Let's start with an apt quote from John L. Parker Jr.'s Once A Runner:
And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes.
An athlete in my group wrote to me this week, sharing a just-released study of 16 elite marathoners from Nike's 2017 Breaking2 project, which examined their ability to run at sub-two-hour marathon pace. Breaking2 (and presumably this study) included Eliud Kipchoge, who is the only runner ever to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon. The study found that “a sub-two-hour marathon would require a 59 kg [130 lb.] runner to sustain a V̇O2 of approximately 4.0 L/min or 67 ml/kg/min.” That last number is the one you see flash up on your Garmin after a big workout, and is a measure of how much oxygen your body can process in a given time, usually expressed as ml/kg/min. It's a number that sports scientists tend to obsess over, so much so that it's now become a key fitness indicator for even recreational runners.
The athlete asked me, “I’ve got a higher VO2max than them , so why can’t I run that fast?” My knee-jerk response was, “Because VO2max doesn’t matter.” A bit tongue in cheek, but it’s mostly true.
If VO2max were all it took to determine how fast you can run, marathons would be a lot more predictable. Of course, there are other factors as well, like lactate threshold — the running intensity at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed, and running economy — how much energy it takes to run at a certain, sub-maximal speed. But even these lab-tested numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Don't get me wrong, I’m not anti-science (and certainly not, in this day and age). That said, I find that sport scientists often skip a crucial step in their work, or at least, a step gets skipped in the interpretation of their work. It’s like the old meme:
Step 1: measure VO2max
Step 2: ???
Step 3: Performance!!!
Even some of the most experienced and talented and thoughtful people in the sport get stuck on the big data points. As Amby Burfoot puts it in his article on the study: “Irish Olympic marathoner Mark Kenneally (with a PR of 2:13:55) is now pursuing his PhD in endurance physiology, and is particularly interested in the training-performance connection. He believes the studied marathon runners were training for high-economy, not for high maximal effort, which could explain the VO2 max result.” What Kenneally is theorizing is that elite marathoners achieve their heights of performance, not by maximizing their VO2max training, but by training for a better running economy.
The problem here is that he’s just switching out one arbitrary number for another. It’s assumed that the “performance” end of the training-performance connection must be described in physiological parameters and not actual race results. This is the proof that the scientists are missing the bigger point. Keanneally’s question is the same question coaches and athletes have always asked: is there a specific way to train for different races? Train one way for a 5k and another way for a marathon? I mean, of course there is. Training is not complicated, though.
It’s not really all that surprising or interesting to note the physiological results of top marathoners, even if it is rare to see a study of so many of the world’s best runners together. The question (or Step 2 of the above meme) that these studies fail to answer is why certain athletes with high physiological results fare better than others with similar numbers. It’s fairly established dogma that the three core measurable elements of performance are VO2max, threshold and economy. The missing elements, and those that are difficult or maybe impossible to measure are both acute and cumulative. There are a lot of little factors that go into the outcome of a performance beyond those three major data points which sports scientists fixate on: the runner’s specific state of recovery, their capacity to withstand psychological and emotional stress (which varies based on life events, but also includes in-race stressors), the weather’s impact on their performance, and their nutrition on that day, as well as the days leading up to the performance. Are any of these tested along with the physiology? What gets measured gets managed — and we are not measuring the right stuff.
Maybe this makes the study seem depressing. I mean, it’s just not fair, right? You do all this work to up your speed at VO2max and it doesn’t matter anyway. But the study does tell us what’s important, in a kind of roundabout way. With physiological numbers that are high, but not unexpectedly so, we are forced to look elsewhere for answers.
The athlete who sent me this study has a five-year-old kid at home, works full-time, and isn’t really committed to one particular distance (he dabbles in ultras, and recently bailed out of an opportunity to run a marathon because of life stress), doesn’t likely have 100% confidence in the training (partly my fault because I know he’s more of a numbers guy and I’m not, and I’m pushing him to be outside his comfort zone in that respect). Of course he’s not going to run a two-hour marathon — but he doesn’t need me or a sports physiology lab's results to tell him that.
In our own running, maybe we need to set our expectations, not based on the training we’ve done alone, but on our entire life situation. For adult recreational runners (and even really good ones): don’t be so hard on yourself. But don’t make excuses, either. Consider why you’re really running: to maintain good health, to challenge yourself, to have fun, to be with friends, to be competitive? All of this can be achieved without reference to physiological markers. In fact, it’s better to remove them entirely.
The university kids I coach are in the perfect training environment. They (mostly) have no kids, are comparatively young and at their most physically resilient. They have the opportunity to sleep a ton (especially during the pandemic, for better or for worse), eat relatively well, and train lots. The average college kid’s commute time is nil, since all classes are now online. Class schedules are even more flexible than the eventual 9-5 job will be. Sure, students have work to do, and the intellectual power it takes is tiring and should not be ignored. They are also growing emotionally and that can be a challenge. But there is still a ton of flex time in there to include all the right peripheral factors to go along with the proper training. A collegiate athlete is in a moment of gigantic opportunity — it’s what the rest of us fantasize about, but can not realistically recreate. Even the most focused older recreational athlete will go to every start line of a goal race with some baggage weighing them down that can’t always be entirely counteracted by upping VO2Max.
Professional athletes have this figured out, and typically live that collegiate lifestyle, minus the chaos of youth or even the stressors of an upcoming exam. And that's why they are able to perform at a higher level than a working-class runner with the same physiological talent.
Elite runners have no fancy training secrets. They just run lots, mostly easy, sometimes hard, and rest up, a lot. They aren’t doing different workouts than you. They are running way more mileage, and much faster workouts and more aggressively because they have the time to have an afternoon nap, and sleep without an alarm clock. What their VO2max or running economy is, is not a function of their training, it’s a function of their lifestyle (and, sadly, sometimes maybe drugs, let’s be honest.) We mere mortals do not have access to any of this, and must also manage our pesky jobs and families as we train for that next big marathon personal best.
Sports science is fun, sure. It can tell us a lot of cool and interesting stuff about training, and about the body. But it can’t make us faster. Only we can do that.