What makes you a faster runner? There's no denying that a high level of physical fitness, good running technique and a positive mindset all help. However, your genetic makeup also determines the limiting threshold for physiological factors that affect your performance.
Diligent training and a focus on technique can always improve your running. But your genetic makeup and the choices you make about lifestyle factors like hydration and nutrition can affect your running performance too.
Physiological Factors to Consider
As exercise researchers at the University of New Mexico point out, a number of physiological factors determine the limits of your endurance capability, including the efficiency of your heart, lungs and circulatory system in bringing oxygen in and circulating it to your muscles. Although training can improve all of these factors, your genetic makeup decides the ultimate physiological limits of your body's performance.
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If you run long distances, then endurance and speed are inextricably linked. You can't have one without the other when your race is measured in terms of miles instead of meters or yards; you certainly can't sprint for the finish line if you don't make it that far in the first place.
However, there are physiological limiting factors for short-distance speed bursts too. As the American Council on Exercise explains, your genes determine your personal balance of slow-twitch muscle fibers (which are heavily recruited for endurance activities) and fast-twitch muscle fibers (which are heavily recruited for explosive, strength- and power-based activities like running sprints).
Clinically defining your balance of fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers requires an invasive medical procedure — but if your body shows a clear aptitude for either endurance- or power-based activities, that gives you a pretty clear idea of where you stand.
Read more: Proper Training for Long-Distance Running
Economy of Motion
In a small study published in a 2012 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers studied 14 volunteers who were new to running. They found that through the course of a 10-week, beginner-oriented running program, the volunteers naturally self-optimized their gaits to greatly improve their overall running economy, or efficiency.
The researchers go on to speculate that in light of their results and information from other studies, these gait adaptations may occur between six and 10 weeks of training. As you build a regular running habit your body not only gets more fit, but also learns how to use those new fitness resources more efficiently — and the more efficient you are in your gait, the faster and farther you can go.
However, that doesn't mean everybody automatically attains perfect running form — and it certainly doesn't mean you'll reach maximal efficiency of motion in just 10 weeks of training. If you find that you've plateaued or are simply ready to step your running goals up another notch, getting some one-on-one or group-based coaching to improve your technique can help you to progress.
This is particularly true if you're running at a high level, where the differences in speed or stamina can be measured in seconds, or even fractions of seconds, from one competitor to the next. Just as even the best writers need an editor to reach their fullest potential, even the best runners will benefit from a good coaching relationship.
Finally, if you went into your running habit with a muscular imbalance or gait abnormality, running — like any other physical activity — might exacerbate those existing imbalances. However, with appropriate guidance from a coach or medical professional, you can adapt your gait to resolve any imbalances instead of making them worse.
Read more: 20 Essential Checks to Help You Run Faster
Food and Hydration
If you're trying to lose weight, or have ever tried to lose weight, it may be tempting to look at food as a necessary evil that has the power to tip your precious calorie deficit back into a surplus. But food is fuel for all the amazing things your body can do, like run. And just as with cars, having the right fuel can make a huge different in your ultimate performance.
The ideal eating patterns will vary, depending on your training or racing schedule, your goals and how all of that fits into your lifestyle. But as a nutritionist with Ohio State University explains, one of the first things that will make you "hit a wall" during a long run is depleted glycogen stores, which can happen more quickly if you don't eat enough carbohydrates in between runs.
For the best performance, you should also refuel your body on the go during long runs; the University of Utah recommends consuming a snack loaded with complex carbohydrates every 30 to 45 minutes during prolonged physical activity, and eating within 30 minutes after a long run to help your muscles recover.
Much like giving your body appropriate fuel is something you should do every day — not just on race days — staying hydrated is also an ongoing task that you should do day in, day out for optimal performance. You should also rehydrate during your long runs. OSU recommends weighing yourself before and after a long training run. That'll tell you how much fluid you lost. During your next long run, drink 16 to 32 ounces of fluids per pound of fluids lost.
And finally, although scientists don't fully understand the link between sleep and athletic performance, they do acknowledge the presence of a clear relationship, as noted in a review published in the November/December 2017 issue of Current Sports Medicine Reports.
Equally important, although perhaps a little counterintuitive, is the importance of overall rest — not just when you sleep, but also during periodic rest intervals that are built into your training program. This is relative to your fitness level; beginners might need a couple of recovery days during their workouts when first getting started, while elite-level athletes might only rest one day a week, if that.
The one thing that's absolutely clear is that increased risk of injury and decreased performance — meaning, you guessed it, running more slowly — can both result from overtraining.
- American Council on Exercise: "Muscle Fiber Types: Fast-Twitch vs Slow-Twitch"
- University of New Mexico: "The Physiological Factors Limiting Endurance Exercise Capacity"
- Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise: "Mechanisms for Improved Running Economy in Beginner Runners"
- Ohio State University: "4 Nutrition Tips for Runners"
- University of Utah: "Nutrition: Why It Matters When Training"
- Current Sports Medicine Reports: "Sleep and Athletic Performance"