adapted to twenty years of endurance training. On the mental side, I was having so much fun running with my husband, my training partner, and my coach.”

America’s fastest-ever marathoner, Ryan Hall, 2:04:58, places an even greater emphasis on mental preparation. “There are many factors that lead to a performance breakthrough,” says Hall, currently training for his second Olympic Marathon. “But I think the biggest one is the mind.”

Physiologists, coaches, statisticians, and runners often list the following reasons to explain ever-faster running times.

More participation

From your local 5K to big urban marathons to loosely-organized cross-country races in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, more people are running than ever before. When this happens, the cream rises to the top. This is particularly true for groups that have been under-represented previously, ie, women and third-world runners. The Olympics no longer belong to teams like the British squad made famous in “Chariots of Fire,” about the 1924 Olympics.

“More participants from more regions is critical to faster times,” says Michael Joyner. “The poster child for this is Abebe Bikila.” Bikila won the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Marathons, first alerting the world to the distance-running talent of East Africa

More opportunity, greater reward

Never before have there been so many high-quality races with so much prize money. The money may pale alongside that offered professional football, baseball, and basketball players, but it’s eye-popping to a young kid from Jamaica or Kenya. One veteran track manager estimates that Jamaica’s Usain Bolt, Olympic champ and world-record-holder in the 100-meters and 200-meters, will earn about $12 million this year. That dwarfs the $100,000 first-place winnings at many major marathons, often increased by appearance fees for the most famous runners. But in Kenya, with an average annual income of $780, road-race prizes are enough to make you run long and hard.

Better training

While physiology hasn’t changed, training methods have. A century ago, runners just ran around a dirt track or through the local forests. Today they train more, and more scientifically, than any runners ever have. Some live at altitude, others sleep in altitude tents; both are hoping to improve their blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. They also use low-gravity treadmills (developed by NASA) and heart-rate monitors, and religiously perform core-training and stretching regimens. Sprinters understand as never before the importance of strength-training to produce maximal muscle spring from minimal foot-contact time.

In East Africa, European coaches are teaching their runners new workouts that increase time spent at or near race pace. “Workouts that cause you to go really hard, recover, and then go hard again produce significant benefits,” notes Bill Pierce of the Furman Institute of Running and Scientific Training (FIRST).

Better nutrition

Few experts think nutrition has played a major role in faster running times, but all great runners pay attention to smart hydration and nutrition. Fifty years ago, distance runners were told to avoid drinking, as it supposedly led to stomach cramps. Now drinks, gels, and bars are carefully formulated with carbs and electrolytes to help sustain endurance. In addition, both sprinters and endurance runners understand the importance of refueling with carbs and proteins after a hard workout. The combination replenishes energy supplies, and helps muscles repair and grow.

The power of the mind

In the years leading up to his historic sub-4 mile (3:59.4) on May 6, 1954, Roger Bannister was told that the feat was literally impossible. After, he predicted: “Apres moi, le deluge.”

He was right. Six weeks later, John Landy lowered the record to 3:58.0, and soon many others followed. Sub-4 wasn’t a physiological barrier; it was a psychological one.

Present-day runners are as likely to consult a sports psychologist as a nutritionist. The goal? To reduce the anxieties of high-level training and racing, and to open the mind to new horizons. Famed South African sports scientist, Tim Noakes, M.D., author of the encyclopedic Lore of Running has recently been honing an idea often termed “the central governor hypothesis.” According to Noakes, the brain limits performance, not the legs and heart.

“So is it really mind over matter?” He asks in a new paper titled, “Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion.” Noakes answers in the affirmative. He believes that fatigue is largely an “illusion” created in the mind; it doesn’t come from the muscles. Thus, “the winning athlete is the one whose illusionary symptoms interfere the least with actual performance.” That is, if you can train your brain to ignore feelings of fatigue, you can run faster. Noakes delights in quoting Bannister himself, who once said: “It’s the brain, not the heart or lungs, that is the critical organ.”

Right or wrong, Noakes sounds a lot like Ryan Hall. “I think fear is the biggest thing that holds humans back in all facets of life, but especially in sport,” says Hall, still trying to win his first major marathon. “What we are seeing now in the marathon is a group of runners who are losing their fear. Fearlessness is the key.”

How You Can Get Faster

Most of us aren’t going to race in London’s Olympic Games, much less break a world record. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to run faster using some of the techniques champions have used. The top three guidelines for average athletes:

1. DO MORE TRAINING AT OR NEAR RACE PACE. These sorts of workouts, called HIT sessions for “High Intensity Training,” help the legs, heart, and brain adapt to the stress of race efforts. “Thousands of runners have reported that the FIRST training paces are challenging, but helped them achieve faster times,” says Bill Pierce.

2. REFORMULATE YOUR FUEL. If you need to lose a few pounds, which is virtually guaranteed to make you faster, concentrate on high quality foods. Eat whole-grain carbs before workouts, and indulge yourself with low-fat chocolate milk soon after your training. Eliminate other sugary drinks--a common problem area for always-thirsty runners.

3. BELIEVE IT TO ACHIEVE IT. Yes, that’s an Oprah-esque cliché. But it’s one many world class athletes use to get even faster. The mind is your most vexing enemy when it holds you back, but can be your biggest ally when you learn to unleash it. “I don’t have any magic thoughts,” says Hall. “I’ve just learned to open myself up, relax, and let what was already inside of me flow.”

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