Running and body size

Really enjoyed this discussion between Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Thompson about Olympic running.  Having been in awe of the bodies on the men’s sprinters, e.g., Yohan Blake


Contrast that with your typical 1500m runner, where they all look they’ve been on a hunger strike:


I found this part of the conversation about the 800m fascinating:

N: Let’s go back to the eight hundred metres for a minute. It’s not only the one race with real geographic diversity, but it’s also the race with, probably, the greatest physical diversity. Some of the runners—like the favorite, David Rudisha—are tall and skinny. Others are more muscular. Nick Symmonds, the top American, seems almost stocky. It’s a great race in that it combines the need for both slow- and fast-twitch muscle fibers.

M: I know you love the eight hundred, Nick. But I just can’t work up any enthusiasm for it. I think that thing you point out—that it’s both a sprint and not a sprint, and attracts the big and the skinny—is what turns me off. As a skinny guy, I am only interested in races won by skinny guys. I came of age watching track in the days of Mike Boit (skinny guy) getting beat by the great hulking Cuban Alberto Juantorena. Needless to say, when Boit lost—and he did, over and over again—it killed me.

N: Rudisha’s height is also interesting because, in general, very tall runners don’t do well in distance races. According to research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the mean height of the thirty people who have broken twenty-seven minutes in the 10-k is only five-seven.

M: That’s what I was saying! That’s why I think I can take Rupp and Farah in a bar fight!

Anyway, I find that fascinating that 400m and less you are dealing with amazing muscular sprinter bodies; at 1500m you basically have waifs; and at 800m you get an interesting cross-section.  I’d love to know more about the physiology behind the fact that huge muscles obviously help for a sprinter but are a detriment for a middle-distance runner.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

12 Responses to Running and body size

  1. John F. says:

    It is an interesting question, isn’t it? The answer might be more clear if you were to read The Smarter Science of Slim, as their exercise intensity and diet may be the key to answering that question.

    Did I mention The Smarter Science of Slim ( is endorsed by some of the finest minds at Harvard, Johns Hopkins & UCLA Medical Schools? It’s a very interesting meta-analysis of over 1000 related studies in a well-documented, concise, and quick read.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Well then, enlighten us please, John! I do find it a shame that reliable information about nutrition, exercise, and weight loss can only seem to be found in a single volume that seems more interested in selling books than propagating useful information.

  2. John F. says:

    Sorry, you’re either going to have to read the book or find one of those easily accessible publicly available studies to answer your question.

    BTW, how does one propagate useful information in a book without being interested in selling books?

    • Steve Greene says:

      You can do both. See Gretchen Reynolds. There’s a pervasive Hucksterism to the whole approach of the Smarter Science of Slim. And I sometimes wonder if they’ve got you on commission.

      • John F. says:

        Pervasive hucksterism? Really? Take a look at this article by the author,

        How many hucksters do you see running around on blog posts with +100 references? And perhaps you may lend some credibility to a guy who didn’t take the advice of his well-trained doctor who after performing many tests concluded that I was merely experiencing stress and just needed a massage, self-diagnosed my condition, and self-referred to an endocrinologists who confirmed that diagnosis. Trust me when I say that hormones are powerful proteins, and trust me when I say that there’s something to a book that confirms my own experience and years of research.

        I know I’m not alone in receiving poor advice from a well-educated and well-meaning doctor, and when I read something that offers a solution to a problem millions are faced with but won’t find through conventional sources I think to help, at least my friends and family. My sister recently purchased and read the book, and when I think of the disappointment my advice saved her from her God-awful Weight Watchers program, I’m reassured.

      • Steve Greene says:

        1) Yes– pervasive hucksterism. Of course there’s good science behind what he has to say, but he is very black and white and frequently goes way too far in his conclusions. Not to mention, saying “endorsed by Harvard” etc., and including university symbols on his website in that manner when there is no institutional endorsement whatsoever. You might as well say Obama is endorsed by NC State because I support him.
        2) Great that this has worked so well for you. Really. But that does not mean (and I cannot do italics here, I would) that other approaches are wrong. For one, there’s plenty of good science supporting the effectiveness of weight watchers.
        3) Likewise, the science behind the myriad health benefits of regular aerobic activity are just overwhelming. Regardless of weight implications, to be saying that you shouldn’t be doing this is nuts.

  3. itchy says:

    In broad terms, isn’t it just that the big, fast-twitch muscles produce the ballistic force necessary to propel runners quickly for short distances but they’re just detrimental weight when you’re running a longer distance?

    To put it another way, for sprints, the limiting factor is muscle strength; the faster and bigger the muscles, the better you perform. For long distances, it’s aerobic capacity. Your “lungs” are going to fail before your muscles do. So removing any excess weight is generally more advantageous.

    As a 5K/10K runner who is naturally built more like a sprinter (but not like Yohan Blake), that’s my take, anyway.

    • itchy says:

      One more:

      Big chunk:

      “But there are different types of running, and it appears for all the world that we humans are specifically designed for distance and endurance. We are, despite our bipedal advantages, remarkably poor sprinters, especially compared with the quadrupeds that our ancestors hunted and were hunted by. Over short distances, we are doomed and hungry.

      Give us enough time, and there’s nothing on earth we can’t run down. This is persistence hunting, and it’s still practiced today. In the heat of the Kalahari desert, hunters select a kudu, and just go after it. It will bolt, and initially escape capture. But pursued a moderate run pace—something akin to a marathon runner’s stride—the animal can’t stay ahead. It must stop to rest, and denied the opportunity, simply keels over with exhaustion, and is speared. The hunters don’t need to rest; humans are endowed with an unmatched ability to cool down. Our sparse body hair and numerous sweat glands are our true evolutionary accomplishment. We can even outrace a horse over a long enough distance.

      A 2004 study took a group of sprinters and a group of distance runners, and monitored them in two runs, one with a controlled speed, the other at maximum exertion. In the brisk jog, both groups naturally used the most energy-efficient gait. In the sprint, only the sprinters found an efficient stride; the distance runners’ strides were demonstrably inefficient. The authors’ conclusion was that distance running is an innate ability, while sprinting is learned and unnatural.

      Whence Bolt? The answer may lie in his quadriceps. Being designed for distance means our legs are largely composed of slow-twitch muscle fibers, capillary-rich and perfect for sustained aerobic exercise. But the quads, the single strongest muscle group in the human body, which can generate 100 watts in short bursts, are different. They contain a variable proportion of fast-twitch muscle, designed for short and intense bursts. For most of us, the ratio is about 50-50. In a select few humans—including, presumably, Bolt—the quad can comprise up to 90 percent fast-twitch muscle. This ratio is randomly distributed across the population, but it is hereditary. Usain Bolt was made to sprint, while the rest of us are born to jog.”

  4. John F. says:

    There is something definitely wrong about a university professor publicly drawing conclusions about a book he has yet to read.

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