What Makes a Runner Fast?

So you and I both know that hard work is a prerequisite if you want to be fast. But are the pros really working that much harder than you and I when we go out to run? So today I want to talk about what actually makes a runner fast.
What Makes a Runner Fast?


So you and I both know that hard work is a prerequisite if you want to be fast. But are the pros really working that much harder than you and I when we go out to run? So today I want to talk about what actually makes a runner fast.

If you haven't been with me here before, I'm Jesse Funk, this is a show I called Runner's High where we talk about everything running, and today we're going to get to the nitty gritty of what exactly makes a runner fast. Now let's get the elephant in the room out of the way. The so-so true yet also very upsetting reason that some people are faster than you or faster than me is genetics. Right? You and I and everybody else, as far as I know, don't get to choose who their parents are. And that is a genetic potential that you inherit that you have no choice in.

But it does play a pretty big factor depending on, you know, how fast you want to go. The thing I'm trying to get out here is basically, yes, like I ran in college, I ran into any schools now NCAA Division Two. I was not fast enough to run Division One and I will never, despite how hard I might work, be running in a race with Mo Farah and Galen Rupp and anybody running with Olympic caliber. I'm not. We're leagues apart. And I would say it's not a matter of day work that much harder than me.

They don't work exponentially harder than me, at least at the height of my training. Do they work harder? Probably. But enough to cover that distance in time? Probably not. So, genetics is a huge factor that you can't overcome. But we don't like to talk about it. That's OK. But would you acknowledge that you begin to focus on what can I control and understanding that, hey, there's so much I can control? And as I've said before on this channel, which if you haven't heard me say, subscribe, I'm sure you'll hear me say it. You should be racing yourself. How fast are you going compared to you yesterday?

That's the ultimate race, because it's a subtle acknowledgment that we can't do anything about that genetic component. However, instead of being, you know, sullen and sulking and saying, Oh, I'm never going to be Olympic level, you go. I love doing this good. I enjoy doing it. Awesome. So let's do it. Great. And then you continue on with your training because you can't do anything about it, so you focus on what you can. So let's get to the factors that you can control and how those can play into how you get faster.

Another easy one. Let's get out of the way is nutrition. Nutrition and hydration, in particular. You need to eat well. You've got to fuel your body if you want to go fast and you have to be hydrated. Why? Because our muscles use water, and in the production of energy, there is a thing called a sodium potassium pump, where your cells are interchanging sodium potassium, moving glycogen around, creating ATP, which is energy, and then you move forward with that energy. So what you eat comes back in terms of your response and then hydration, how well you prepare your body to be hydrated to perform also goes back as the response of how fast can I go?

Now we know that there's a certain amount of dehydration that is not going to be a big deal, like you can perform to a certain level. But past that point, then you actually need to take in fluid and often you take in electrolytes. We're talking about electrolytes all the time. You see all these sports drinks and what do they mean? I'm actually working on something that's personalized to the electrolytes you lose because it's different for everybody has to do with your genetics, like we talked about in the beginning, but we'll deep dive into that in another one, in another video, if you want to see the products out Solpri.com/shop. But you need those electrolytes because they are involved in a number of functions in your body, including, you know, muscle contraction and that energy production. And that's why you want to replace them after a certain period of time working out.

Often the shorter stuff, not such a big deal. You can kind of get away with it, both poor nutrition and poor hydration for shorter duration efforts. But if you want to maximize your potential, you have to have both of them tip top. They've got to be at the top of the game. And I would suggest, even if you're a shorter course athlete like me who likes to focus on 5k, 10k, that kind of stuff, your day-to-day each individual day may be short, but collectively you will fatigue out in those kinds of lack of nutrients in your diet or lack of proper hydration strategy will show up over time.

So let's get on to a little bit more important, a little bit easier to focus on issue that we need to address and how you're going to get faster. And what you can implement in your day-to-day actual running routine. And that is really under one umbrella and that's running economy. Now there's actually kind of a difference. It's often interchanged, people say, running economy or running efficiency, and they're very similar. But I like to separate them out a little bit because they're slightly different factors. They're very, very, very intertwined. So people use them interchangeably.

But so running economy is going to be how easily your body uses energy for the given output. So like, we basically measure that in VO2 Max, which is a measurement of saying, how easily do you use oxygen to produce a certain amount of power? So these numbers don't make any sense at all. But like if, say, I want to produce 10 joules of power and I need one oxygen molecule again, this is complete nonsense, but just go with me. Then I'm getting a one-to-one ratio, but say you want to produce 10 joules of power and it takes you five oxygen molecules.

Well, I'm way more economical because I'm spending or I need less oxygen to produce the same amount of power that is largely tied to that genetic potential. Earlier, we talked about which sucks, but you actually can improve your VO2 Max to some degree. So it is, I like to think about it as you have a genetic ceiling, and that is when you are absolutely trained to your maximum. So if you're just getting started, you're not well trained or you would have been training for a while.

There's probably still a little bit of push you can get to it's very difficult to get to that genetic ceiling, so there is some training we can do, and I'll talk about how to train VO2 Max on other videos on the channel. So if you haven't seen those, subscribe, check those out here in a minute. But more importantly, we want to talk about running efficiency and how that plays into economy.

Now, running efficiency has to do similarly with getting a similar amount of power. We'll use our 10 jewels again, nonsensical numbers. So physicists please don't get mad at me because I don't 10 joules is not going to be accurate for the amount of power we're producing. So again, 10 joules. How efficient are you in producing that? The efficiency has to do with your form.

So if you are really poor, if you're moving with a lot of extra motion, then you're using a lot of extra energy to get the same output. This does not have to do with your genetic potential because it's not about your rate of oxygen consumption, which is that VO2 Max. It has to do with how your brain is controlling your body and the firing pattern that your muscles are going through to achieve a given output. That's efficiency. So I see this sometimes and I always want to stop people, but I never do, because that would be weird. So I get to talk to you instead.

I see people who are running and they're running were like, You know, your legs should come out one in front of you. So I'm going to do T-Rex arms here since I'm sitting here like I should come out just in this kind of single file motion, but instead they'll tilt the knee and then their foot will swing out. So it's like you've seen, you've seen these people. Hopefully you're not one of them. And if you are, we're going to work on it. So when the play goes back pushes off and then the foot swings around to come back to touch down here, so swings around and then the other one goes back, swings around.

Now, maybe that person can produce 10 joules of power, but they're wasting a lot of energy by flipping their legs around to the outside to get it back to the front. There's not an effectiveness. I like to think of it as being an effective runner to be efficient because you're not wasting a lot of energy. So when you work on what your form is doing and make sure you're not wasting any motion, then your efficiency goes way up.

And how does that correlate to economy? Well, let's think about it for a moment. Remember, I said economy is the rate of oxygen consumption for a given output. So in my example, I took one oxygen molecule to make 10 joules of power again, nonsense. But that's where we're going. You took five oxygen molecules to make 10 joules of power. Maybe that's because you're flipping your legs out, and for some reason you decided to run with your arms flailing around and that's how you run.

Well, you probably don't need to be doing this motion to run. You probably just need them at your sides relaxed, going forwards and backwards. There's subtleties within that crossing your body that's more common. I don't usually see people flailing their arms about. But as an exaggerated example, think about that. If you're doing all these extra motions, well, then clearly you're going to need more oxygen to create energy for the outputs that you're doing.

So if you reduce these wasted motions instead of flailing about, you have this more relaxed, comfortable arm swing. You stop flipping your legs out to the side and work on, you know, having that straightforward back kind of motion. Now we're no longer wasting energy on nonsensical arm movements and nonsensical leg movements. Now, maybe you only need three oxygen molecules for that 10 joules of power. So your VO2 Max didn't increase, but your efficiency did. So now, if your body can utilize five oxygen molecules, it may be able to produce 12 joules of power or 14 joules of power, something like that, and how you're going to go faster.

So all of these things combined kind of work synchronously to make you go faster. Again, can you do anything about that genetic potential? Your VO2 Max sealing that genetic ceiling? No. So why worry about it? You shouldn't. What you should focus on is, am I running effectively? Efficiently? Am I doing a good training plan, getting enough rest? And then from there, how's my nutrition? And you've got to be honest. How is my nutrition? Longtime friend and former pro triathlete Barb Lindquist in her talks with upcoming pros and pros and training, she always mentions the 90 10 rule if you're eating well, 90 percent of the time, that typically means Whole Foods, fruits, vegetables, meats, whole grains, that kind of stuff.

If you're eating well, 90 percent of the time and you have a treat 10 percent of the time, you're probably fine. She's not really restrictive on, you've got to eat this way or that way, and you decide for you what you're going to eat. But you do have to be honest about, am I eating the right things? I in particular have trouble with sugar, like many of us here in North America.

So sometimes I had to journal to go, This is what is most effective for me or how, to be honest. But once you do that, then you know everything's working in harmony, training well. I've been working on my running form. We're getting somebody to help me look at my running form and make changes appropriately. I've had enough time to adapt. I'm eating well, making sure I'm hydrated, and now I can go to my potential of how fast I can go.

So do you have any questions for me about anything running related or triathlon related? I'm open to that as some people have asked triathlon questions of me and I love to do videos on that, as well as I spent nearly a decade trying to pursue a professional career and hit my own genetic ceiling in that pursuit. So leave down a comment below. I love to get a question from you and do a video just for you. I'll see you next time on the next episode of Runner's High.

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