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Location: Moorestown, NJ US 08057
Physiology of Running

Physiology of Running

So what makes one runner better than another?  How does a runner improve their own personal performance?

It all comes down to three major systems that drive a runners performance:

Motor – the physical muscles, tendons, cartilage, nerves, senses and bones.

Gas – the blood flow carrying energy and oxygen

Mind – sometimes over matter…

Each person is born with a certain set of capabilities in each of these areas – you can see it in Middle School Gym classes – when certain kids can do better at some of the fitness tests than others even though they have had similar levels of training.  The good news is that in Distance Running – maybe more than any other sport – people can improve their personal performance.  I knew a runner in college that had some physical shortcomings and was about a 12:30 two miler in high school.  He ran for 4 years of college putting in an average of 80 miles per week.  By the time he graduated he could run about a 10:00 two mile.  He developed his muscle and oxygen carrying capabilities to such an extent he was able to overcome his other limitations.  Training consistently over a long period of time can make a big difference.

Our Moorestown Distance Program takes all three systems into account for our runners – trying to develop all of them as they mature during High School.  In addition to the training program, runner’s bodies develop and grow and mature during high school.  Runners that are growing quickly may not be able to do a high level of training because of the stress it puts on still-developing muscles, joints and bones.  This is why we try to bring runners along as they get older – adding more miles as they demonstrate the ability of their body to handle the workload without injury. 
Energy System -   The Motor and the Gas combine to make the car move forward – basically an energy system to move a stationary object.  Humans actually have three basic chemical processes that create energy:

The Phosphate System:  This is for very short term energy requirements, and does not really impact a distance runner’s capability.

Oxygen System:  This is the key system for distance runners.  Fat and Glycogen combines with Oxygen to produce energy in the muscles.  There are a number of elements that can be improved by training:

Heart – This is the muscle that pumps the blood to the rest of the system.  The best way to exercise this is to make it beat more often and push more blood thru it – this is what happens in a training run.  One of the primary reasons we do long slow runs is that it is the best way to get the most beats out of your heart.  If you sprint very fast, you may get your heart rate to 190 beats per minute.  But if you run at a moderate pace for say an hour, your heart will beat about 150 beats per minute – a lot more total beats to strengthen that pump…

Blood vessels and Mitochondria – As you do long slow distance runs, the blood system will actually develop itself – sprouting news paths to get blood to your muscles in an ever more efficient way.  It is kind of like the roots of a plant digging into the soil to get nutrients.

Muscles – Your muscles become more and more efficient at processing the glycogen and fat and oxygen into energy.  They become stronger and better able to propel the rest of your body up hills and around a track.  Just like when you do the benchpress – you will be able to lift more as you train longer and harder.
Lactate System: This is the important supplemental energy factory for when you run low on the Oxygen System energy creation, as well as for fast finishes.  In this chemical reaction, no oxygen is used, but a remnant of Lactic Acid is left behind in your muscles.  It is this Lactic Acid that makes your muscles pained and tight the day after a race.

Each individual has a maximum heart rate.  You can measure this near the end of a race or very hard workout when you are going at your max.  As an example, we will use a Maximum Heart Rate of 193 beats per minute.  The Lactate Energy System will typically kick in at around 90% of a runner’s maximum heart rate – in this case around 170 beats per minute.

When the Lactate Threshold is crossed, the body starts producing more lactic acid than it can consume.  This is OK for a race, when you have a few days to recover – but for an ongoing training program, it limits the amount of training that you can do.  It is this Lactic Acid formation that you can see more glaringly in 400 Meter races – when someone goes out too fast and they “Hit the Wall” – you can see their muscles tighten, and the ability to place one foot in front of the other becomes an increasing chore – almost feeling like the legs are locking up.  Lactic Acid will make you sore and stiff after a race as well, and will actually help to break down muscles over time.  This is why runners can not do hard work at an elevated heart rate repeatedly.  It is also a reason why runners need a rest between seasons and to take breaks from racing.

You may remember the 2004 Summer Olympics when Michael Phelps was swimming multiple races.  After each race he got his blood level checked for Lactic Acid and would immediately go into a warm-down pool and swim easily for an additional 20 minutes to work some of the Lactic Acid out of his blood stream and muscles.

Runner’s can develop their basic Oxygen Energy Systems most effectively by training below the Lactic Threshold.  This will leave them more pain free, and better able to recover and run each day – enabling them to raise the number of total heart beats they get in training per week.

Getting back to the idea that each runner is unique and has their own Lactic Threshold, this is the reason why we will break the Distance Team into separate groups – running various paces and distances.  Younger and less mature runners can not handle the same pace as older and more mature runners.  They will produce lactic acid if they try to continue to keep up with more advanced runners each day.  This of course will result in sub-par performance, injury or plain burn-out.  I had this occur to me personally my freshman year of college.  I wanted to keep up with the top runners and would go all out each practice.  By the end of the season, I was the last person on the team, when I should have been in the middle of the pack.  I had built up so much lactic acid in my body – it actually started to break down.

There are two basic lessons that have been learned relative to the Lactic Threshold:

First, you can actually raise your Lactic Threshold by training just below that level.  Jack Daniels made this system famous, and it is wide use at top University programs across the country and by professional runners in Europe and Africa.  Marcus O’Sullivan, the great miler and now Coach at Villanova trains all of his athletes with heart monitors every day – downloading their results into computers to analyze their training.

Second, by the middle to end of a season, you can train a runner to better use the Lactate Energy System.  At Moorestown, you will notice that we introduce more and faster speed workouts as the season goes on.  In reality – each race will produce Lactic Acid because of the need to race and run hard.  We will actually rest some runners when we can because of the stress and strain of racing twice a week in high school.

From on-line article by Jack Daniels -

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