How you’re built, how you run and how well you recover all affect how much of a training load you can handle.
Written by: Kevin Beck
There are many runners who are like golf carts fitted with the engine of a Testarossa. They have the genetic enzymatic potential to develop the oxygen-carrying capacity and end-organ (i.e., muscle) oxygen-processing capabilities to become much-better-than-average, even elite distance runners. But alas, while the engine is nonpareil, the chassis is lacking, and sometimes there isn’t a lot to do about this.
People who are in good aerobic shape look more or less the same from a distance or even up close, but every runner is put together a little differently. Between leg-length discrepancies, unfavorable lower-leg-meets-knee (or foot) configurations, and too many other human variants to name, it seems likely that for the majority of runners, running volume is ultimately limited by the sheer effects of biomechanical stress on their bodies.
One thing to note is that what may feel like a permanent blockade to running more may really be a temporary ceiling resulting not from true structural limitations, but from muscle breakdown and attendant soreness. The amount of running that had me feeling as if I’d been put through a farm combine at age 20 seemed like a modest total a decade hence. But muscle soreness and fatigue can be readily distinguished from frank injury, a clear propensity toward certain overuse injuries, and chronic problems that clearly spell a need for volume moderation. Obviously, this distinction takes time to clarify; someone who suffers a tibial stress fracture while running 40 miles a week on asphalt at age 25 may or may not be able to eventually maintain or increase this workload by switching surfaces some or all of the time (something that is beneficial regardless of tendency toward injury); the stress fracture may turn out to be “one of those things” that never recurs or it may herald the onset of a pattern. There’s just no way to tell in advance how well your body is likely to bear the burden of increased demands once a runner has reached a comfortable plateau and is prepared to move forward.
Body type is typically regarded as a reliable indicator of how a runner is likely to fare at higher workloads. As a rule of thumb, a 220-pound former linebacker is probably not going to be able to run as much as a diminutive natural ectomorph who checks in at 130. This “rule,” however, has plenty of exceptions, for the way a runner lands and distributes his impact stresses is at least as important as how big he is. A light, quick runner with an exaggerated forefoot push-off may experience chronic calf problems at higher workloads (or when doing lots of speedwork), whereas our 220-pounder may shuffle more than stomp and therefore be able to put in a surprising amount of volume. I have seen runners with birdlike frames who are perennially prone stress fractures as well ponderous-looking specimens who never seem to suffer the slightest twinge. Footwear and choice of running surface can go a long way toward influencing these outcomes, but the most important factor seems to be how a runner picks them up and puts them down.
Runners who are limited to workloads they find unsatisfactory by their stride mechanics have other options for furthering aerobic development, and articles about cross-training can be found all over the Web.
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