Posted by: Joe English | January 31, 2008

Training: What makes a fast distance runner?

In reading through the discussions about VO2 Max offered by my colleague Coach Dean, I started thinking about the factors that make a fast runner. See, there’s no one thing that turns a person into a great runner. It takes a bunch of things mixed together in just the right way.

Think of this example: if you put a 400 horse-power engine in a Porsche, you’ll get a different result than if you put that same 400 horse-power engine into a 20,000 pound motor-home. Although both engines have plenty of power, it depends what they’re pulling around.

So I thought I’d present a short list of things that certainly are part of the mix — hopefully with an eye on improving those things in you that you weren’t born with.

A strong aerobic power-plant – In order to sustain quick running paces, you first need to have a cardio-vascular system that is powerful enough to deliver the oxygen to your muscles that they’ll need for energy. Lance Armstrong, although more known for his cycling, is a great example of this. One of his key strengths is his massive power-plant and his ability to drive himself at amazing intensity for long periods of time. As a runner, you can work on improving your aerobic capacity by increasing your running economy – which is just what Coach Dean was talking about in his article earlier today.

Muscular strength – A great engine isn’t much use if you can’t translate that output into physical muscle force against the ground. The metric of this force is called power. Just like in my example above in comparing a Porsche to a Motorhome, a Porsche without tires won’t go very fast, will it? As a a runner, you can work on increasing your muscular strength which will translate into more power and speed.

Biomechanics that support running– A runner’s body also has to have the biomechanics that support rapid motion as well as the repeated motions of running without succumbing to injury. Although your partially born with your biomechanical make-up, there are many things that you can work on to improve in this area too. Improving your flexibility through yoga, stretching classes, and plyometrics will help build a quicker, more elastic frame for you to use in your running.

The ability to sleep – Here’s a factor that you might overlook. For a runner’s training to be effective, they must have the ability and time to sleep soundly. During your sleep, your body repairs the damage done during training and makes improvements to keep you moving forward. Runners that either don’t sleep well or don’t get enough sleep will not train at their best.

A diet that supports your running – Your diet sets the foundation upon which your training and racing is built. Runner’s need to make sure that they are eating enough — and eating enough of the things they need — in order to have the energy needed to train. Take for example the many incredible Kenyan athletes. One of the staples of the diet in Kenya are starchy grains that are loaded with complex carbohydrates, which makes for a super foundation for training and racing.

Optimal body weight – clearly body weight is related to the ability to move quickly. Coach Dean talked about a measure called vVO2 Max, which is a measure of not only your aerobic capacity, but your ability to move quickly. The heavier the body, the more weight that needs to be moved by the power-plant. Going back to the Porsche vs. Motorhome example, the 20,000 pound motorhome is heavier and will naturally have to push more around. Many of the best East African and Japanese runners are not much more than 100 or so pounds soaking wet. Now, some of this is genetics, but we can all eat a diet that supports us being at an optimum weight for our individual frames.

The ability to endure discomfort – In order to get fast, we need to run fast. If a runner doesn’t have the ability to push into their discomfort zone at least some of the time, they won’t be able to maximize their running economy and get faster. I recall a friend of mine at the track one night complaining that the track workouts “didn’t feel good”. He just didn’t have the will to push himself into that discomfort zone and that held him back.

The ability to deal with set-backs and disappointments – Runners will ultimately always have to deal with set-backs, injuries and disappointments. Being able to get back on the horse and keep training afterward is hard. Runners that can deal with this type of mental struggle will do well over the long term.

A desire and passion for running- At the core of all good runners is a desire and passion to run. Without the desire, you won’t get far.

Patience– Finally, I’ll close with patience. Running speed improves a lot for people at first and then tends to advance more slowly. Increasing distance also happens slowly. Patience in this sense means being able to take a long view, set long term goals and then work towards them over time. A Nobel Prize winning economist once said that it takes ten years to become an expert in anything. Go into your running with the expectation that you’ll improve over time, instead of trying to force instant gratification.

As you can see there’s more to it than genetics. Think of these as things to focus on that that will improve your running over time.

And keep at it!

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News



  1. Excellent tips Coach! Thank you.

    Without each of these, our potential is greatly hindered.


  2. Thanks, this really helps alot with my running maybe tomorrow I’ll try doing better, Another thing that bothers me is that when you run you get very bad sores and they’re very painful.

  3. I agree with most of these, I think the most important runner needs to really be great are these three things in the following order

    1.A desire and passion for running!(You have to love it, only then can you strive for excellence)

    2.Patience! (Running is progressive, if your behind everyone else for years at a time you just have to wait for the day when you have your big breakthrough. Some of those guys might be beating you now, but in a few years if your improving still and there not who is going to succeed? You of course, Patience young runners.

    3.A strong aerobic power-plant! If you have all that mental toughness and that love for running whats it going to be without a Strong aerobic system, again this is where patience comes in. It takes time to develop a very good aerobic capacity, some will have it better than others but at the end of the day everyone has to work just as hard to get it.

  4. I agree with most of this; but not the explanation for why sleep is important. The only ingredient necessary to heal muscles is time between workouts, regardless of sleep. Sleep is solely for the brain. It aids the brain in sorting and making sense of the overload of information all the senses absorb during wakeful hours. The muscles recover fine whether the brain is awake or asleep as long as they have enough time.

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