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Jason Karp had a great article in the November issue of Techniques, which is the publication put out by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. Dr. Karp writes for everything from peer-review journals to coaching publications like Techniques and Track Coach dealing primarily with distance running. I enjoy his writing even though I don’t work with distance runners.

In this article, he is focusing on lessons learned from physiology and how they can be applied to distance running. I’m not going to cover all of these, instead I’m going to focus on one big one (and I’m paraphrasing here), which is that maximal oxygen consumption might be overemphasized both in the lab and in training.

Maximal oxygen consumption has been the measure for distance runners for about forty years now. A lot of training programs are designed with the idea of improving this measure. This is where we get things like long, slow distance running. The idea is to go at a slow, steady state for a long time, which will improve maximal oxygen consumption.

The problem is that maximal oxygen consumption is one of those things that genetics plays a big role in. No amount of training is going to get you to 70+ ml/kg/min unless you have the genetics for it. Some of this training (like long slow distance training) can teach even distance runners to be slow, which is not the intent behind training.

So if maximal oxygen consumption isn’t the smoking gun, what is? According to Dr. Karp, the two important measures might be lactate threshold and running economy. Lactate threshold refers to the fastest speed that can be sustained aerobically. This is important because athletes can have a similar maximal oxygen consumption, but the ones with the greater lactate threshold will be able to run faster.

Running economy is the amount of oxygen consumed at submaximal speeds. In other words, an athlete with a greater running economy does less work at the same speed as another athlete, allowing them to run further and faster.

Karp, J.R. (2011). A faster runner. Techniques, 5(2): 30-39.


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