The Science of Running

I have to be honest. These are not the typical kind of stuff they teach you in medical schools. Except some basic physiology maybe. Anyway, here's what I have read, and a summary of what I think may apply to marathon runners.

It seems successful marathoners have these 6 criteria:

1. High proportion of slow twitch muscle fibers
2. High Lactate Threshold
3. High glycogen storage and well developed fat utilization
4. Excellent Running Economy
5. High maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max)
6. Quick Recovery

Hold on...don't worry. I don't plan on being technical here. Jargons puts me to sleep too. Application is more relevant at the end of the day. So sit back and relax. And let me run through the factual analysis for you....

So let's eliminate what we cannot change. Slow twitch muscle fibers. Can't change that. So, forget that. On the other hand, High Lactate Threshold is an interesting one. This is probably the most important variable that will decide the performance of a runner. Lactate produced by your muscles during the races, if accumulates to a certain limit, will cause fatigue. That's the point when your muscles won't be able to get rid of it in time to function normally. Consequently you slow down. With training, adaptation occurs and you can actually increase that threshold. More about that in a while.

Another important variable is the high glycogen storage and fat utilization. A successful runner has the ability to efficiently utilize fat for energy. Thus the glycogen storage lasts longer. Again more on this interesting fact later.

Running economy basically means how fast you can run using a given amount of O2. From I can see, this is not a major point but suffice to say this improves over time as you increase your mileage over the years. And it also improves with short repetitions. (~100m repeats). I think we will swiftly move on....

OK. Next point. High VO2 Max. This basically means the runner is able to transport large amount of O2 to the muscles for energy production aerobically. Again, to elaborate the factors influencing this VO2Max may easily extend into a lecture, so I'll save your the agony. And let's just work on the how. More on that in a jiffy.

The last point: Quick recovery. There's the genetics issue and age factors: These, we can't change. But what we CAN change is our lifestyle i.e. sleep and diet. Therefore, nutrition has an important role to play. And on top of that, recovery run helps too.

So, let’s get down to the crunch.  How do we apply this science to enhance our performance or running efficiency?  Let’s focus on point 2, 3 &5.

Higher Lactate Threshold (LT). This improves when you spend more time (and effort) close to your lactate-threshold pace, it will provide the stimulus for improvement. It suggests we run a tempo run or long interval at our LT pace. But you may ask: what is your LT pace? Since we may not have ready access to a lab for this, let’s resort to the low tech method. For experienced runner, our LT pace is similar to a 15K to Half marathon race pace. Your aim is to increase that threshold and race at 2-3% slower than the LT. In other words, you need to know if your pace can be sustained consistently at race pace for the duration of the distance. If you fatigue and slow down, that is an indication that you have crossed beyond the LT. In short, to improve on your LT, you have to consistently push yourself to THAT point/boundary so that your muscles can adapt.

High glycogen storage and well developed fat utilization. Endurance training produces physiological adaptations. This is an obvious fact. The recommendation is that you do “high quality” long runs. We may do long Slow runs but this accumulation of mileage does not necessary benefit us. Instead it may lead to muscle fatigue and injuries. The range of intensity should be 10-20% slower than the goal marathon pace. This simulation approximates the demands of the marathon thus allowing the body to adapt more effectively.

Although it is stated that high mileage improves our glycogen storage and fat utilization, there is still a fine balance that we need to work out with regards to our own optimal mileage range without leading to break down.

This leads me to the last point. The VO2 Max. Interval training (or repeats) would be the mainstay to enhance VO2Max. Recommended interval range from 400-1600m. With Repeats of 15-5 times. Plus recovery time. Aiming for total distance of 6000-8000m.

Running, however physical it is, is more complex than just science and technique. It also encompass an emotional and even spiritual aspect than cannot be easily explained or quantified. The "toughness" of a runner cannot be explained by mere VO2Max. The state of the "mind over matter" is not quantifiable by measures of lactate level in the blood. 

In conclusion, what is seemingly a simple sport cannot be explained purely by the scientific mind. It needs to be explored and experienced to the full, embracing all the different aspects. But nonetheless, a scientific approach will hopefully provide a platform for you to launch into this amazing journey of discovery.


  1. Hi Francis, thanks for the nice article... powerful when it is written by an elite!

    As Foo said before... the points (except the 2 genetical factors) eventually leads to good self-discipline... which is probably the hardest (for me, the lazy type)...:)

    Good luck for Sundown!

  2. Thanks YS. I am not an elite. Far from it. But just sharing some info that may be useful...that's all :)

  3. The following is a useful tool to help you calculate the training pace for a specific marathon target time.


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