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Jamie Martin-Grace Jul 5, 2020 4:45:00 PM 13 min read

Running Mechanics Part 2: Building your Horsepower


So you’ve read my previous post on running where we looked at putting some new tyres on the chassis, and now you’re finding there's a bit more spring in your stride. What comes next? Let’s go back to our car analogy. There’s new tyres, and we’re roadworthy and ready to go, but what is the one thing that we all want to know about when we’re looking at upgrading our car?

It’s the engine!


It’s the horsepower! The top speed! The sexy stuff! And when we break down the numbers, it’s no surprise why people put so much importance in it.


Top Speed

Let’s take two cars. A Fiat Panda, with a maximum speed of 160km/h, and a Ferrari Enzo, which tops out at a staggering 350km/h. In an even race, of any length, from point A to point B, what car is going to make it there first? It isn’t a trick question. Of course it's the Enzo! With more than double the top speed, the Enzo could cruise to an easy win without having the push the engine that hard.


Now imagine that we’re not even going to be racing the two cars against each other. Imagine instead, that we’re going on a 3 hour drive from A to B, and the whole way, we’re going to be driving at 160km/h. What car would you like to be in for that? It’s still the Enzo! You might make a case for the Panda being a more comfortable car, but while it may be roomy in there, any car that spends 3 hours running at its absolute maximum speed is going to sustain some serious, potentially very costly, structural damage. Even if you even made it the whole way, I wager it wouldn’t be a particularly comfortable or pleasant experience.

The Enzo, on the other hand, at 160km/h is just tipping 45% of its maximum speed. It's engine is designed to withstand huge forces, and much greater speeds, so tipping along at 45% of it's maximum output will be no problem to it. That's minimal wear and a smooth and easy ride.


The speed reserve effect

The same logic applies to the human body! The higher the top speed you can achieve, the more comfortable and easy a run will be at any speed below that. Looking at the image below, you'll see an athlete that started with a top speed of 10.9 metres per second (m/s). After speed training, this increased to 11.8 m/s. What we're really interested in here though is how by increasing the top speed, we also increased the athletes speed when working at sub-maximal velocities! Now when the athlete is working at 80% effort, instead of moving at 8.7m/s, they're up to 9.4m/s, and this effect will trickle all the way down to every effort level below that. 




Still unconvinced? Let's look to the best in the business: Eliud Kipchoge.

When Eliud ran his sub 2hr marathon, he was covering 100m every 17.08 seconds. My personal best in the 100m sprint is a modest 11.98 seconds.  About 5 seconds in the difference. You might look at that and think,


“Well jeeze that Kipchoge guy is actually pretty slow”,


but I’ll remind you that he covered 100m in 17.08 seconds, and then did it again.


And again.


And again.


422 times in a row.


Even if we go to the other end of the spectrum and look at Usain Bolt, who has been widely reported as never running more than a mile in one go, how slow do you think his 5km time would really be? Both of these runners are the best at what they do, and train very differently, but one thing they have in common is an absolutely blistering top speed that helped them achieve their staggering feats.


Training to increase your top speed also has the added benefit of decreasing your risk of injury. Your physical tissues, like tendons, ligaments, muscles, become more able to sustain higher top speeds, and the risk of injury at any speed below that is diminished, and this is well documented;

Studies show that training for top speed not only increased top speed (duh), but also reduced hamstring injuries both in trained athletes, and when looking specifically at soccer players. Being able to run fast makes for a smoother and safer ride.


Getting more out of your mileage

At this point you’re probably chomping at the bit, ready to dive into all sorts of drills and exercises to inject more a bit horsepower into your engine. But we’ve only covered the traditionally sexy stuff, and in the modern world of the environmentally woke there’s a new contender for the throne. I never thought I’d be the one to say it, but miles per gallon and fuel efficiency are the new cool.


Roll out of any club or bar in Dublin at 3am (who remembers Leggs?), flag yourself a taxi, and there’s a good chance you’ll be climbing into a Toyota Prius. This car champions the fuel economy movement, and there’s no coincidence that those who drive for a living, prize this car above all others. It boasts an impressive 52mpg, meaning this car can go and go for a long time before needing to be topped up. Your body, though you might not realise it, has the potential to have an engine that's as efficient as a Prius.

5k a day

We’ve already established that the ability faster is going to benefit your 5km, half, or full marathon runs, but it’s important that we are able to maintain that speed for longer if we hope to lower our finishing time. When it comes to any endurance event, the bigger your aerobic capacity, the better you will be able to maintain this new found speed. This is where that efficiency comes into play.

Athletes who are well trained aerobically are able to consume oxygen at a greater rate, allowing them to saturate their blood with more oxygen than an untrained individual. Not only that, but they also have increased cardiac output, meaning this oxygen rich blood can be pumped around the body, supplying the exercising tissues with their much needed fuel. What this really boils down to, and what is arguably the best measure of your aerobic capacity, is your Vo2 max. In layman's terms it’s the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilise while exercising.


“Okay Jamie, well now I’m confused. Are you telling me I should train for speed, or aerobic capacity?”


Well, if endurance is the goal, train both! Matt Fitzgerald has popularized the 80/20 running principle (though it can be applied to any endurance sport), and while looking at the research he found time and time again that in endurance events, the best individuals, teams, and countries, all had one thing in common. 80% of their training was at slow and low intensities, staying purely in that aerobic zone, while 20% of their training was done at or near maximal intensity. You can read more about it here.


Some of you will read this and immediately dismiss it, because you think that you “aren’t a runner”. Or that you can’t do 80% of your running slow. Or that you hate running and you’re bad at it. Well evolution disagrees! There’s a reason why we don’t walk around on four legs anymore, and endurance running is it! We are the product of millions of years of evolution that has tailored us to be the best distance runners on the entire planet.


Anyone can learn to run.


Everyone can learn to love it.


If you’re interested in learning to love running, improving your times over any distance, or geting wicked quick for your sport, contact myself (jamie@ffs.ie / @coach_jamiemg) for training one a 1:1 or small group basis.




Jamie Martin-Grace

Jamie is a Personal Trainer working with FFS, coaching classes, and helping clients become the strongest version of themselves. Jamie also specializes in running, whether you need to master the mechanics of 100m sprint, plan and prepare for a marathon, or complete your first 5km. He is current captain of DSDAC track and field, and is training to return to competitive events following a ruptured ACL.