Paula Radcliffe and Running Efficiency

In recent weeks, I have been focusing on developing a program which will allow me to run a good marathon in 2012. Although I would not wish to rely too heavily on the training of elite athletes to guide me, I have nonetheless been quite strongly influenced by the training program that turned Paul Radcliffe from a promising junior distance runner who won the World Junior Cross Country championship in 1992 into one of the most amazing marathon runners the world has ever seen.

VO2max or efficiency?

According to Andrew Jones, the physiologist who has supervised the measurement of Paula’s aerobic capacity and running efficiency over a period of more than 15 years, the major factor in her improvement was a 15 percent increase in her running efficiency between 1991, a year before she won the World Junior Cross Country championship, and 2003 when she set a world woman’s marathon record of 2hr 15 min 25 sec in London. (International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching Vo1 • pp101-116 • 2006).

If we ignore the minor ups and downs in the measurements, her maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max ) remained approximately constant at 70 ml/min/Kg from age 17 in 1991, to age 29 in 2003. However her oxygen consumption at a pace of 16 Km/hr (6 min/mile) decreased from 205 ml/Kg/Km in 1992 to 175 ml/Kg/Km in 2003, which represents a 15% increase in efficiency (i.e. 15% reduction in the amount of oxygen consumption per Km at a standard pace).

 Andrew Jones acknowledges that he does not know which physiological variable has made the greatest contribution to this improvement in efficiency. Among the various measurements he performed were blood lactate at various paces; heart rate at various paces; vertical jump height and the sit-and-reach test of lower body flexibility. All of these measurements changed significantly over the relevant time period.

The lactate turn point

Most striking was the right shift of the turn-point in the graph of blood lactate against pace. In 1992, there was an appreciable upturn of lactate (from 1.2 to 1.45 mM/litre) between 13 and 14 Km/hour. By 2003, her blood lactate level remained almost constant in the range 1.2 – 1.4 mM/litre up to 18.5 Km/hr and then turned upwards sharply.

At first sight, this might indicate a substantial increase in ability to deliver oxygen to the tissues (perhaps via increased diameter or density of capillaries) and/ or increase in number of mitochondria in muscle fibres so that fuel is burned aerobically rather than anaerobically. However, one might expect that if such changes were generalized to all aerobic muscle fibres, these changes would also produce an increase in VO2 max. In view of the fact that VO2 max did not increase substantially, it suggests that the changes are predominantly changes in blood supply and mitochondria in slow twitch fibres.

Andrew Jones reports that during the relevant years she increased her ability to cope with a relatively large training volume, so that by 2003 she was running up to 160 miles per week. Jones reports that a large proportion of Paula’s training was steady paced running typically running at a pace of 3:30 to 3:40 min/Km. For most people, these paces would be well above the lactate turn point, though by 2003, at 3:20 min/km Paula’s blood lactate level was only about 1.4mM/litre. A large volume of training at this pace would be expected to develop the capillaries and mitochondria of slow twitch fibres. It is noteworthy that 3:20 min/Km corresponds to a marathon time of 2 hrs 20 min and thus is not far below her race pace. Thus I am inclined to speculate that it is likely that the most significant development that allowed her to run a marathon in 2:15:25 was the development of capillaries and mitochondria of slow twitch fibres.

However, it should also be noted that even at paces corresponding to VO2max, her blood lactate level was only around 5mM/litre, which is around half the expected value for a typical athlete. This suggests that she also had a highly developed capacity to metabolize lactate. This would have made her use of fuel at marathon pace more efficient.

Muscle power

In addition, other factors almost certainly contributed. As an old timer with noticeably reduced muscle power, my attention was caught by the observation that her vertical jump performance increased from 29cm in 1996 to 38cm in 2003. Perhaps the most important contribution to developing her muscle power arose from the efforts of physiotherapist Gerard Hartmann to identify the problem that had left Paula struggling in the wake of three faster runners in the final lap of the 10,000m in the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

In an article published in Running Times in 2004, athletics journalist, Frank Greally, reported an interview with Hartmann, in which Hartmann described how, after the 2000 Olympics, he had asked Paula to do 20 hops up and down from a 16 inch high box as fast as she could. Whereas Kelly Holmes had achieved 20 hops on and off the same box in 12.5 seconds, Paula took 27 seconds on her first attempt. This led Hartmann to devise a program of plyometric exercises and heavy weight sessions. In 2002, Paula won her first senior world title (long cross country in Ostend, Belgum) and also her debut marathon in London, where she achieved the second fastest time ever for woman (eight seconds slower than Catherine Ndereba’s record of 2:18:47).

Head nodding

Another problem that Hartmann had addressed following the disappointing 4th place in the 10000m in the Sydney Olympics was Paula’s characteristic head-nodding style. Hartmann demonstrated that this arose from weak neck and shoulder muscles and devised a program of strengthening exercises which has largely cured her head nodding.

Is flexibility good?

An intriguing but probably a less important factor was the deterioration in Paula’s lower body flexibility over the period from 1991 to 2003. Andrew Jones reports that in 1991, in the sit-and-reach test she reached 8cm beyond her toes in 1996, but only 4cm beyond her toes in 2003. This observation demonstrates that a high degree of flexibility is not essential for world class performance, and raises the possibility that too much flexibility might actually be associated with diminished efficiency.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the evidence suggests two major developments contributed to Paula’s increased efficiency and dramatically improved performances. The first was a strong rightward shift of the lactate turn point, possibly due largely to development of capillaries and mitochondria in slow twitch fibres and to increased ability to metabolize lactate. Secondly, a program of plyometrics and weight training led to a major increase in her leg muscle power, reflected in vertical jump capacity, and in her neck and shoulder muscles, alleviating her previous inefficient head nodding style. It is likely that the increased power of her leg muscles allowed her to spend a shorter time on stance and to lengthen her stride, in the manner described by Weyand in the study which I described in my blog post on 22nd November.

 2003 – 2012

Since 2003, Paula has continued to record great achievements in the marathon, with three victories in New York (2004, 2007 and 2008); first place in London in 2005; and a gold medal at the world championships in Helsinki in 2005. Sadly, an Olympic medal still eludes her. She now has her sights on the London Olympics 2012. By then she will be 38. I understand that Catherine Ndereba, who had preceded Paula as the woman’s marathon world record holder in 2002; won gold at the world championships in 2003 and 2007; and silver at the Olympics in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, is also planning to race in London. Catherine will be 40 in 2012. It would be wonderful if both are in great form for that race. It would be hard for anyone with a sense of sportsmanship to begrudge Paula a medal.

Whether or not Paula is able to produce medal winning form in 2012, her story illustrates that a systematic approach to training, focusing on aerobic development, leg strength and running technique has turned a promising junior into one of the most wonderful athletes ever.

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21 Responses to “Paula Radcliffe and Running Efficiency”

  1. RICK Says:

    Hi Canute,
    I hope Pauls can take a medal in 2012, her age is not a problem, but maybe she will have to adjust her training to stop her body breaking down again!
    it would seem the advice from other top women veteran runners is to allow more recovery time and run on soft ground as much as possible.as well as cross train.
    but will paula who has such determination and drive be willing to adjust!

  2. canute1 Says:

    Rick, I agree that she needs to adjust her training to reduce risk of further injury. I think that if she is still doing a lot of plyometrics, there is a real risk of permanent damage to connective tissues. I understand that Catherine Ndereba trains in a more gentle manner – typically 90 miles per week. It might explain why Paula has a best time that is more than two minutes faster than Catherine, but also why Paula is now showing signs of frequent injury. I suspect the heavier training is one reason why male marathon runners tend to have a shorter time at the top of the rankings than females.

  3. Thomas Says:

    I’m not surprised about the loss of flexibility going hand-in-hand with the increase in speed after reading an article about a study a few days ago at http://mzungofire.blogspot.com/2009/11/phys-ed-how-necessary-is-stretching.html. If I may just copy one paragraph:

    When the Nebraska Wesleyan researchers compared the runners’ sit-and-reach scores to the measurements of their economy, which had been garnered from a treadmill test, they found that, across the board, the tightest runners were the most economical. This was true throughout the groups and within the genders. The inflexible men were more economical than the women, and for both men and women, those with the tightest hamstrings had the best running economy. They also typically had the fastest 10-kilometer race times. Probably, the researchers concluded, tighter muscles allow “for greater elastic energy storage and use” during each stride. Inflexibility, in other words, seems to make running easier.

    Needless to say, my policy of not stretching will be continued for teh foreseeable future.

    Btw., present Olympic marathon champ Constantina Diţă was 38 years old at the time of her triumph.

  4. canute1 Says:

    Thomas, Thanks for that interesting reference to the study reporting that tight hamstrings make running easier. I was pleased to find when I tried the sit-reach test yesterday to find that I can acheve 4 cm beyond my toes – exactly the same (relatively poor) performance as Paula Radcliffe in 2003 – so at least I have one physiological measurment that matches that of a world record holder 🙂
    Like you, I do not stretch, but I do a small amount of yoga, because I believe that is good for maintaining moderate flexibility, as well as enhancing balance, body awareness and mental focus. I do not know if these attributes make much difference to my running, but I hope they will minimse the risk of falling over when I am older.

  5. Ewen Says:

    Thanks again Canute – a most interesting summary of Paula’s improvement (and changing training) over the years.

    Regarding the improved pace at the lactate turn point, and large volume of running a little slower than marathon race-pace – that would seem to back the argument that one doesn’t necessarily have to train right at lactate threshold in order to improve the turn point (as in ‘Hadd training’).

    Interesting also about the improvement in muscle power (box jump) and cure of ‘head nodding’. So, a stronger ‘push off’, and hence a longer stride? The improvement of ‘head nodding’ indicates that small but significant improvements in form might help, and that running as you first did (as a child), although ‘natural’, might not be the best way of running.

  6. SPR Says:

    Plyometrics leads to a quicker “push off” not a stronger one, of course due to it being quicker, it is more powerful. The plyometrics is training the muscles to react quickly to contact with the ground, which leads to shorter contact times, as the same work is done in less time.

  7. SPR Says:

    Oops! Where are my manners. Forgetting i’m on a blog rather than a forum 😉

    Hi Canute 🙂

    Where’s the edit function? 😉

  8. canute1 Says:

    SPR, thanks for your comment. I believe that what is required to run faster is a more powerful push. Greater power means achieving the required work in a shorter time. I think that in order to run faster we need to increase both the ability to generate force and also power. Shorter time of stance must be associated with greater average vertical ground reaction force while on stance to ensure that the total upwards impulse over the gait cycle is equal to the weight of the body x duration of gait cycle. Therefore the average force will be greater and the duration of action less. Once a runner is near top speed, the airborne time per step does not change with further increase in speed, so the work done against gravity during each step does remain nearly constant, but it has to be done is a shorter time. So the requirements for running faster are ability to exert an increased force and the generate increased power.
    I understand that plyometrics usually leads to development of both strength and power, though because of the risk of muscle injury with plyometrics, I believe it is not safe to do intense plyometrics before building up enough strength. So in practice, I think any increase in intensity of plyometrics should be preceded by resistance training
    At present I am doing a moderate amount of body weight resistance training and a small amount of low intensity plyometrics. I intend to do some heavier resistance work before attempting more intense plyometrics.
    With regard to the edit function, my view of the comment window shows a clickable word ‘edit’ below the line ‘SPR says’. I am not sure if an external user has access to this function. However, I didn’t notice any lack of etiquette. It is great to hear from you. I hope you are running well.

  9. SPR Says:

    Thanks Canute

    Agree it probably develops strength to some degree, but the increase of power through speed is the target. As you say you may need to build up strength to prevent injury and get the benefit from the intense exercises. I have a book on plyometrics (Jumping into Plyometrics – Donald A. Chu) and one of the things they point out is that if you do say a depth jump from too great a height for current strength; the legs spend too long absorbing the drop, and you end up with a slow jump relying on strength to get up and with very little power which defeats the object of the exercise.

  10. RICK Says:

    HI Canute,
    in his book ‘Explosive Running’ DR Yessis also recommends doing strength work before moving into plymetrics to avoid injury.
    He gives a complete program inc weights, plymetrics and using resistance bands [ which i have found very good and can be bought for 10-15 pounds]

  11. Bob Prichard Says:

    Your best bet for a fast marathon is to reduce your bounce.

    The average elite marathoner bounces up and down 3″ with each stride. Since you take about 1,000 strides per mile, that adds up to 26,200 strides.

    Multiply that by .25 feet, and you get 6,550 vertical feet up, and 6,550 vertical feet down. That’s 1.24 vertical miles in each direction, for a total of 2.48 vertical miles.

    This is what makes the marathon so tough.

    Belayneh Densamo had less than 1″ of bounce when he set a WR at Amsterdam in 1988, and reported at the end of the race that he felt like he could run another five miles. Unfortunately, he was unaware that his bounce was so low and was not able to duplicate it again.

    You can see more about bounce and marathon efficiency at

    • canute1 Says:

      Bob, Thank you for your comment. I find the Somax video very thought provoking but consider that it over-simplifies the benefits and penalties of getting airborne when running.

      Getting airborne costs energy, but it also allows a runner to achieve a long stride without a large braking force at each footfall. When the proportion of time on stance is small (eg less than 50%) the body must inevitably be subject to a downward acceleration of 32 feet per sec per sec for more than 50% of the time. Therefore there must be a compensating amount of upwards acceleration. This costs energy. However if the proportion of time spent airborne is small, the foot must land well in front of the centre of gravity to counteract the head forward and down angular momentum that is generated when the point of support is behind the centre of gravity. Landing in far in front of the front of the COG will result in a jerky deceleration in early stance and forward acceleration in late stance. This also costs energy. There will also be large costs in accelerating the trailing foot to overtake the torso in the swing phase.

      Thus running inevitably involves a compromise between the costs of getting airborne on the one hand, and the costs of braking in early stance together with the costs of accelerating the trailing leg in the airborne phase, on the other hand. The optimum answer is a compromise that depends on many factors including the ability to store the energy of impact as elastic energy. Too much bounce is inefficient but so is too little bounce. The simplistic discussion in the Somax video appears to ignore these issues.

      Also the way in which the video illustrates vertical distance run during a marathon is quite misleading. In fact the COG follows an approximately sinusoidal trajectory that is about 400-500 metres longer than the horizontal distance of the marathon.

      Nonetheless I am intrigued by the description of Densamo’s low bounce in Amsterdam. However if bounce was assessed merely by measuring the up and down motion of the head, the evidence is questionable. Head motion is not a reliable measure of vertical motion of the COG. In fact measurement of the motion of the COG requires quite complex computation and is at best only approximate.

      I am also intrigued by the question of the role of range of passive motion at the hip joint in determining running efficiency. Most runners have a substantially greater range of motion than they utilise during distance races. I suspect that much of the resistance to swing at the hip joint during running comes from the fact that hip extensors and flexors are simultaneously active. Thus dynamic resistance to swing is likely to exceed passive resistance. It is interesting that Paula Radcliffe’s flexibility actually decreased as her marathon performance improved, though perhaps the sit and reach test is not the most relevant test.

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