Reader To Reader: Go Faster

Can a slow runner become a fast runner through sheer graft - or is speed in your genes?


Posted: 8 April 2007
by Jane Hoskyn


Are fast marathoners a breed apart, or can the rest of us be as fast if we work hard enough?

"Are fast runners naturally fast, or can you teach yourself to be fast, through pure dedication and training? I'm a long way off a 3:15 marathon, but with a few years of hard training would this be possible?"
I Will Do It!


Your best answers

  • It's a mixture of fast genes and hard work
    It's a mixture of genetics and hard work. There's obviously a limit to how good a runner you can be. Some people are "natural runners" and can run jaw-dropping times with minimal training, while others put in vast amounts of training and end up running pretty average times. The only way you'll find out how much talent you have is by trying. I'd heartily recommend it: one of the great joys of running is pushing yourself and seeing just how good you can be. – Silver shadow
  • For mere mortals, it's about training and technique
    For the majority of people, genetics only plays a minor part. The major areas that can lead to fast running are: 1. Training approach (sensible schedules, nutrition, rest etc), 2. Realistic objectives, personal commitment, consistency, positive attitude, discipline etc, 3. Running style and technique, which anyone can learn. The importance of trained skills is hardly ever mentioned. – nrg-b
  • Don't focus on natural limits – train and you'll get faster
    As far I'm aware no-one has ever produced a definitive answer to this question. There's no clear way to measure what makes someone 'naturally fast', because fast-twitch muscle fibres will not in themselves make someone a fast runner. The one thing that is consistently proven to improve fitness (and speed) is training. Generally the more you train the better you get. Less is NOT more! Don't get worked up about what your limits may or may not be. Try to train (run) as much as you can. Work out how much you can fit in and do it well, stick with it and be patient. Running will get easier and your times will get quicker. – bazza
  • Hard work outweighs genes – only just
    Speed is relative: training maximises whatever talent is there. Some people are naturally faster in the same way that some can naturally jump higher or are good at maths or languages. However, an untrained runner with bags of ability could be beaten by a hard worker with less ability. – amadeus
  • It's nature plus training – here's why
    Olympic sprinters have been shown to possess about 80 per cent fast-twitch muscle fibres, while those who excel in marathons tend to have have 80 per cent slow-twitch fibres. But at the same time, there's some evidence that human skeletal muscle switches fibre types from "fast" to "slow" due to training. But how's a beginner to know which race length suits their biology best? Probably a case of experimenting with different distances. I think I'm better suited to shorter races. I did some sprints with my (elite) running pal, and she was surprised by my speed – but I found my first half marathon very hard. – Namaste
  • Look inside your muscles
    You could always have a muscle biopsy to assess your proportion of slow-twitch type-A and fast-twitch type-B muscle fibres. Doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs though. – PhilPub
  • Training boosts speed – but you have a natural limit
    With a lot of hard training I went from running a 2-hour half marathon to being able to run a 1:15 half and a 2:41 marathon. But because I didn’t have the genetic build that some of my club mates and training partners had, that was my limit. – Grendel
  • Blaming genes is a cop-out
    I like to tell myself that it's all about genetic make-up when I'm struggling to get my times down, but that's utter rubbish. At the very highest level of elite running it's about genetics, but for the rest of us it's about hard work, determination and a willingness to make sacrifices. – Pico
  • Experiment with distances
    Play around with distances, find what you're naturally better at, and work damned hard at it. – Little lizard
  • Remind your body how it feels to sprint
    I believe that training slow makes you a slow runner. There are times when you have to put the effort into short sharp runs and go quicker than you would normally, and this educates your mind, your lungs and your muscles. It reminds them what it felt like to be 10 years younger! – johnsten
  • Bodyweight plays a big role
    Some of us are more predisposed to fast running, but far more likely to make someone naturally slow is poor diet and/or excess weight. The lighter you are the easier it is to run fast (to a point of course), and even a few pounds makes a difference. – Jason X
  • Short legs needn't slow you down
    Size certainly doesn't matter - a friend of mine is 4'8" and she runs 8 min miles. My OH who runs 6.5-7 min miles was humbled recently when a tiny female trotted past him up hill on a race, and he never saw her again. It's a great leveller, running! – Siance


Any questions?
Got a new poser or problem that you want RW members to answer? Spotted a great question on the forum? Email us!

Click here to find out more about Reader to Reader.


Previous article
Reader to Reader: Marathon overload?
Next article
Enduring Questions - The Perfect Training Plan

training misc, speedwork
TwitterStumbleUponFacebookDiggRedditGoogle

Discuss this article

Are fast runners naturally fast, or can you train yourself fast?

Basically I would like to know if its is possible to become a fast runner with pure dedication and training or if you need a certain amount of natural talent? Would I ever be able to run a 3.15 marathon?

Ok, I know that I am a long way off of this now, but with a few years of hard training would this be possible? Do runners that run 6 min miles and then pick up an injury start running again at 9 min miles or just start back at the 6 min mile pace? Do all the different speed training sessions make a difference or just highlight your natural ability?

Are my dreams of being a fast runner just that…a dream?

Posted: 27/03/2007 at 22:42

You'll get out of it precisely what you put into it. Those with all the right attributes will be just a bit quicker for the same input. It's a long slow process though and there aren't any short cuts.

No they don't restart at 6 minute miling (which is not quick at the very top). They go for some gentle runs and ease their way back in.

JJ
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 22:48

bit of both i think
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 22:49

Yes and yes
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 22:50

I know its not the fastest but kind of pitched the 6 min at a respectable speed.

I have done my marathon training and have built up my miles but have not done any speed training. I think i should get a 3.45 for my first one, but am now thinking about my next. Faster one!!
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 22:51

good for you

see how you do in the first

and then-well-lots of good advice on here
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 23:02


Nam
I used to think size matters (i.e. long legs?) but my mate is only barely scraping 5 foot and runs a 38 min 10k.
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 23:06

It's a mixture of genetics and hard work. There's obviously a limit to how good a runner you can be. Some people are "natural runners" and can run jaw-dropping times with a modicum of training. Others put in vast amounts of training and end up running pretty average times. The only way you'll find out how much talent you have is by trying. I'd heartily recommend it. One of the great joys of running is pushing yourself and seeing just how good you can be. This is where the other factor comes in: hard work. With a lot of hard work you can achieve a surprising amount. Take a look at theroadtobeijing.co.uk. Alex Vero is somebody who has simply committed himself to being the best he possibly can. With hard work, you can obviously go a long way. You might be interested to know that fast runners don't do all of their running at supersonic pace! I'm fairly nippy and I do a lot of my training at seven-minute pace, which is a lot slower than my race pace. Good luck with the marathon.
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 23:08

seven----------

er

wibble


yes right


shuffles out of thred
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 23:09

I can pick up the pace when I'm nearly home, for the last 0.5 mile. Try it too early and I feel pukey though :o(
Size certainly doesn't matter - a friend of mine is 4'8" and she runs 8 min miles.

My OH who runs 6.5-7 min miles was humbled recently when a tiny female trotted past him up hill on a race, and he never saw her again. It's a great leveller, running!
Posted: 27/03/2007 at 23:23

somatatype, natural ability, fast twitch/slow twitch muscle fibres etc. Everyone can reach their potential with the right training/diet etc but some will be faster than others and some will never be super fast.

I have a theory that the potentially fastest runners in the world have not been discovered as running has not crossed their paths.
Posted: 28/03/2007 at 07:12

Speed is all relative. In my (ever so 'umble) opinion training maximises whatever talent is there. Some people are naturally faster in teh same way that some can naturally jump higher or are good at maths or languages.

However someone with bags of ability but untrained could be beaten by someone with less ability who has worked thier socks off. Ultimatley though it's about personal development. For example I've taken nearly 3 mins a mile off my pace from when I began mid length runs.

I'm interested in your own experience - you say you are aiming at sub 3:45 in your first marathon. How long have you been running and how have you decided that target?
Posted: 28/03/2007 at 10:35

You could always have a muscle biopsy to assess your proportion of slow-twitch, fast twitch type-A and fast-twitch type-B muscle fibres. Doesn't sound like a barrel of laughs though.
Posted: 28/03/2007 at 10:55


Nam

It says that Olympic sprinters have been shown to possess about 80 percent fast twitch fibers while those who excel in marathons tend to have have 80 percent slow twitch fibers. http://sportsmedicine.about.com/cs/exercisephysiology/a/aa080901a.htm At the same time though there is some evidence showing that human skeletal muscle switches fiber types from "fast" to "slow" due to training.

For a beginner to know which race length suits their biology the best and gives them the best chance of getting decent times is it just a case of experimenting with different distances? I did some sprints with my (elite) running pal who was positively surprised considering I've not run that long. She thinks I may be better suited to short fast races? I found my first half very hard and feel I have much more of a chance to improve my 10k times? Is it just a cop out or could it be that there are some race lengths that suit my genetics better than others?

Posted: 28/03/2007 at 11:14

IWDI

boinged an old thread for you
Posted: 28/03/2007 at 11:23

you answered your own question - if you have predominantly fast twitch you will most likely feel more comfortable and do better at the shorter distances. Only time (or a biopsy)will tell. You don't say how long you trained for the half - maybe you just weren't ready for it?
Posted: 28/03/2007 at 11:29

If you start to put together a few race results and PBs over different distances, you can then compare the numbers against age-adjusted tables for performance.

Hope this works...

http://www.runningforfitness.org/calc/agtimes.php
Posted: 28/03/2007 at 11:33


Nam
Build up to it over half a year. Will try another in autumn in the meantime keep experimenting? I feel really weak with legs like lead over 9-10 miles. Also develop problems and pains I don't have on runs shorter than 8-9 miles. Could never imagine ever surviving a full mara? Maybe its just very early days?
Posted: 28/03/2007 at 11:37


Nam
PP: Interesting. Thank you!! For me the age/gender comparisons are much more favourable the shorter the race, and decidedly average for half mara.
Posted: 28/03/2007 at 12:42

A few points, IMHO:

1. For the majority of people especially those who post here (me included!), genetics plays a minor part.

2. Childhood and adolescent lifestyle also plays a minor part. Loads of former couch potatoes here (me included!).

3. The major areas that can lead to fast running is:
- training approach: sensible schedules, nutrition, rest, etc
- realistic objectives, personal commitment, consistency, positive attitude, discipline etc
- running style & technique in terms of a skill which anyone can learn.

The part on skill is hardly ever mentioned.




Posted: 28/03/2007 at 13:31

The answer is yes up to a certain extent – with a lot of hard training I went from running a 2 hour half marathon to being able to run a 1:15 half and a 2:41 marathon – but because I didn’t have the genetic build that some of my club mates and training partners had – that was the limit – when I ran 2:41 I did exactly the same training as another club mate and he ran 2:29 –

The key is to train consistently and it will come –

Posted: 28/03/2007 at 14:05

Amadeus, I stopped smoking just before xmas and started running. The first run it did lasted all of about three mins before I was sick!! Nice eh. Now I am upto 20 miles in training and run 6 days a week. I did my first race being the Ackworth Half last Sunday and did that in 1 hour 49 mins. I ran the race at a comfortable level and still had bags of energy left even though I had less than four hours sleep (I had just driven back from Euro Disney).

I will be happy for anything under 4 hours but have not done one speed session so wondered if I could get faster?

Venerable Lady Beebs the Herbaceous of Leg over Wallop, I missed the thread? Can you post a link for me?

Grendel2, thanks for the advice, I would love to run a 75min half!!

Posted: 28/03/2007 at 21:43

Thanks :)
Posted: 29/03/2007 at 22:24

Interesting thread this, as I often tell myself that it's all about genetic make-up when I'm struggling to get my times down, but that's utter rubbish - ok, at the very highest level it's about genetics, but in reality it's about hard work, determination, and a willingness to make sacrifices.

I started running 5k/10k/half-marathon races about 5 years ago and posted around 21min/45min/1h45m for each, beating a mate of mine at all three distances. In the past 2-3 years, however, my mate has upped his training to a ridiculous level, to the point where he now posts 17min/35min/1h18m and competes in triathlons regularly. My own training has remained the same: train 3 to 4 times per week for about 3 months, then have 2-3 months off before starting up again, whilst my food intake is still over the top. Guess what? My times have not improved!

I'm not saying that I could post times as quick as my mate, but I do think (know?) that if I'd trained as hard as he had over the past couple of years I would now be going sub-1.30 for half-marathons. I'd enjoy that, but I must prefer the balance that I have at present otherwise I'd be out there training now.
Posted: 29/03/2007 at 23:21

this is a reoccuring question - and as far I am aware no one has ever produced a definitive answer. There remains no clear way to measurewhat makes someone 'naturally fast' - having fast twitch muscles will not in itself make someone a fast runner. The one thing that is consistently proven to improve fitness (and speed) is training and generally, the more you train the better you get. (Less is NOT more!). Training may not make you faster than the next runner but it will make you faster than you were (up to a point obviously). None of us know what are limits are until we start training - and even then most of don't really get that close to our limits.

So, don't get worked up about what your limits may or may not be. Try to train (run) as much as you can. Work out how much you can fit in and do it well and stick with it - be patient. Running will get easier and your times wil get quicker.

Piece of cake.

:)
Posted: 30/03/2007 at 09:30

Ok, Bazza, I take your point. So my next question is what is the best form of speed training?

If say you would like to be a sub 40min 10k man, then do you start my trying to run 5.50 min miles in half mile reps with recovery until you can run 10k.

Or

Do you try to run faster than that? Say 5.30min miles?

Or

Train for distance with moderate speed training? Say 6min miles?

Or

Train for speed all the time whilst increasing distance? – every run at 5.30min miles?

Or

Hill training and if so, which type, run up as fast as you can and jog back down. Speed v's distance v’s incline? Big short hills? Big long hills? Mountain Goat Hills?

Or

Fartlek?? – On a flat road (PB’s are won on the flat?) On hills or on a mixture?

The list seems to go on.

I plan on developing a strategy and then trying it for a 12 week period to see what difference can be made based on a 10k distance. I have plenty of hills near my, some very large, and I have some good flat so I can choose the right one.

I note that Grendel said that he didn’t have the genetic build of some fellow club mates? So what is the right build? Ok, I know that the lighter the better, but some under weight people struggle also?

How important is upper body strength?

Some have said read a couple of books and learn to run properly? Can you run in the wrong way? Surely, proper running is when it feels natural to you!!

Posted: 30/03/2007 at 12:14

one of the 'problems' with the schedules published in RW and the like is that they have a very narrow focus - typical examples are 'six weeks to a faster 10k', 'get round a marathon after just 12 weeks training' etc

there's nothing essentially wrong the ingredients but they encourage a short-term approach to running. Training programmes these days seem geared towards big events such as the Great North Run or the London Marathon rather than what's going to enable you to run a good race in five year's time. I do understand why this the case but ideally runners should be aware that there's little they can do to make them faster in just a few weeks time.

I guess that 'day one: go for a nice slow, steady run. day two: repeat day one. day three: repeat day two. etc etc etc' isn't going to make an especially riveting read!

When I race, my performance isn't just influenced by what have I done in the preceeding weeks but in the months and years beforehand. How I run today is the product of every run I have ever done.

Personally I wouldn't advise anyone to do any speed work until they've been running for a while. Firstly I would advise building a base - which (basically) consists of running as much as you can for a period of approx 3months (6 months for beginners). They are some good threads on here about base training.

often runners will talk about mileage - am I doing too little? too much?

i prefer to come at it from a slightly different angle - do as much as you can fit in around the rest of your life, family adn work committments etc

if you can only fit in 20miles a week then do that, if you can manage 40 that's great, if you can manage 60 even better. If you want to do more than that you going to have to be able to train twice a day and that's probably going to make you even faster (but too tired to do anything else!)

once you've reached your optimum amount of training and you're comfortable with it then you can start thinking about speed work. At the stage you're at I honestly think that simply doing a further 12 weeks of consistent steady running will help you just as much as trying to work on your speed. If you don't want to do some speedwork I would suggest focussing on fartlek rather than worrying too much about specific times and distances.

Speedwork has it's place - I used to love doing intervals on the track - but the number one thing for getting quicker it to improve your aerobic capacity and the easiest way to do that (without getting injured) is just to do lots of steady running.
Posted: 30/03/2007 at 13:59

Bazza: Very good insightful posts, which I'm in total agreement. I recall a fairly heated thread about Paula Radcliffe's weekly mileage (I think). Basically, if you had her lifestyle then how much better could you get. The best answer was How good would Paula Radcliffe be if she had the lifestyle of a typical runner?
Posted: 30/03/2007 at 14:11

nrg-b - paula did reach international level while a full-time student and she got a first so she must have done some studying! but clearly most of have enough trouble fitting in the right amount of training to stay fit let alone run fast.

i do understand why RW publish the type of schedules they do - in the past there was a view that to run a marathon you had to be built like a whippet and run 100mpw for 10 years before you could run a marathon but clearly that isn't the case. Many people (thousands) have discovered that you can get an awful lot out of running without slogging your guts out and that it is possible to experience that pain and joy of completing a marathon without having to be international standard.

Indeed the 'just do as much as you can' program I suggested is not dissimilar to the type of 'you can still run well off three times a week' training schedules that abound.

Nonetheless the current focus on short-term goals does, I believe, stop many runners from getting near their potential. For example, I have no doubt that there are many more runners capable of running a sub-3 hour marathon than are currently doing so. As average times get slower, more runners are beginning to think that to fast takes something extra special when what it needs more than anything is a willingness and ability to train quite a lot for quite a long period of time.

if you can't fit in loads and loads of miles there are things you can do to increase your speed, strength and stamina but I think there is too much emphasis on speedwork given to novice runners.

I am a great believer in the benefit of consistent long-term training. I'd love to see an article in RW along the lines of - start preparing now for a good London Marathon in 2012!
Posted: 30/03/2007 at 16:02

Lydiard - "Miles make champions"

FWIW - I don't think 3:15 is that fast. Given a long term approach such as bazza suggests, the commitment and time, certainly I reckon most guys could run 3:15 (and wouldn't be out of reach for many girls as well). Of course if you work a 60hr week, have 5 kids, and socialise heavily, then it probably ain't gonna be possible. But if you can set aside the time for lots and lots of miles, then the fitness will naturally come with time.
Posted: 30/03/2007 at 21:39

bazza: Your point about Paula is well-made. I wonder if the kids she ran against were also in the same-boat as her or were they "full-time" athletes. In which case Paula's achievement is made even more remarkable.




Posted: 30/03/2007 at 21:47

I personally think that anyone can get to 85% level on training alone. Above that standard and genetics start to take part.

An example would be long distance events where to get to county let alone national standard you really need a BMI towards 20 or less which some people are never going to achieve genetically without other disadvantages.

Piers
Posted: 30/03/2007 at 22:19

"Interesting thread this, as I often tell myself that it's all about genetic make-up when I'm struggling to get my times down, but that's utter rubbish - ok, at the very highest level it's about genetics, but in reality it's about hard work, determination, and a willingness to make sacrifices."

That's a load of cobblers. Genetics affect all levels of runners, from a six-hour marathoner to Mo Farah. They determine how fast you can can become as well as how you respond to training stresses. The simple truth is that we are not all born the same! Of course, most people these days don't get to test their limits. Either they can't spare the time for the training or they simply aren't interested in doing a huge amount of work for something that society at large does not attach much value to.
Posted: 31/03/2007 at 21:53

So SS, are you saying that maybe i could never run a sub 3 hour marathon do to my genetic makeup??

Anyone fancy creating and or joining me in a 12 week experiment to see if we can improve speed based on a 10k race? Running 6 days a week with an average mileage of say 50 Miles a week?

Ideally I would like 1 rest day a week and want to run with my club on Tuesdays (8 – 10 miles). The rest of the time I am willing to try any suggested method??

We could measure the results on a Garmin etc?

Posted: 01/04/2007 at 14:00

Ace thread - Lyra recommended it to me so I've nicked it for this week's Reader to Reader!

IMO you can train yourself to become much faster, but everyone has a natural threshold. Mine just happens to be (s)lower than everyone else's...
Posted: 01/04/2007 at 21:59

ah, but how much faster? At what point do you reach your maximum speed for the level of training you do? I would like to know if one type of training will make you faster than another?
Posted: 01/04/2007 at 22:07

I think it depends on a number of factors such as:
1. Body type - ectomorph (long/skinny, doesn't put on fat/muscle easily); mesomorph (powerful, puts on muscle easily) and endomorph (naturally tubbier, puts on fat easily, hard to put on muscle).
2.% of fast and slow twitch fibres - will depend on whether you'll excel more at marathon or shorter faster races
3. Time of life you start training
4. Time and commitment available to train
5. Weight you're carrying

Even if genetics are against you though, you can still train hard and reach your peak.

For example, at 34 yrs I started running, was a short tumpy endomorphic 5'4" size 14 even though I'd kept fit for years, but never ran. Started off running/staggering 2 milers, with a walk break in between averaging 11 min/mile.

I built it up just by slowly increasing runs, two years on ran a half mara at 2 hrs, the following year the same at 1.45. The following year I did my first mara at 3.58 followed by another 6 months later at 3.41 and this year am looking to get 3.30. Only now have I added speedwork and hillwork to my training. Oh, and another upside is, I've gone down to a size 10, I've not been that size since 12 years old!

Due to my age, now being 38, I don't think I'll ever get below 3.15, what with my age creeping up on me. And I find that I'm naturally better at marathons, not so good at the shorter faster races. So I've listened to what I believe is by genetic capability and that is what I'm going to work on.

I think the moral of the story is to play around, find what you're naturally better at and work damned hard at it. Hopefully you can find the time to do so, I'm lucky as we've got no children and I can dedicate time and effort to it.

Good luck!
Posted: 02/04/2007 at 08:36

Little Lizard, well done on your achievements. The first part of your post kind of had me thinking i am doomed to be slow, as i am an endomorph, no idea about twitch fibres, started later than i should (35yrs), and carrying a few extra pounds.

But then, you show that through work and commitment you can get faster. Ok i know i wont be in the top 100, ever, but i could get to a respectable speed and time for by given age!! I might then be able to call myself a runner, although athlete maybe pushing it!

Posted: 02/04/2007 at 15:20

LL, you're younger and faster than I am, and I haven't written off the possibility of a sub-3.15 marathon sometime :o)


Bazza, great posts - and the point that we carry our entire running history in our bodies is one that can't be underlined strongly enough.

Posted: 02/04/2007 at 15:35

See more comments...
We'd love you to add a comment! Please login or take half a minute to register as a free member

Smart Coach
Free, fully-personalized training plans, designed to suit your racing goals and your lifestyle.