Many different things affect the type of runner we are “naturally”. Body shape, genetics, history of physical activity, training and motivation all play a part in shaping us as runners. One of the amazing things about running, of course, is that it’s possible to transform from one type of runner to another. With this in mind, it’s difficult to categorise runners. However, there are some factors that can make you better suited to a certain type of running.
Your genes could dictate whether you are best suited to the speedy, short, fast stuff or long, steady running. Are you born to run a marathon, or will it never be your thing? A team of researchers based at Loughborough University, led by Professor Jamie Timmons, has developed a gene test that can help predict marathon-running performance. They found more than 100 genes that determine how a person adapts to endurance training and that nearly a fifth of the population lacks this combination. Those who have the genes adapt really well to endurance training and can run faster for longer, while those who don’t have the genes won’t develop the same endurance capacity.
American psychologist William Sheldon popularised three broad “categories” of body type in the 1940s: endomorph, mesomorph and ectomorph. The classic long-distance runner is typically ectomorphic (long and lean), while shorter-distance runners are typically more mesomorphic (bulky and muscular). There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but in general it’s pretty accurate.
Fast twitch/slow twitch
Being better suited to distance or speed is determined, in part, by the number of fast-twitch or slow-twitch muscle fibres you’re born with. Human muscle contains a genetically determined mixture of fast- and slow-twitch fibres and the blend of the mix can determine whether you are naturally fast and strong or slow and efficient. Fast-twitch muscles fibres contract quickly but get tired rapidly and don’t use oxygen to produce energy. Slow-twitch muscle fibres, by contrast, contract slowly but keep going for a long time and are a rich supply of oxygen. Fast-twitch muscle fibres can produce small amounts of energy quickly, whereas slow-twitch muscles can produce large amounts of energy slowly. Typically the distribution is about 50/50 in most people, although elite sprinters and power athletes may have up to 80 per cent fast-twitch fibres, while elite endurance athletes may have 80 per cent slow twitch.
Nature versus nurture
Despite physical characteristics, the type of training you do definitely has a significant impact on what the clock says when you cross the finish line. Training is arguably the single most important factor that determines running performance. When you run, you are placing your body under stress. That’s the point of regular training. You stress the body in a particular way, at different times, so that it learns how to deal with this stress and subsequently adapts. In doing so, when you do it again it feels easier. At least, that’s the theory.
Specific training therefore brings about specific results. Taking an extreme example, if I was signed up for my first marathon and to get ready all I did was run one mile, once a week as fast as I could for six weeks, it’s likely that the final 20 miles of my marathon debut would be pretty tough indeed! Rather, if I’d been specific to the marathon event, built up my distance progressively over many months, focussed on my ability to run at one controlled pace for a sustained amount of time and become the ultimate in running efficiency and economy, I’d have prepared appropriately and my marathon would more likely be a success!
It doesn’t really matter what category or type of runner you think you are or others determine you might be. What matters is that you can be any type of runner that you want to be. With the right training, appropriate application and bucket loads of motivation and commitment you can be any kind of runner, all kinds of runner and different types of runner at different times. Don’t limit yourself!