Genetic Limitations

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08/01/2007 at 16:28
Random thought from my run today - "At what point can I reasonably start to wonder if I'm running as fast as I'm capable of?"

There's obviously an intrinsic limit on the maximum speed anyone can run at, and a level at which we will plateau even with optimal training. And we know that for the fastest distance runners it comes somewhere between 4.15mm and 5mm pace, depending on gender and race distance.

That's the top end of the scale. But what about the rest of us? Is there a lower limit on maximal performance? Is there a mile speed that, say, 95% of able-bodied young adult men or women (assuming there are two overlapping bell-curves, and that is just an assumption on my part) ought to be able to achieve with appropriate training? And if so, where are the actual numbers to be found?

Anyone know?
08/01/2007 at 16:49
Have you looked in Noakes' The Lore of Running (2004)? - not sure if there is anything there though - might be worth checking his references. Wonder if any research has been done at Loughborough?

I'm wondering if it's possible to come out with a figure at all - there must be 1000s of different genetic, social, and biomechanic reasons why people can't run a 5 minute mile - so how fast can they run with training? Do we know how much each biomenchanical/genetic factor slows someone down by? And suppose a person is affected by more than one of these factors? How much does each factor slow them down?

Or ... if they have terrible knock knees but the awesome lung capacity of a record breaker? What happens then? How much can they improve by? Could the totally talentless actually achieve a 5mmile pace with surgery, intensive gait remediation work and cutting edge (and highly illegal) performance enhancing drugs? - how are you defining "appropriate training"

Sorry, just a few random thoughts - a lot more interesting than doing what I'm meant to be doing though. apologies if they are wide of the mark but it's an interesting subject ...
08/01/2007 at 17:12
I suppose one could make some sort of statistical analysis from mass participation events such as FLM or GNR(less likely now!) on the basis that those at the sharp end have done the maximal training preparation that they could.

Statistically that would give quite a good representation of age groups and sex but after say the first 3,000 ( to pluck a number at random - not very scientific!) assume that maximal training had not been achieved:-))

Only trouble is that because of the random nature of entry selection good class club runners and non attached runners of equal quality may not be in any one years event and so the averages are dragged down a bit.

Also the overall average standards (as opposed to absolute standards) of distance running in such events have declined over the years partly perhaps because of the entry systems.

Proof of that bold statement?

In 1985 I scarcely managed a top 1,000 place in FLM in a time of 2:44.

Last year that would get me in the top 600!
08/01/2007 at 17:13
I've read The Lore of Running cover to cover, Lizzy. Yes, really, I'm THAT sad! What I'm looking for isn't there. Maybe it doesn't exist, because I suppose what I'm looking for is a quantitative assessment of the minimum level of performance that someone who isn't a natural born runner (like me, for example!) could reasonably say, "THAT is as fast as I can run."

Which would mean doing research and collecting statistics on runners who are training hard but are never really going to be good enough to be of national or even regional interest.

And yes, there are loads of internal and external factors that will impact on what we can achieve. And lots of reasons for choosing not to chase one's genetic potential in what, for most of us, is an intrinsically pointless hobby.

By "appropriate training", I mean appropriate running training, treatment and rehabilitation for injuries or for medical conditions (such as asthma) which could affect running performance, and adequate nutrition. Anything else is very tiny print.
08/01/2007 at 17:16
Indeed, TS :o) My position relative to the overall field, and in my age category, at FLM2003 (my best FLM perfomance so far) was almost identical to my position relative to the overall field, and in my age category, at Abingdon last year. I was 47 minutes faster at Abingdon.
08/01/2007 at 17:20
I've often wondered about this. Like what is the best someone could be if they were trained & coached since they were old enough.

I think there would be potential for amazing athletes of any sport if they were coached from an early age - forget school, friends, eveything. Obviously that's totally immoral but it makes an interesting thought. I suppose sports coaches who openly condone the practices of some of the training regeims of the former soviet union & indeed china for events like the Olympics must privately be very curious about the results achieved.

I'd like to know what could be reached if priority was only given to the sport. With no thought of the athlete. Like the way those young female gymnasts are pretty much broken by the time they are 20 if not long before - surely that kind of goes along the same lines of what I'm thinking.

*obviously I wouldn't like to see anyone put through such training but I do like to daydream about what's possible
08/01/2007 at 17:32

so to expand the sample one would have to take in good rated events with a similar course profile so that times were not distorted by difficulties such as hills or admission problems that skew the results.

These woud then have to have a "regional" factor applied so that the reduced pool of talent entering is compensated for. perhaps done by adjustment based upon relationship of top runners in each age group with similar runners (UK?) in national events such as FLM.

Statistically one can already see the difficulties of processing such data but don't let me dissuade you:-))))
08/01/2007 at 18:05
Or one would have to observe the effects of intensive training on lots and lots of motivated non-elite runners - probably over 10,000 completers to achieve statistical significance, and about 100,000 entrants to the study because the dropout rate is likely to be phenomenal - for as long as a decade.

I wonder if I could get a grant big enough to cover that one ;o)

08/01/2007 at 18:22
could be a couple of phd's in this.

Just the sort of thing lottery money should support - £100K each a year plus assistants ( to do all the work) :-)
08/01/2007 at 21:20
Incredibly difficult to study that. So many confounding factors. Even if you could actually measure those factors meaningfully, you'd still have to make certains assumptions about how those factors influence performance (e.g. linear / quadratic / inverted U / threshold effects etc). With assumptions flying around for so many factors, i would have that much confidence in the result. I just think its impossibly complicated to get an unconfounded measure of the effect of genes on performance - genes will also affect how someone responds to the other factors (interaction effects).

Then, as others have pointed out, even if you had a good experimental design, it would be very long term and require lots of participants - a logstical nightmare! It would rquire some hefty funding, and what's more what organisations with that kind of money would have an interest in the findings of such a running specific study anyway?

Coming down to pure opinion now. I think if we are talking about young healthy people doing all they can in terms of training / lifestyle, i think we'd have a bell curve with the peak about 10% slower than WR. Obviously the fastest tip at WR, and the slowest tip (those poor souls whose bodies were really not born to excel at running) at about 20% slower than WR.

08/01/2007 at 21:31
>Scratches head and fiddles with abacus<

So, even if I'm at the shallow end of the athletic gene pool, by those figures I shouldn't consider myself to have fulfilled my potential until I've run a marathon at around 6.15mm pace ...

Lots to train for, then :o)
08/01/2007 at 22:48
Alex - are you saying that the least talented men could do a sub 2.30 marathon given the optimum training ? Hmmm, I think I'd go for a rather wider distribution than that and I reckon the slow end of the distribution would taper away much more gradually with some people never able to complete 26 miles at any pace whatever they did.
08/01/2007 at 22:49
<<<<<<<Takes deep breath>>>>

vrap - you are a doctor right, i feel faint

20% slower than world record ok Just did a google search for WR for 5km on the roads 14:46

20% slower if my maths is right

17:45 roughly

Duck Girl    pirate
09/01/2007 at 00:19
Well obviously a certain % are never going to finish a marathon because of some congenital disability. after that, i think you'd have a very long left-hand tail, a strongly right-shifted curve dropping away to zero soon on the right-hand side of the peak.
not sure where the peak would lie though - I'd suggest somewhere around a top-end club finisher (who probably has some innate advantage over typical population, but this will probably be balanced by not-quite optimal training due not not being a full-time well-resourced professional).
I'm probably a fair bit to the left of the peak in innate ability, but as measured against UK population well off to the right through training :)
09/01/2007 at 01:55
I think Alex's estimate is sound. If you're talking about reaching teh peak that your genes will let you then we have to assume that the subject is able to train as per a professional athlete - ie multiple sessions a day. With that kind of training all of us would no doubt make marked imporvements.

Currently I train about 6 hours a week over six days - sounds pretty pathetic when you compare it to the hours you put in for a full time job doesn't it?

I'm currently hoping to get to close to a 3 hour marathon on just the 6 hours of training a week. I'm sure if I could afford to train like a full time job & had the motivation to do it I could be many times better than I am now - we all could.

I think the only way to really find out would be totally unethical. Something like having identical twins - letting on live a normal life & have the other train to run from as soon as they are able to - I'm guessing the age those child gymnasts start would be a good start.
09/01/2007 at 05:45

doesn't all this depend alot on leg length though?

aren't shorter runners destined to be at the far end of the bell curve

and what about different rates of deterioraton due to ageing?


so even if you had the bell curve data
you'd need to stratify it by age and height imho
and i suspect it would be less accurate because of the differences in ageing rates

you also raise the scarey possibility of having to divide people up by ethnicity

should a kenyan amateur runner who grew up in the high altitude be given a different set of stats to aim for

would we have to issue different stats to aim for depending if you're black or white??????

would we take into account poor nutrition in childhood for runners from the third world?

etc etc

although academically interesting
i think it's a potentially scarey line to go down this theoretical "genetic potential"

surely the scienctific analysis would demand a set of info and figures that in real life would be both demotivating and difficult to digest
09/01/2007 at 09:10
Why is it scary, LoK? There's no intrinsic merit, practically or morally, in being able to run fast.
09/01/2007 at 09:59
Interesting thread and a good question VRAP. Certainly from my understanding and reading of the subject over many years. Leg speed (short distance running) is largely genetic. When it comes to endurance running however, genetics play less of a role and the body's adaptation becomes more significant. The reason why Kenyan and Ethiopian long distance runners excel is largely due to the fact that they start running long distance from a very young age. They adapt and specialise to the event. VO2max, running economy etc. They also have successful role models and their beief/expectation is greater.
I frequently hear Brenden Foster bleating that we do not have any great 'European' runners on the world scene and it is unlikely to change. We are looking at a cultural difference rather than a genetic difference!
Stump    pirate
09/01/2007 at 10:24
TC - are you sure? Bodies genetically evolved to live and love at high altitude are gonna be quids in for fatigue management and energy development needed for endurance when at sea level. I'm not entirely convinced that all of the kenyan ability comes from training earlier.

Genetic limits - definitely but I am inclined to believe, and it's only my belief, that the bulk of the populace could be up in the top quartile at races if they made the same life choices that these runners do.

We don't have to look at the very top elites as they are so far over the population/ability bell curve you are 5 sigma out.

General bods can be better we just don't make being better the life priority when we are young enough for it to count.

09/01/2007 at 10:52
Stump, you are making the classic mistake of confusion two very different terms; adaptation and evolution.

This is why Paula Radcliffe trains at altitude (her body adapts) and yes if you are born/raised/run at altitude your body adapts from an earlier age!

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