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Tag Archives: distance running

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.


Kirk Reynolds has an interesting article in the spring 2011 issue of Track Coach. The article consists of an interview with Terrence Mahon and Dan Pfaff, both well known distance coaches, on the training if distance runners. I find this an interesting article because some of their points are going to be a little controversial and because I don’t normally work with distance runners.

The first point that the coaches make is that there is a need to carefully and comprehensively analyze a distance runner’s form and make changes. This implies that there is an ideal form for the distance runner. They feel this is necessary from the standpoint of improving performance (for example, stride frequency, stride length, exerting force against the ground, etc.) and also for preventing injuries. Repeatedly in this article it is stressed that just because an athlete feels that he/she is running easily, that is not the same as properly.

The second point that the coaches make is what specifically to look for. Essentially they are looking for the lower leg to be perpendicular to the ground during foot strike, dorsiflexion of the foot while it is off the ground (i.e. similar to a sprinter), and focusing on arm swing similar to how a sprinter does it.

They advocate the use of sprinting drills, video analysis, strength training, and resisted core training to help develop technique and the physical foundation for it.

Another interesting point, energy system specificity aside both coaches feel that distance runners need to do sprints. They point out that a lot of African runners play football, which means lots of sprinting. This athletic foundation is often missing in distance runners. Sprints are important for reinforcing running form, exerting force against the ground, and for developing the ability to sprint at the end of a race,

Interesting food for thought. Many of the distance runners and coaches that I’ve run into would resist the idea of optimal running form, sprinting drills, sprints, and strength training instead wanting to focus on mileage and intervals.

Reynolds, K. (2011). Should coaches alter running form in distance runners? Track Coach, 195, 6217-6224.