What makes one athlete excel over another? Easily answered you say. Obviously they were born with better genes. Therefore they are slimmer, shorter, and without any defects. We know that body weight has a tremendous effect on distance running and there must be an optimum height. What that is exactly, no one has studied as far as I know, but we can surely estimate that somewhere between 5’2″ and 5’8″ would be a good guess. There have been taller runners who have done very well, but not many. I am six feet one inch tall. Good runners cannot be stocky, so the small boned, slim runner has the advantage. When we look at these body types, we must come to the conclusion that weight lifting may not be in the best interest of these athletes. Maybe limited amounts would be all right but nothing that would build bulk in the athlete.
I don’t see the Africans doing any weight lifting and I did very little during my running career. What I did do was use light weights for toning purposes and not to build bulk. The idea is to be as light as possible without losing strength.
The next advantage is the birth place of the potential athlete. It is apparent now that being born at altitude has a tremendous effect on the development of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems. So a distinct advantage will go to those people whose parents live in a country where it is over 5000 feet above sea level and the advantage may increase if you live even higher.
Once you have the body type and being born in the right place then we want to know how much oxygen can be absorbed into the body and the rate it can be absorbed. Obviously some humans have better “oxygen uptake” than others and therefore the factors listed above will give you the advantage. Genes passed from parent to child would also be a factor. The percentage of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers in the body is a determining factor on how good the person will be.
In my days of training with the Los Angeles Track Club there were many athletes who did essentially the same amount of work but the results were not the same. It must be assumed that at least some of those athletes had the same muscle fiber or the same percentage of slow twitch to fast twitch cells. Of course, one other variable is that some athletes do not run as effortlessly as others and therefore the wasted motion used energy that could have been used in moving the proper muscles toward the finish line. Any small discrepancy in the bone structure makes the runner work harder than they should and can bring about injury. When we watch runners at the International level, we see that their running form is much more perfect than the average runner.
If we dismiss the being born at altitude theory for the moment, we have put together the perfect body for distance running. There must be thousands of these people in the world. Some will never be given the opportunity to compete and others will never take the opportunity. So we are left with hundreds of individuals who have the proper body makeup and are given the chance to see what their bodies can do. Out of these we have a few who excel. Is it the training these people have been given that gives them the edge? Surely many people do the equivalent training. However there are those who go a little farther than their competitors. In 1964 I was and am convinced that no one in the world was doing the training I was doing. If that was true, the possibility exists that the few who are leading the world today are doing a little extra. Nurmi did it, followed by Zatopek, Kuts, Clarke etc. And sometimes it is because their bodies are holding together as they push themselves harder than someone else. And that may be the most critical point of all. Years of training without serious injury is a vital key to success. With all the attributes to become a great distance runner, it will do no good if the body is constantly breaking down.
Now we come to the point of this essay. There is one more attribute we can study which is the level of concentration these people have. I am convinced that this particular attribute is essential to being a good distance runner. There are times in races where runners have increased the tempo and you ponder a decision to go with them or to keep the same pace. At those times the decision is based on the amount of mental toughness the runner has which is directly related to concentration. Mind over matter. Some athletes will not place their bodies in high discomfort zones. In other words when they feel discomfort they back off a little so they don’t have to endure it. Other athletes will push through these episodes. And theoretically there would be various percentages of discomfort for each athlete. In other words some may back off at the slightest hint of discomfort while at the other end of the scale the athlete will not back off until his body gives in to the forces of human endurance from a physiological stand point.
If this is true, how does a person achieve this ability. Is it an inborn trait along with the other gene factors that give an individual the possibility of becoming a fine distant runner? I don’t see how that could be the case. Could it be the environment where the person is raised? Having a parent(s) that somehow instills the notion that giving up is not an option. Possible. Or is it a learned trait from the training the athlete goes through. I would think that the environment has some effect for surely a person who sees a way to move upward in society has a greater psychological drive than another who comes from a family position where they are comfortable. And that may be the greatest impetus of all. Is it that they are trying to be better, having a need to be better than the other person? Are they wanting to leave a life where they are not satisfied? Are they trying to show others that they are capable of achieving and this is they way they have chosen? In many cases it is one of the few roads available.
But surely, training has a lot to do with how a runner can push through discomfort. A training program that brings the athlete to discomfort periods time and after time must condition the “body of the athlete” and the “mind of the athlete” to endure higher and higher levels of discomfort.
So we find the perfect human body, with the right percentages of slow twitch to fast twitch muscles cells, who has been raised in the proper environment and is hungry for success. Then we place them in the proper training program that has been designed by a knowledgeable coach. Then we use the perfect environment(s); altitude, sea level, perfect trails, good sand, world class track, ample sun, temperature, humidity etc. Then we have the athlete run only because work would interfere. Running is work. We travel from the Northern hemisphere to the Southern hemisphere for the best competition, from Europe to North America to Asia.
If all this is done and we throw in a masseur, a doctor, a psychologist and a few other things I have surely left out, then surely, the outcome would be an athlete who can compete on an equal footing with any athlete in the world. I knew athletes once who trained four hours a day and still worked an eight hour job. I wonder how they did it?