A look at running and the human being

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Running, we have all done it at some point in our lives. But does anyone give it much thought? Looking at how some people run it is evident that they don’t. This article looks at how and why humans are built for running, the different types and how to maximise your ability to run at various speeds. Various forms are natural to the human form. Sure, we’re not the fastest animals on the planet, far from it, but we’re also built for a multitude of more complex activities, including those that involve fine motor skills with the hands. But there are certain markers that point towards the evolution of humans as runners. Lets look at them…

First of all, we are possibly the most effective animal at maintaining an upright posture. Other primates are semi-upright, but they still require the use of all four limbs for locomotion. Humans are purely upright, which means putting one foot in front of the other is natural and our primary mode of transport. the gluteus maximus muscle is the main evidence for that. This muscle (for those that don’t know, this is the large muscle in the bum) is larger in humans than in any other animal, especially other primates. This allows us to generate a lot of force and power from the lower body during running, it is also what gives us strength and stability during standing activities.

The second evidence of our natural ability to run is found in the back of the neck. In this area there is a ligament called the nuchal ligament. What does this have to do with our ability to run? Well, unlike other primates we have this ligament and it works to stabilise the head while running. Running is a very dynamic activity and involves a lot of movement of various parts of the body. Without some way to stabilise the head it would bob back and forth as we ran, which is unnecessary movement, and extra movement slows you down. The nuchal ligament keeps the head in a neutral position during a run, especially a sprint. Tilt your head forward and feel just below the base of your skull. That’s your nuchal ligament, not the spinal cord as many people believe.

There is a lot of other physiological evidence that points to our natural ability to run, but we’ve covered the important aspects. We walk on two feet, we don’t scurry along using four limbs. If something is threatening our safety we run, we don’t swing from a tree or burrow into the ground.

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As you would know, there are various types of running. We can jog at a slow pace, stride out at a competition pace or you can sprint. The various degrees of running speed and duration require different skills, different stride length and even different muscles. So now we’ll look at running from three angles. First we have the most common and popular among modern society, jogging or distance running, then there is the faster running style used in middle distance running, which is essentially anything run on the track with two or more laps, thirdly we have sprinting, which is a different monster altogether.

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Distance Running

Long distance seems to be popular, why? Well it has been promoted for decades as the be all and end all way to lose weight and increase cardiovascular fitness. Distance running seems to be something human beings are extremely natural at doing. We are not the fastest animal but we can run at a constant pace for much longer. Try taking your dog for a 30km run. It will start off running with little effort, it could outrun you on its four legs quite easily. However after about 5km the dog will slow down while you’re still fresh. Eventually if you keep running the dog it will pass out and die. This is because dogs are built for short runs, not marathons. The same applies to almost any animal. For instance, there are races where humans race against horses over a long distance and the humans win. This is because we have certain physiological processes that allow for persistent running, such as an ability to sweat and cool ourselves continuously.

Now lets look at some things to note about distance running. Many people set out on their fitness journey with their primary mode of exercise being jogging. But not many people think about things like their gait, stride frequency, constant speed versus varied speeds etc. So what is best? In a nutshell here are a few things from successful distance runners combined with sport science research on what constitutes effective distance running.

The first thing to note is stride length and frequency. Unlike sprinting, as you will soon discover, covering a long distance by running requires a shorter stride length. It has been shown in various studies that people with a long stride while running long distance tend to have more injuries. Stride should be kept short and natural, feet close to the ground and stride frequency increased.

The second point is speed. There have been all kinds of strategies for running a marathon over the years. Some people go out hard, level off then finish strong. Others conserve energy then finish fast. However patterns over the years with elite level marathon runners have pointed to consistency. The most effective way seems to be maintaining a relatively constant speed.

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Lastly we’ll look at energy systems. The anaerobic energy systems have a time limit. You can only work above the anaerobic threshold for a limited time, eventually your body will naturally slow down. This is detrimental to long distance performance, even if you operate above this threshold for only a short time. Try this, sprint as far as you can then maintain a jog. Repeat a few times. What happened? It is likely that you covered the total distance in a slower time. Anaerobic metabolism is inefficient, it is not something to be used when covering large distances. Training for those distances is another thing entirely. Anaerobic training should form part of the programme of a distance running training regime simply because it increases your anaerobic threshold, which means you can run faster before dipping into anaerobic energy. More on training later.

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Middle-Distance Running

By middle distance I am referring to distances of between 800m - 3km. This distance, especially in elite athletes, is quite a lot faster than long distance running. Greater speed requires an entirely different style. Middle distance requires aspects from long distance running and sprinting. We’ll look at a few key points.

The first one is stride length and frequency. Sprinting requires a long stride, as long as you can make it. Distance running requires a relatively short stride. Middle distance requires a lengthened stride but only as far as is natural for the speed you’re travelling. To increase speed in running the first thing to increase is stride length before trying to increase stride frequency.

Secondly, speed is a major factor. Like long distance, constant speed is advantageous, however not to the same degree. During intermediate distances strategies can be employed that vary speed based on the strengths and weaknesses of the athlete. Play with the speeds here and see what works. There is no exact formula because people are built differently.

Lastly, of course, we’ll delve into energy systems. Anything between 800m - 3km requires a high level of aerobic metabolism. At the same time it requires the lactate system to be working over time. As mentioned earlier, anaerobic metabolism has a time limit, you can’t maintain it indefinitely. Run this distance intelligently, keep it aerobic for the most part but throughout the run flaunt with the anaerobic. On the home stretch is when you can expend all your last resources. Of course, this needs to be trained for, which means middle distance running requires a lot of intervals and less volume as long distance. More on training at the end.


If you want to change your body rapidly and do an activity that crosses over into multiple aspects of fitness then sprinting is the thing for that. Sprinting increases power, helps to increase muscle mass and stimulates a whirlwind of hormonal responses that are all conducive to both fitness and overall health. It’s no secret that sprinting is my personal preference of all running activities, and there are a whole host of reasons for that. It is my goal to popularise sprinting to the same degree that jogging has been made popular in the past.

First of all what is sprinting? This needs to be clarified. I have seen people at local parks and sporting grounds claiming to be doing sprints, when in actual fact they are simply doing moderate paced intervals. Sprinting is a maximum effort, simple as that. To call a run a sprint it needs to be something that cannot be maintained. Sprinting is an all-out effort over a short distance of anywhere from 10 metres up to 400 metres at its absolute limit. Anything over 400 metres can’t be considered a sprint due to the effect it has on slowing you down.

Ok, so first major point. Stride length and frequency. The fastest sprinters in the world are the ones with the greatest stride length. Bolt holds multiple world records and covers 100m in 6-8 less strides than his closest competitors. But why is this so? I mean what about stride frequency? Increasing the speed at which you take each step will help to increase your overall speed, but only to a point. Stride frequency contributes largely to vertical power and only about 20% contributes to horizontal power, which is needed in order to move down the track faster. Stride length contributes greatly to horizontal speed.

Secondly we will not be looking at speed, because maximum speed is implied, instead the important factor here is acceleration. In order to cover a short distance in the fastest possible time a person needs to possess the ability to continue to accelerate throughout. During a 100 metre race an athlete will not reach their maximum speed until about 70 metres. It is for this reason that the 200 metre world record holder is more accurately the fastest person on the planet. In this case Bolt holds both the 100m and 200m records, so he not only has the ability to reach a higher speed but he has the greatest ability to continue accelerating. Watch any of the elite sprinting performances over the years and you will notice that it is only at about the halfway mark that the difference is made. The winner is generally the one who can pull away from the rest of the pack and continue to increase that distance.

Ok, energy systems, this is simple. A 100m sprint primarily requires the phospho-creatine system, the energy system responsible for anything between 0-10 seconds of maximum effort. However there is also involvement of the lactate system, although this is not maxed out over such a short distance. 200m and 400m require a lot of input from the phospho-creatine system, however at these distances the lactate system comes into effect to a greater degree. This means that speed endurance is a key aspect for the longer sprints.


Training for various running distances is an art as much as it is a science. It is something that is often not properly understood and people just fumble through it and hope for the best. The perfect example is the weekend warrior marathon runner. So here we will look at some major points in training for various distances and reasons for why you need to train this way.

5k - 10k

This is a long distance, but it is the shorter of the long distance runs. This tends to be the most popular range for the average person. It is these distances that were made common during the surge of jogging in the western world.

Now lets look at some major points for training for these distances.

Volume is the first thing that needs to be covered. If you hope to maintain a constant fast speed over the full distance then you need to train with adequate volume. Volume helps to develop your ability to handle the distance and still have fuel in the tank, it also greases the groove and gets your body in the pattern of running. In the early stages I recommend covering an average of 10k per day. Speed and tempo training should be left until you’ve developed a firm base. Intensity should be kept within the aerobic range at a conversation pace.

Speed, tempo and intensity. As I mentioned earlier, running at varying speeds throughout a race is inefficient and will ultimately lead you to hitting the metaphorical wall. However training is different. You need to condition your body to have a higher anaerobic threshold. The easiest way to explain anaerobic threshold is by understanding aerobic metabolism and the point at which you switch to anaerobic. During aerobic you are able to maintain the pace for an indefinite period of time. But there’s a point where, if speed is increased, you will reach the anaerobic threshold. This pace cannot be maintained for a long period of time. This is the limiting factor in any distance run. In order to run a faster pace you need to increase the speed required to reach that anaerobic threshold. If you reach it at 10kph then below this is what you’re limited to. If you reach the anaerobic threshold at 15kph then you can run the race faster, obviously. It simply means that anything below that pace is aerobic and can be maintained. So how do you train for this?

Anaerobic threshold can be trained in multiple ways. The first is tempo. This is where you run just above what you could maintain in a race for a set time or distance. You’re only just tipping the anaerobic threshold here so the distances could be as far as 1-2km intervals. Secondly you can employ speed. For 5-10k runners I recommend speed work at a distance of 300m - 400m at the maximum pace you can handle.

Marathon and Ultra-Marathon

These are long distances and far from what the average person is conditioned to do. For this reason there is a specific way to train for this. It takes a fair bit of dedication and can take up a lot of time. Lets keep it simple…

The first and most prominent thing is volume. For these distances you need to cover a lot of distance in your training and condition yourself to cope with the sheer volume of a race. Run long at a moderate pace very regularly. Start with a volume you can handle without burning out and build it up over a period of months. Eventually you should be covering 150-200km a week.

Core strength is a requirement of all running styles, but I have mentioned it here because it is not something a very long distance runner thinks about. The core needs to be stabilised for very long periods of time. This is not conditioned through crunches, it is achieved through prolonged static stability exercises. The best way to go about this is exercises like the plank and all its variations and by engaging in a strength training programme.

Tempo and pace training is not needed to a large degree in this form of running, however you do need to increase your anaerobic threshold. About 20% of your training should include high intensity runs and intervals. The interval times should be long and only push a small way past anaerobic threshold.

Short Sprints

Short sprints are limited pretty much to 100m or 60m indoors. This also crosses over to 200m to a certain degree since this is also a race that is run at top speed.

Strength and power needs to be trained extensively. This means heavy, compound strength training, plyometrics and Olympic lifts.

Very short sprints such as taking off from the blocks as hard as possible then slowing down to a stop immediately.

Build-up sprints, which involve starting at a slow pace with a long stride then building up to top speed for a short duration.

Mid-range sprints of 30-60m at maximum speed from start to finish.

Flexibility training to ensure maximum stride length is achieved.

Muscle balance. This includes balancing out the strength of opposing muscles. Many hamstring injuries are caused by very strong quads and weak hamstrings. Heavy deadlifts, kettle bell swings and Swiss ball leg curls are three of the best ways to combat this.

Long Sprints

Long sprints include 200-400m and not much else. These are a tough event to train for but the programming is much the same as for short sprints with the addition of anaerobic capacity training.

Train similar to short sprints in regard to strength and power and some track sessions.

Below race pace training, which includes the required distance ran at a slightly slower pace.

Race pace training, which includes a small volume of running the same distance or less at the pace you would race at.

Speed work, which includes shorter distances at faster than race pace.

So there we have it, running for all purposes. This is only scratching the surface in terms of how to train for various distances. Hopefully I have inspired some searching and further research into learning how to train for your personal race preference. Remember, running is considered a primal pattern of movement, meaning that we were naturally meant to do it. For anyone that is able, running should form at least a small part of any training programme, especially those that require running in a chosen sport.

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