Running Physiology

To make an improvement in your running ability it's worth having a basic understanding of our body's physiology. This article is a basic overview of the physiology of running to help triathletes understand what their body undergoes and how workouts will help them run longer and faster
Created: March 2011
Revised: August 2011
Latest Feedback: August 2011

Know Your Body

Running gives athletes the opportunity to test their physical and mental stamina as they push themselves to the limit. Competitive running requires specific physical traits that a runner can develop through training and rigorous exercise. Training programs should be based on a working knowledge of biomechanics, running mechanics and physiology. It is important to understand the working of various muscle groups, orthopaedic stress that can result from working out, and the mind body connection.

Muscle Structure

Muscles are the most metabolically active tissues that constantly adapt their structure to the level and type of use. Extra stress on muscles cause the muscle fibres to degenerate, which are then replaced by new muscle cells. This is known as the degeneration-regeneration cycle that helps athletes recover from muscular injuries. Muscles are composed of a number of individual fibres of two types, type 1 and type 2 that are present in every muscle. These fibres contract when stimulated. There are three types of contractions namely concentric, eccentric, and isometric. The two types of contractions that enable us to run are concentric and eccentric. Concentric contractions occur when the muscle shortens while eccentric contractions occur when the muscle increases in length.

Muscle Fibre Type

Type 1 fibres have high concentrations of myoglobin that stores and transports oxygen in a cell. These fibres appear red due to myoglobin. On the other hand, type 2 fibres have low concentrations of myoglobin and appear white. Sprinters usually have a larger number of type 2 fibres (also known as "fast twitch" muscles) while distance runners have type 1 ("slow twitch").

VO2Max

A runner’s fitness level can be measured by the volume of oxygen consumed while working out at the maximum level. It is the maximum amount of oxygen in millimetres that a runner consumes in one minute per kilogram of body weight. Triathletes need to attain the highest VO2max values to remain in top condition. These values can be improved by increasing the intensity of workouts, to raise the heart rate between 65 and 85% for a minimum of 20 minutes, three to five times a week. The average VO2max value for male athletes is 3.5 litres per minute and 2.7 litres per minute for female athletes. Regular training has the potential to increase VO2max by 5 to 15 percent on average while some top athletes have experienced improvements up to 25 percent.

Improving your VO2max and Critical Body Systems


To improve VO2max over a period, there are various workouts you can add to training sessions.
10 Km time:- Run at your optimum speed for five minutes and note the distance achieved. Cover the same distance once more after a 5-minute rest. However, this time slow down to cover the distance in six minutes with a 30 second rest, and repeat this many times.

5 Km time:- Run at maximum speed for three minutes and note the distance covered. Make successive runs at 10 percent slower than your original speed with 60 seconds rest and repeat several times.

VO2max is difficult to measure. However, it is useful to understand the concept that since the heart rate increases when you increase the intensity of your training, it can be used as an indicator to reflect the percentage of VO2max, at which you are training.

Heart Rate Training Zones

Heart rates within specific ranges help athletes achieve specific goals. It is important to understand the benefits of each heart rate training zone. A simple calculation is used for determining maximum heart rate (HRmax) based on a person's age. Simply subtract your age from 220, and this figure is said to be your maximum heart rate in bpm (beats per minute). Knowing this figure is important for many reasons.

The Energy Efficient Fat Burning Zone 55% to 65% HRmax

Runners who want to lose weight can raise the heart rate between 55 to 65 percent to burn fat and achieve weight loss. Training in this zone helps the body feed the working muscles efficiently. Slow running can help you achieve this heart rate. It also allows the muscles to re-energise after a fast paced workout.

The Aerobic Zone 65% to 75% HRmax

To build aerobic fitness and run over long distances you can train at 65 – 75 percent of your maximum heart rate and improve your cardiovascular system. It improves the body’s ability to transport oxygen to the muscles and carbon dioxide away, making the muscles work to their optimal level. Training in this zone helps develop muscular strength, burn fat and improve your VO2max as well.

The Anaerobic Zone 75% to 95% HRmax

Training in this zone brings you to the anaerobic threshold, where the body uses glycogen stored in the muscles instead of fat. Runners that train at 75 – 95% of their maximum heart rate can develop their ability to maintain high intensity pace over a long time and achieve a high VO2max.

The Peak Zone - 95% to 100% HRmax

Training at 100 percent maximum heart rate develops the anaerobic system further, which is useful when you need maximum power in the final sprint to the finish. You can train for short periods in this zone that will help you develop speed as well. However, remember that this zone is only for those who are very fit.

Running Efficiency

Stride:- While VO2max is not a foolproof indicator of who can run the fastest, it is one of the factors that contributes to the success of a runner. Short rapid strides tend to be more efficient because the lead foot is under the centre of gravity. With over striding, the foot strikes in front of the centre of gravity creating a braking effect. It also creates a vertical movement and puts more stress on the muscles and bones.

Arms:- Running with the arms at slightly less than a 90-degree bend at the elbow with a straight back and forth movement, is said to be more efficient. The arms should be close to the body. The upper torso should lean forward around 10% at the hips. The head should be in a straight position looking 10 yards ahead with the shoulders pulled back from the chest.

Training after an Injury

As a runner you ought to learn to take injuries in your stride. Just remember that too much of muscle trauma early in your training program will result in a longer recovery period. To minimize muscle damage and enhance muscle regeneration and recovery, there are a few rules to be aware of.

Plan workouts ahead:- Workouts should be planned a week ahead, so that you have a specific goal for each session. You will also find sufficient time for your workouts when you plan them properly.

10 percent rule:- During training sessions, increase your mileage not more than 10 percent a week. You may be tempted to go the extra mile but you need to allow your body time to adapt to additional levels of stress.

Rest:- Intense training sessions must be well spaced with a day’s gap in between. On days that you are recovering, add at least 3 minutes for a 5K race pace.

Diet:- A diet rich in protein and carbohydrates is essential to rejuvenate the muscles and increase the production of glycogen.

Stay motivated and set goals:- Motivation is the driving force for every triathlete. Set goals and work towards them when you plan your workouts. Your goals should be both short term and long term. Short term goals could include enhancing the quality of your training sessions. Your long term goals could be to improve on your timings. Just make sure that you don’t overstep the line in trying to achieve your goal sooner than physically and mentally possible.

From Physiology to Psychology - The Mind Body Connection

Your psychological strength is what can give you a distinct advantage over your competitors. When motivated, you will be able to push harder during your training sessions and races as well. ‘A sound mind in a sound body’ sums up the essential requirements for achieving success. Most often, human tendency is to focus on winning or losing. However, during training you need to set goals based on each training session. This will make your training runs more enjoyable.

The objective is to remain focused and not be distracted by anything. You need to stay focused on the simple mechanics of your stride, breathing patterns, heart rate and everything else related to your training session. This will bring you more pleasure during a run. Negative thoughts cause negative energy and that has the potential to slow your body down considerably. Therefore, stay away from any distractions and you can avoid injuries. Check in with your body frequently to make sure you are in top physical condition. During the harder parts of your run, you will be able to pay particular attention to your mind and body. There will be definitely be ups and downs but when you are mentally and physically well tuned, you will derive the most pleasure from running.

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