Genetics play a significant role in determining if you will naturally excel at running sprints or long distances such as half-marathons or marathons. Factors such as body type and the composition of muscle fibers are often inherited characteristics that runners are born possessing. But running is about more than just having proper genes. Proper training and working on running fundamentals specific to the type running you are doing can help you improve your times and reduce the risk of injury.
Human muscles are made of fibers that can be divided into two categories: fast-twitch muscle fibers that provide short bursts of power and slow-twitch muscle fibers that can contract and expand over a longer period of time. The composition of muscle fibers in a runner’s body – especially their leg muscles – determines their ability to explode powerfully for a short sprint or maintain running for an extended period. Fast-twitch muscles cannot be converted into short-twitch muscles or vice versa, although extended training can give fast-twitch muscles some characteristics of slow-twitch muscles.
Elite distance runners such as marathoners tend to be slightly built, with thin legs and a short to medium height. Top sprinters are tall and have mesomorphic bodies, with rectangular body shapes, large muscles and low, narrow waists. Tall sprinters naturally have a larger stride rate, meaning that they can cover more ground with one stride than a shorter competitor. Sprinters have muscles that are made of up to 80 percent fast-twitch muscles, meaning that they burn through energy much more quickly through the course of a short race.
Elite distance runners take steady but short steps throughout the race. Their stride rate of 180 steps per minute is 30 strides more than the average jogger and allows them to have their feet spend less time contacting the ground while improving their balance by keeping their feet under their bodies. Research performed at Brigham Young University suggests that the optimal distance-running technique is a natural gait that the body learns through miles of training, while proper sprinting technique requires adaptations to the body’s natural hip angle, knee extension and stride length. This can include high knee action and longer strides than distance running.
Leg injuries of all types are possible for both sprinters and distance runners, but specific types of runners are more prone to certain injuries. Sprinting forces the hamstring muscles to expand and contract rapidly for a short period of time while draining the muscles of energy. This leaves sprinters susceptible to pulled or torn hamstring muscles. Distance runners often overwork their muscles and bones to push themselves to run greater distances. This can lead to overuse injuries such as Achilles tendon tears and shin splints.
- CoachR.org: Muscle Fiber Types and Training
- The Telegraph: Usain Bolt Has the Perfect Body Shape for Sprinting Success, Researchers Find
- The Art of Manliness: Beginner’s Guide to Long Distance Running
- Sports Biomech; A Biomechanical Analysis of Sprinters vs. Distance Runners at Equal and Maximal Speeds; Trevor D. Bushnell
- BrianMac.co.uk: Sprints
- Sports Injuries: Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment and Prevention; Stephen R. Bird et al.
Richard Manfredi has more than a decade of professional writing experience, both in the media and at a corporate level. Since 2003, he has worked in the public relations industry, creating and executing campaigns for technology and entertainment companies. Manfredi is also a journalist who has worked for the "Orange County Register," as well as several online publications.