Does body composition affect running performance?

by Rebecca on July 3, 2012

Since I am a running geek I like to over-analyze both the track and road races that I watch and say inane stuff like, “the lean wolf leads the pack…”

Though I really am not trained at all in exercise science, I do notice some of the minor details about runners that seem to give them a slight edge in races.  One such thing is body composition: the ratio of lean body mass (muscle) to body fat.

It was hard not to notice a trend at the Olympic track trials: 

Morgan Uceny - 2012 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials - Day 10

(source)

Morgan Uceny easily won the 1500 meters race, and even blew kisses as she crossed the finish line.

Morgan Uceny - 2012 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials - Day 10

(source)

(source)

Julie Culley took the 5K.

(source)

And Amy Hastings won the 10K.

They all seem to be extremely lean with muscles bulging both in their abdominals and arms.

Does this perfect “running physique” they have achieved give them an edge?

I don’t know, but it could.  (So many other factors are involved.  Obviously this doesn’t come down to just how much muscle or body fat a runner has. I just find it interesting.)

Genetics play a huge role in achieving this ideal ratio, but I am curious as to whether or not these elite runner’s coaches work with them to achieve an balance of muscle and body fat that may give them a slight edge when racing. 

I mean,  it’s obvious that runners should not diet:

As an active runner it’s critical that you eat sufficient quantities of high quality carbohydrates, protein and essential fats on a daily basis. If you let your nutrition fall below the required level your body will break down and your running performance will plummet. (source)

Runningplanet.com advocates doing the following ten things to help you reach your ideal running weight:

  • Extend your long run
  • Add a mid-week long run of 12 miles or so
  • Run hills
  • Strength train
  • Run fast (do interval training)
  • Do longer tempo runs
  • Increase your weekly mileage
  • Avoid simple carbohydrates
  • Eat proper portion sizes
  • Don’t drink your calories

Most of these seem obvious, and I am sure that most elites do all of this already.  For us, however, it is much harder, because almost all of these things require something that not many of us have a lot of:  time.

I have been trying to run hills at least twice a week to build my legs up a bit, I do one tempo run a week (ideally), and I have just started to try and run fast.

However, I have not been running long very often or avoiding simple carbohydrates at all.  Think ice cream and salt water taffy—my downfalls.

Luckily for me, I don’t have to get up in front of huge crowds at track stadiums in my sports bra and underwear.  Because if I did, you better believe I would be following this advice much more strictly.

Being a recreational runner has many, many benefits. Being able to have ice cream tops my list.

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