By TheFTR Coach Zac Marion
As an endurance coach, I’m most often asked, “How do I run faster?”
It makes sense; Everyone wants to be “better”, and in timed events, a faster athlete is a winning athlete.
My response, and the answer often frustrates my clients is, “If you want to run fast, you have to run fast!”
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I know, it sounds less “scientific” and more “blatantly obvious”, but trust me, the science is coming. Think of it as the same principle as lifting heavy weights. Do you think you’ll ever be able to press 300lbs if you constantly lift no more than 135lbs? Same as running; You have to push your limits if you want your body to perform at its maximum potential.
The two major components of cardiovascular fitness are the left ventricle in your heart (the one responsible for your stroke volume), and the body’s ability to pull oxygen out of the blood stream (oxygen uptake as we like to call it in). If your body can pump a lot of blood throughout the body and is also capable of pulling a lot of oxygen from that blood, you can maximize your potential for running fast. It makes no sense if you have a high stroke volume (read: strong heart) but your body isn’t conditioned to be able to uptake the oxygen that’s coursing through the increased blood flow.
When training, there are 3 main components of cardio vascular fitness to improve. You have your VO2 max, lactate thresholds, and running economy. Each of these categories are very specific to certain intensities, distances and how they are trained for. They each individually play a role in the overall symphony of how we are able to perform as athletes from an aerobic capacity.
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VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can utilize during exercise. This is a result of how much oxygen-rich blood your heart can pump and the muscles’ efficiency in being able to pull as much of that oxygen from the blood for aerobic fuel sources. Your VO2 max is realized under high intensity, maximal effort speeds that you shouldn’t be capable of maintaining for more than 5 minutes. And since oxygen is required to run fast, this is the single best measure of your aerobic capability and current fitness.
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The most common measure or effort level that most of us hear is the “lactate threshold”. This is a tricky one to explain, but here’s my take on it: Just like how your car turns gasoline into energy to turn the wheels and leaves behind carbon monoxide, your body turns oxygen and sugar into energy and leaves behind lactic acid. And just like your car, your body needs to get rid of that toxic waste. If too much build up occurs, it backs up the system so oxygen can’t be absorbed… leaving us to experience the dreaded “bonk” and fatigue that most runners feel late into their race.
Luckily, our body has the ability to process and get rid of this backed up lactic acid. That point of effort at which we work so hard that we produce more exhaust than our system can efficiently get rid of is a fine line, and once cross it we will eventually pay the price. Keep in mind that the further we push over that threshold, the more rapidly that build-up occurs. That’s why it’s important to frequently push hard for sustained amounts of time in order to make our body more efficient at getting rid of that build up. The more efficient we become, the harder efforts we can put out before we cross that line and start to back up with lactic acid.
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Lastly, we have our running economy. Running economy is a measure of how effectively the body converts oxygen into forward motion. The faster one can run for a given rate of oxygen consumption, the better you are. Economy doesn’t always improve with endurance training, however. In fact, some studies have shown that economy has decreased with 6 weeks of long and slow runs for training. But when runners were assigned six weeks of either continuous runs sustained at or slightly above threshold pace, or long interval (about 4 minute) training runs at very hard efforts, there was a consistent improvement in running economy. In fact, they both showed to increase VO2 max and lactate thresholds by 6% as well! Those are definitely the best workouts you can do for maximal speed gains.
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PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
How do I put it all together? In the end, if you want to run faster there are certain ways to do it. First off, you have to push hard to force your body to make physiological adaptations. Second, you have to dose it properly in order to realize the right amounts of stress without going too far. Each individual category has certain amounts of effort (measured in percentage of maximal effort rather than HR) for certain amounts of time given each workout in order to be effective. And keep in mind that these are HARD on your body and should be dosed accordingly. For example, running at 80% for 5 minutes forces an adaptation different than if you were to run at 90% effort for 3 minutes. This is precisely why it’s important to have a coach that knows the ins and outs of adaptations and the science behind it.
Of all the components to endurance training, it takes a combination of working all three of these categories to be efficient at running fast. And keep in mind that fast is also relative to your baseline ability. A ten minute/mile pace might be fast for someone who hasn’t ever reached those speeds before. My fast isn’t fast for some, but it’s also unfathomable for others. Fortunately, for someone like me who isn’t the fasted kid on the block, there’s so much more to racing than just running really fast. Endurance, strength and biomechanical efficiency all come into play the longer the race gets… and luckily it’s all coachable, so I can continue to improve and help others improve every day.