Can You Still Be a Runner if You Don’t Look Like One?

Sept. 8, 2022 – There’s an old joke about running:

Q: What’s the best way to make the Olympic team?

A: Choose your parents wisely!

It’s funny because it’s laced with scientific truth: No aspiring athlete was ever slowed down by good genetics.

Consider a recent study out of Spain that explored the relationship between the size of the trunk – the ribcage and waist – and the ability to run fast.

Researchers used a 3D surface scanner to measure the trunks of 27 male volunteers who ran at various speeds on a treadmill. At moderate speeds, there was no difference among men with different torso shapes.

But when they reached 85% effort (working hard) or perceived 100% effort (all-out race pace), the fastest body type became clear: “a relatively narrow, flat torso.”

So, your inherited torso shape can give you an edge. Or not.
You see lots of those narrow, flat torsos at the Olympics. That body shape can contribute to what coaches call running efficiency, a major part of fast running – but not the only one. There’s VO2 max – how your body uses oxygen. There’s the ratio of “fast twitch” muscle fiber (sprinting) and “slow twitch” fiber (distance running). And there are also abstract things like mental toughness and incentive.

You don’t need the perfect torso to have these traits or improve them. That’s good news for runners everywhere, because research shows running can improve your health and help you live longer.

How Running Helps Your Health

Even small amounts of running reduce the risk of death from heart attack or stroke, according to a 2014 study led by Duck-Chul Lee, PhD, of Iowa State University.

Researchers followed 55,000 adults for 15 years. Just 5 to 10 minutes of running, several times a week, even at modest speeds (6 mph, or a 10-minute-mile pace) nudged the needle toward better health. Runners on average lived 3 years longer than nonrunners.

Running reduces the risks of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, says Russell Pate, PhD, one of Lee’s fellow researchers.

“And we learned during the pandemic that fit people generally had better outcomes against COVID-19,” he says.

Pate is now 76 years old and a research professor in the University of South Carolina’s Exercise Science Department. He’s a longtime distance runner with three top-10 finishes in the Boston Marathon, so you can guess what his torso looks like.

But as a researcher, his focus is on promoting lifelong fitness habits for all ages. Pate says that running is a smart choice because it is “very accessible, relatively inexpensive, and the U.S. often has ‘community support systems’ such as local running clubs or planned trail systems that recreational runners find inviting.”

The 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which Pate helped develop, recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week. That’s about 20 minutes a day, which should be doable if you’re looking to get fit and stay healthy, he says.

For runners, that might be less than 20 miles per week, while someone training for a half-marathon or even a 5K may easily surpass that mileage.

But before you start a running program – or return to one after time off – get cleared by medical professionals.

Improve Your Running, Whatever Your Body Type

Running coaches know the importance of running efficiency. And that starts not in the legs, but in your “core.”

“A strong core helps a runner maintain their center of gravity late in the race, when running form begins to break down due to fatigue,” says George Buckheit, a former All-American runner at Bucknell University and founder of the Capital Area Runners club in the Washington, DC, area.

Doing basic planks at home is a simple way to strengthen your core.

Besides putting in the miles, Buckheit says certain drills will help you get faster:

Form drills like “high knees” and “butt kicks” reinforce proper mechanics and increase range of motion. High knees are a skipping-like motion, while butt kicks bring the foot up from directly below, close to the buttocks. He recommends Lauren Fleshman’s video to see how to do these and other drills.

Running hills also reinforces proper form. Even a moderate uphill requires an active, rhythmic arm swing and a crisp knee lift.

Interval training can increase your VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen your body uses when you’re working out as hard as you can. Once every 7 to 10 days, try a faster workout on a track or a flat, measured trail. Jog for 10 to 15 minutes, do some light stretches or drills, then do four 800-meter runs at (or slightly faster than) your actual 5K pace. Take a 2- or 3-minute walk/jog “recovery” between each 800-meter run, and finish with 10 to 15 minutes jogging to cool down.

Push yourself to build mental toughness and confidence, which will come with harder or longer workouts. Add a couple of miles to your longest run, and include some rolling hills. If you’re eyeing a marathon, be sure to enter some 5K or 10K races to get used to the physical and mental demands of competition.

Speed work can help you overcome any shortcomings in fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles, which is just a roll of the genetic dice. Short, fast sprints (five or six bursts over 40 or 50 meters) can eventually make you faster and more explosive, while building up weekly mileage or increasing the length of your long, steady-paced runs will activate the “slow twitch” endurance muscles.
Running Away from Medication

One man in Buckheit’s running club wouldn’t have crushed the Spanish “trunk test.” He was in his late 20s, well over 200 pounds, and on heart meds.

“I was worried I might need my CPR training for this guy,” Buckheit says.

But a well-planned running program – and an athlete willing to do the running – took the story in another direction. Buckheit’s newbie ran 4 hours for his first marathon, and through diligent training a few years later, he ran one in under 3 hours. That’s under 7 minutes per mile.

“When he did that,” Buckheit said, “I thought, ‘Well, he can’t get much faster.’”

But the onetime rookie with heart issues most recently dropped his marathon personal record to 2 hours, 37 minutes (running at 6 minutes per mile for 26 miles).

“I think he really benefited from the accountability and camaraderie of being in a running club,” says Buckheit. “And one day he came to practice and said: ‘My cardiologist wants to know what the hell I’ve been doing. He took me off the heart meds.’”

But can running help you ditch your meds or, better yet, avoid them altogether? Yes, suggests the findings of a London-based study published in 2020.

The study put 138 first-time marathoners – men and women between 21 and 69 – on a 17-week program of less than 30 miles per week before the London Marathon. Blood pressure and arteries were checked before and after.

Their conclusion: Reductions in blood pressure and aortic stiffening in healthy participants. It was as if they’d reduced the age of their blood vessels by 4 years. The benefit was greater in older, slower male runners with higher baseline blood pressure.

Coach Buckheit’s “surprise star” and the results of the London Marathon study are refreshing reminders that not all our victories are celebrated on top of the medals stand.

Any Body Can Be a Runner’s Body

The first running boom of the 1970s was dominated by gnarly, wiry men. Now, 44% of marathon finishers are women. In recent decades, mid-pack (or back-of-pack) runners were encouraged by people like Oprah Winfrey and Runner’s World columnist John Bingham, also known as “The Penguin” because of his waddling gait.

Neither had torso measurements that would have impressed the Spanish researchers. But Oprah finished a marathon in 4 hours, 29 minutes.

“Oprah made a lot of people believers,” says Amby Burfoot, 1968 Boston Marathon winner. “She was once a very unlikely candidate to make it, and when she did, a lot of people thought, ‘Hey, why can’t I?’”

And Bingham’s column made him the Pied Piper of the Plodder – luring slower runners along with encouragement and humor – en route to lives of better physical and mental well-being.

“We wouldn’t have dared enter a race like this, with all these fast runners, if it wasn’t for your column,” an admirer gushed to him at a marathon expo.

Bingham grinned and said, “Just remember this: There’s a lot more of us than there are of them.”

Mark Will-Weber is a former senior editor at Runner’s World magazine and the editor/writer of The Quotable Runner.

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