Welcome to The Science of Running

Welcome to The Science of Running

The human body is designed to run – our ancient ancestors had to run to catch food, or run slightly faster to avoid being the food of a predator.  

This is the first in a series of articles that will explore the science of training and racing over various distances, and consider a range of topics that could help runners improve or get more enjoyment from their training and racing. 

When Pheidippides completed the first marathon in 490BC, sports science did not exist. Had it done so, it is possible that the advice he would have had access to before setting off from Sparta would have prevented him from dropping dead when he arrived exhausted, over-heated and dehydrated in Athens.  Today, our knowledge of sport and exercise science, and sports nutrition, has advanced to the extent that it now plays a fundamental part in the training, preparation and recovery that are a fundamental part of running any distance successfully.  Although the application of scientific knowledge will never make a running easy, choosing to ignore the advice and insight that science now offers to runners greatly increases the chances of at worst, failure, or at best, a poor performance.

Understanding the science of training and racing can help to make the vital differences that separate a great race that will live long in the memory, from a terrible one that no runner will ever wish to repeat.  For example, appreciating the importance of transporting oxygen from air that enters the lungs, to the muscles where energy is produced, is critical in the design of a training programme.  Without understanding the vital role played by the body’s limited stores of carbohydrate in the provision of fuel, it is all too easy to get race day nutritional strategies wrong.  Today our knowledge of the science of hydration – particularly in hot and humid conditions – can make the difference between successfully maintaining core temperature, or dehydrating and over-heating during the run.

Scientists have also studied and now understand the importance of mental preparation and “mind strategies” when running, especially when the race or training session is long and arduous.  Overcoming, the inevitable mental demons that can overwhelm runners and exacerbate fatigue is crucial for success in runs that last for a long period of time over extended distances, since the mental challenges of endurance running can often be as great as the physical ones.

Training and racing place huge stresses on the body, and inevitably there is a risk of injury and illness.  But advances in science have shown how these risks can be minimised through the sensible selection of clothing and footwear, changes in running technique, correct training, and exercises to develop strength and mobility.

Regardless of the race distance, on race day, sticking to sensible, science-based practices from waking up until crossing the finishing line will help to ensure success. These include understanding the scientific basis of “running pacing” – scientists have shown that elite runners can complete races at a high proportion of their maximum capacity, whilst recreational runners run at a lower capacity.  But if recreational runners set off too quickly – and run at a proportion of their maximum capacity that is too high – sports scientists have shown that whilst they might feel great for the first few miles, physiological “damage” starts immediately, with lactic acid levels rising quickly, and energy and fluid stores depleting rapidly, and with body temperature rising quickly, there can be a serious problem, particularly in hot and humid conditions

The application of scientific knowledge can also support the post-race and training recovery process.  Nutritional scientists have identified the optimum foods and drinks for recovery, and how to time their post-race intake, whilst physical interventions such as ice baths, stretching and massages have also been used to varying degrees of success as a means of aiding recovery. 

In the remaining articles, I will cover many of the topics highlighted in this first feature in more depth, explaining how they impact on performance, and how they can be controlled or manipulated through optimal training, recovery, nutrition and hydration.

PC Jakub Kriz

Written by Prof. John Brewer 

Pro Vice-Chancellor - Global Engagement, St Mary’s University and Professor of Applied Sports Science  

Prof John Brewer

Professor Brewer began his career as Head of Human Performance for the Football Association, where he formed part of the support team for the 1990 Italian World Cup, before running his own sports science and sports injury business at Lilleshall National Sports Centre for 15 years. John then went on to work at GlaxoSmithKline Plc (GSK) as a member of the leadership team in the Nutritional Healthcare Business where he was responsible for research and sport science education for Lucozade Sport. 

Subsequently, Professor Brewer entered academia, undertaking senior leadership roles within the University of Bedfordshire. He has also held a number of significant Board level roles including Chair of the London Regional Sports Board, a Government appointed Non-Executive Director of UK Anti-Doping, Non-Executive Director of British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), and Chair of British Ski and Snowboard. 

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