Miles, Metabolism, and Curveballs

As you probably know, I have been deeply interested in the science of athletic performance ever since I was a kid. One of the first scientific questions I had at a young age was how a baseball pitcher throws a curveball. It’s so cool how pitchers exploit the physics of aerodynamics to make the ball curve down or away from the batter before it crosses the batter’s box so that the batter swings and misses. When I was a kid, I played a lot of baseball, even trained at Bucky Dent’s Baseball School in Florida, and was mesmerized by curveballs.

Studying the science of athletic performance has also helped me understand why runners need to run many miles. Last week, I posted a blog about my conversation with Nick Symmonds, one of the best 800-meter runners in America, who has run 1:42.95. He told me he runs 60 to 70 miles per week. To the recreational runner, it may seem excessive to run that many miles each week to run a race that takes less than 2 minutes. Nick is not the only half-miler who runs that much. Peter Snell, the Olympic 800-meter winner in 1960 and 800-meter and 1500-meter winner in 1964, ran 100 miles per week during his aerobic base phase. And Sebastian Coe, the Olympic 1,500-meter winner in 1980 and 1984 and 800-meter silver medalist in 1980 and 1984 and former 800-meter world record holder ran 50-55 miles per week. The best milers in the world don’t run that much less than the best marathoners, despite their race being so much shorter.

The reason for so much running for such short races is endurance. Any race that takes two or more minutes to complete is more heavily influenced by aerobic metabolism than by anaerobic metabolism. To complete 800 meters in 1 minute and 40-something seconds still requires a lot of aerobic training. As Nick Symmonds said during our conversation, “The 800 meters requires you to be a 100-meter sprinter and a marathoner at the same time.”              

People think of running endurance as the ability to run for long periods of time. But that is only one (superficial) way to define it. Endurance is also the ability to sustain a high fraction of your maximal speed, to run as fast as possible by recruiting only your slow-twitch (aerobic) muscle fibers. If you can increase the speed that can be supported by slow-twitch fibers, that leaves all of your fast-twitch muscle fibers ready and waiting when it’s time to pick up the pace toward the end of a race. But if you have to recruit the fast-twitch fibers to hold the pace in the middle of the race, you’ll start to fatigue and won’t be able to pick up the pace later. In fact, you’ll slow down.

That’s why a lot of aerobic training is so important, even for short races: To train your slow-twitch muscle fibers to handle as fast of a pace as they can so you can postpone the recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers and thus delay fatigue. This is important whether you are a world-class runner or a recreational runner.    

[tweetthis remove_url=”true” remove_hidden_hashtags=”true” remove_hidden_urls=”true”]Weekly running mileage trains slow-twitch muscle fibers to handle faster paces to postpone fast-twitch fiber recruitment & delay fatigue.[/tweetthis]

As I tell my audiences during every presentation or workshop I teach, the number of weekly miles (or the amount of time) you run each week has the single biggest impact on your running performance, from 800 meters to the marathon.

Think about that during the World Series next week when pitchers throw the curveball.  

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