17 March 2006

How fit must a long-distance athlete be?

Marathon runners are the pinnacle of cardiovascular and endurance fitness.

Marathon runners are the pinnacle of cardiovascular and endurance fitness.

Typical build: Many of the runners who specialise in long-distance races are not muscular at all. In fact, they are sinewy and lean, and some may even look almost anorexic (Frith van der Merwe and Elana Meyer). All the serious competitors have minimal amounts of body fat.

Many of the best marathon runners are not only very lean, without an extra gram of body fat, but also short. The shorter and leaner, the less energy are needed to propell the body forward at a continual mean pace.

Good lung capacity (good VO2 max) is the most important factor in an endurance athlete. If the athlete does not have a huge lung capacity, his lungs would not allow him/her to run at 2.9min/km for two hours on end.

Physical requirements: A long-distance athlete has more red slow-twitching muscle fibres than a sprinter. He must also have extremely strong core muscles for good balance and posture, a good sense of rhythm, and cardiovascular and muscular endurance. They simply cannot afford to carry any excess fat.

Technique: The marathon runner needs to settle into an fast but easy pace as soon as possible, relax while running, conserve as much energy as possible while running and must be mentally prepared. Tactical plan of the race is essential.

Training programme: At least five to six days per week, at least two to three hours per day. The focus is on cardiovascular training, enhanced by gym exercises.

Cardiovascular fitness: This component of training is of much more importance than for sprinters. A high level of fitness endurance is required. Fartleks, hill work, short and fast runs and longer, slower runs are part of the training programme.

Resistance training and muscles: Muscle endurance plays a major role in long-distance running, especially of the muscles of the legs, stomach, trunk and back, and to a lesser extent, the arms. Leg muscles, especially the gluteus, hamstrings and calves should be trained. Athletes strengthen their legs with weights work. Athletes also use gym balls to develop strength in the core muscles.

Reaction time: A quick reaction time is really not essential for a long-distance runner, but timing plays an enormous role.

Endurance training: This is of the utmost importance for middle- and long-distance runners. Endurance training encompasses cardiovascular- and muscle endurance.

Nutrition: Today’s athletes follow an eating plans that are more scientific than ever before. Many professional athletes have their own nutritionists and certainly all the Commonwealth/Olympic teams will have at least one. Carboloading with specific combinations of carbohydrates with a low and a medium glycaemic index for sustained energy is important. Water and fluid intake should rather be too low than too high as dehydration is less of a risk than originally thought.

Climate: The risk of hyperthermia is very real in hot, humid conditions, when athletes generate more heat when they run as fast as possible.

Water intoxication (hyponatraemia) is a real risk for slower runners. Drinking more and more fluids may dilute the remaining sodium in the body, leading to water intoxication.

Mental: Visualisation of the race and tactical planning are important.

Drugs: Middle- and long distance athletes may be tempted to take EPO or other stimulants.


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