A tall man with dark hair, Dr. Smith was easy to pick out as he approached the cafe where we had agreed to meet. There was only one bench in the café and we shared the table with a family of three. As well as being an academic, Dr Smith works with elite level athletes to improve their running performance. Throughout the interview, his voice remained calm and level. He explained complicated ideas concisely and with great patience.
I was a runner before I was a scientist.
I think running is a great sport, and the running community is a sound one. When I look back at my life, a lot of the lasting bonds and friendships that I made were with people that I ran against. I’m fascinated by what it is that makes people run fast, whether that’s how I might make myself faster, or thinking about the limits of elite athletes.
I was pretty good at a variety of sports when I was younger, but I was best at running. The further the distance, the more successful I seemed to be. Running is one of those wonderful sports where the more that you put in, the better you get. It’s not like being in a football team where you can blame your success or otherwise on other people. Running is all down to you. The fitter you are on the start line and the more training you do, the more successful you’re likely to be. I liked that aspect of it.
Up to the age of 18, I thought that running was going to be my career. I wanted to be an Olympic champion, so when I looked at universities Sports Science was the best degree that I could do. I could combine my running with studies, and learn about things that were relevant to my performance. I became more and more fascinated by the science of distance running, and decided to do a PhD afterwards … that’s when running became less of a priority.
The focus of my research is really on endurance sport and distance running in particular. I try to establish what factors limit endurance exercise performance, what causes fatigue in those activities, and how we can ameliorate performance with training and nutritional interventions.
I don’t personally try to convince athletes to work with me. They often seek me out, and I’ve worked for different international organisations as a support provider.
Running can be pretty scientific.
Athletes and coaches have started to realise that scientific support is now available to them. Even though it’s hard to predict performance, running is a lot more determinative than football or rugby. With distance running there are all sorts of scientific and sociological components. Your physiology is really important. If you can measure the parameters that actually influence performance, you can identify the strengths and weaknesses that an athlete might have. This can help them realise how they can optimise their preparation for competitions.
To be a top-level runner you need to have the right height, weight and body composition. There is definitely an anatomical element to success. It’s no coincidence that most of the best runners come from East Africa where they tend to be quite diminutive in size. When Steve Jones was running, he weighed 60kg. Eliud Kipchoge weighs about 55kg. To be the best in your world, you need to have all your ducks lined up. Carrying a minimum of weight over long distances is beneficial.
Distance running is an aerobic event. When it comes to physiology, everything that we can measure relies on, or relates in some way, to oxygen. Any race that lasts longer than a minute or two, relies exclusively or almost predominantly, on generating energy by using oxygen in our muscle cells. We breathe oxygen in from the air, transport it in our blood to our muscles, and our muscles then use it for energy.
If I take you and put you on a treadmill and make you run faster and faster, there will be a speed above which you can’t go. That will be related to the amount of oxygen that your body can take in and use. That’s called your VO2 max. Individuals who have higher VO2 max values can extract more oxygen per minute from the air, and are likely to do better. They can run at higher speeds for longer. But not everybody runs flat out for every event. At elite level, the marathon is run at between 80% and 90% of your VO2 max. So we also need to figure out what the energy cost of running at lower exercise intensities is.
We can get to that by measuring something called your running economy. If I run you at slower speeds on the treadmill to determine how much oxygen you are taking in, that will tell me how much energy you need to run at each of those speeds. The less energy you can use at sub-maximal speeds, the better.
Finally, you have threshold phenomena. If I measured the lactate in your blood when you run, there would be a particular level above which that rises substantially. Below that point your speed would be sustainable for a long period of time as your body is in a steady state. We call that homeostasis. But if you go a little bit above that so-called lactate threshold then the on-set of fatigue is much more rapid.
When we put athletes on the treadmill, we set the incline to 1%. On the treadmill the air is stationary around you, and without that incline it’s a little bit harder to run outdoors because of the air resistance.
The factor that influences human limits could be either physiological or mental, and there is definitely an interaction between those two.
My view tends to be that in an elite athlete who is highly motivated, there aren’t going to be too many psychological constraints. They will go all out and give the best that their bodies are capable of. In something like an Olympic final, my view is that the person who has the best physiology is likely to win. At lower levels of competition, not everyone is prepared to run as hard as they can. In that case, if you have two people with very similar physiology, the person who is prepared to exert themselves on that day is likely to be the one who prevails.
Do things like grief, or home advantage, affect an athlete’s physiology? I don’t know. They certainly affect the mind. In turn, they might affect the body, but I believe that the majority of any performance is explicable with physiological phenomena.
Running in a polluted environment can definitely affect your ability to perform. If you’re not breathing in pure air, that’s not ideal. It’s definitely something that you have to be aware of. If you run in central London every day, you might have to be a little bit cautious and think about smog, watch out for pollution forecasts, and try to run in parks. Recovery is less affected by pollution and I think the body clears these things quite quickly. But you do have to think about what long term effects you might be subjecting your body to if you spend a lot of time in polluted environments.
I love working with elite level athletes.
It’s a vicarious thing, and I do wish it could be me sometimes. I would have done OK as a professional athlete, but not as well as the people that I work with. It’s a real honour and a privilege to interact with these athletes and help them in whatever way I can. I get to live and breathe it with them. Having had some input into their preparation means that watching their races is additionally exciting.
I definitely get nervous when my athletes race. I go through the same sorts of emotions that they go through. I’m proud and happy when they win, and I share their disappointment when things don’t go as they wished. But I don’t feel any pressure. I just try to do a professional job. I appreciate that running is their livelihood, and do my best not to give them any false advice. It’s just about being a genuine scientist. I use tools that are accurate, and make sure that I appreciate the reliability and validity of the tests that I ask the athletes to do.
Once I am confident in the quality of the measurements that I have made, I make sure that my interpretation of that data to the athlete doesn’t contain too much jargon. It is all very well giving them the numbers for their VO2 max test and running economy, but that’s not going to mean anything unless I can explain what each of those variables means for performance, and how they might be improved by training. They come to me because I am able to suggest alterations to their training that might help bring that person to their best shape on the day that matters.
I do have to be aware of the psychology in the language, and the feedback that I provide. Athletes place their trust in me. The words I say can make a difference to their mood-state. If they have a big race in two weeks time and the data is OK, I try to big-up their strengths and downplay any weaknesses a little bit.
There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that running is harmful to your health.
When we put athletes on the treadmill for their physiological tests, they run for about 25 minutes. Really, it’s only the last six minutes that are pretty hard. It’s certainly not any harder than they would do in a training session. They probably train at least as hard maybe once, or twice a week.
We seem to have a built in safety valve as far as fatigue goes. Fatigue is designed to limit how far we can push ourselves so that we don’t damage ourselves. No matter how physically fit you are and how psychologically motivated you might be, you can’t push beyond those physical limits. Nature designed fatigue to protect us from long-term harm. This prevents ATP levels in our cells from falling to such a low level that the cell dies. Our bodies will cease to work before that point of failure.
Training is a complicated thing.
There are various features of training – the intensity, the volume, the frequency, and the overall load. Over time, if you want to get better, you need to increase them. How you do that will depend on what your goals are. If you want to improve your endurance, then doing a higher workload is going to be important. You have to get a balance. If you run two hundred miles a week you will develop a lot of endurance, but you will only be able to plod really slowly. If you want to run quickly then you need to do a smaller volume of training with higher intensity built in.
A balanced program has to have some easy running, some threshold running, some balanced – or tempo – running, and a long run. You need flexibility, some strength training, and some interval type sessions. Then you have to decide if you should run short, sprint intervals, or longer, more sustained efforts. That’s quite a lot of things to incorporate into a week. Putting it all together and figuring out the right proportions is different for everyone. It’s an art that the athlete and the coach need to work on for many, many years.
Sometimes, when elite athletes come to me for advice, they already know the answers and just want reassurance. Sometimes they don’t know the answer and I can provide expert advice. But that advice, whether it is acclimatization, tapering, nutrition, or hydration during a marathon, will also be relevant for runners at all levels.
The main thing for all runners is consistency. As much as anything, that means avoiding injury, keeping things fresh and just sticking at it. If you’re someone who has not been running for long and finds it hard to motivate yourself, you should try to find a formula that makes it possible to get out the door three times a week. For better runners, it’s about making sure that you don’t do too much. You need to make sure that there’s enough recovery built into your week, and decent variety to your training.
One of the things that elite athletes do well, is that they know when to rest as well as when to train hard. They know how to hurt themselves very much, but they also know when they need to back off, and when they need to take time to recover from a major insult to the body. That allows them to avoid injury as much as possible. Having down periods following main races can help with longevity.
One of the best ways to improve running economy is consistency. Having long spells of uninterrupted training is crucial. The more miles that you do, over many years, the more that improves.
When I was running I didn’t have enough belief in my own ability.
I thought that the only reason I was any good, was because I trained harder than everyone else. If you talk to elite athletes they’ll often tell you the same thing. But we can’t all be training hard. Maybe I didn’t give myself enough credit. If I had trained a little less and was more open to advice from my coaches, I would have been in the sport for longer. I would probably also have run faster.
I find that I am one of those people who do things for a reason. I started to run a lot because I was successful at it. Running was a means to enjoy that success. It was never something that I intrinsically loved. It was something that I landed upon, that I was good at, and that enabled me to shine. The same is true now, although I have channelled that energy into a different field.
Favourite running memories?
There aren’t really any specific ones. When you’re really fit and you’re floating along, that’s fantastic. I also enjoy the hard work of it and the discipline. I see parallels with training and academic research. There’s a lot of overlap there. Both of those things appeal to my personality.
I’ve actually got more regrets than running memories. If you are in a football team you can win, lose or draw. There are only three possible outcomes. If you’re in a race, the chances of winning are much smaller. There are so many other competitors who could beat you. What I have found is that when I was younger, people expected me to win every race that I entered. If I did win, I didn’t necessarily extract a lot of satisfaction. If I lost, I would be pretty devastated. I had to learn to take pleasure in running fast times. That’s what attracted me to running for time. I certainly don’t run to win races any more.
The other problem with being good at such a young age is that it’s all downhill thereafter. Getting older is bad enough anyway, but if you’re a prodigy when you’re young, you need to let go of what you did in the past because you won’t be able to match it later.
Age does not affect performance in the marathon so much as it does for other events. We know that your VO2 max definitely falls with age. Between about 18 and 26 it’s probably at its maximum, and it will go down thereafter, but not by much. The more training that you do, the less rapidly that will fall. But it does fall as you get older and that accelerates as you get over 40.
The other things like your lactate threshold and running economy can improve with training. That’s why it’s certainly possible to run fast times for the marathon well into your thirties or even late thirties. You don’t see that at 1500m because your VO2 max is much more important for that event.
You also start to lose a bit of muscle when you’re older so you’re probably a bit less powerful. That could affect the sprints, but I don’t know. That’s a good question. At the elite level, people like Usain Bolt retire when they’ve got a few gold medals behind them and know that they’re not going to run any faster. You get a few examples of older sprinters – Calvin Smith in the eighties was a pretty good American 200m guy. He kept going into his thirties but it’s quite rare, I agree.
Right now, I’m training for the Helsinki marathon in August.
But I’ve been running on and off for the last thirty years really. When I train, I set my own schedule. I don’t use a coach. I ran my first marathon a couple of years ago in Rome. I had never run a marathon before and it was a good way of getting into the rhythm of preparing some of the athletes that I work with for their own races.
I know all about the energetics of marathon running, and fuelling, and all of that, but until you experience running for 26 miles … I can tell people what to do but actually following those instructions is not straightforward. In Rome it got really hot quite quickly in the second half, and I wasn’t able to avail myself of enough carbohydrate containing fluids over the first half of the race. That meant that I hit the wall big time at about 21 miles. I know how to advise athletes to avoid situations like that, but I wasn’t able to avoid it myself.
Running in shorter races, I used to break down whatever distance I was running into fractions. You have to be much more patient in the marathon. In any other event up to half marathon distance, you know that once you get through halfway and you’re feeling good, you should be fine. Once you get through three-quarters of the race, you ought to be able to pick up the pace and push on. When you get to the halfway point of a marathon, you still have 13 miles left to run. That’s an awful long way. I felt really good at 18 miles in Rome and decided to push on, but I came unstuck.
I’ve never experienced anything like it. Hitting the wall was like running out of petrol. I pressed the accelerator harder and harder, and just got a slower response. It was awful. That’s why I’m doing Helsinki. When you enter a marathon, you visualise it. You see yourself finishing strong. That wasn’t my experience in Rome. Having learnt from that, I hope that Helsinki will be more fun. We’ll see …
I’ve not really set myself any goals.
I’ve given myself a long slow build up and I’m taking it pretty steady. I ran just over three and a half hours in Rome. I wasn’t as fit as I could have been. I tried to run at 8-minute mile pace the whole way, but I wasn’t able to sustain it. The last couple of miles were terrible. I just want to go faster than that. I don’t think that will be difficult, but it’s much harder to predict what you can do in the marathon because of all of those other factors.
There’s no specific target, but I do have a couple of targets with shorter events. I ran 19:19 for 5km last summer, and I would like to go under 19:00 this summer. If I can do that then I don’t see any reason as to why I can’t get close to forty minutes for 10km. I ran a 1:26:00 half marathon two years ago. I’m doing the Great North Run this year, so I’ll see if I can run under 1:30:00 for that.
Running is not really my main thing any more. Getting a bit older has motivated me to do other things. If I only trained for running I would be able to go faster, but I’ve started thinking about my age. I need to make sure that I have enough muscle, balance and flexibility as I get older, so I’m doing this holistic fitness programme that includes weights as well as running. I’m carrying more mass than would be ideal for running marathons, but that’s OK. I know that if I put all my eggs into one basket I would be inclined to over-train frankly.
One thing I’ve learned is that if I run for more than about four, or five days a week, I’m likely to end up with some form of injury. For me, running four or five days a week, and supplementing that with strength training, is the way to do it.
Overtraining is a bit of a complicated biochemical story.
No one really knows what it is. Partly that can be psychological. If you do too much for too long it can become stale and boring, but also your muscle may not be able to sufficiently recover. If you’re doing a big volume of training, you’re going to drain your glycogen stores to a minimum level. You can also cause damage to your muscles depending on the type of training that you do. Over the longer period, your body might not want to train at the intensity or volume. That makes it more difficult to motivate yourself to push it again. If you feel over-trained, you need to give your body time to recover, which it inevitably will.
One of the problems in older age is that you have to be aerobically fit enough to do the activities of daily living, but if you’re not strong enough to be able to push yourself out of a chair, or climb a flight of stairs, then you’re in trouble. The more muscle that you have in your forties and fifties, the more muscle you are likely to have in your seventies and eighties. Doing strength training through your middle years is necessary to offset that decline. I never used to think about this but it’s become more important to me as I get closer to fifty.
Eliud Kipchoge says that “no human is limited.”
I take a middle ground. I think everybody has their limits. What he’s getting at when he says “no human is limited”, is that usually our limits are a bit further away than we realise. People don’t often know what they’re capable of. Ultimately though, everybody does have their limits.
The fact that Eliud Kipchoge nearly broke 2:00:00 for the marathon at Monza was magnificent. I don’t think he would have run 2:01:37 in Berlin if he not had that experience. Now we’ve seen other people run 2:02:00 marathons. So he’s taken down a barrier in belief that was there.
Kipchoge is going to try and break two hours again. Could he do that? Yes. Is he capable of running one hour and fifty-five minutes? Absolutely not. Clearly absolute limits do apply to humans and I measure those.
I measure what a person is capable of at any given point in time. What I can’t say is how much they might improve, and I can’t see the artificial barriers that they might have imposed on themselves.
Sometimes when I measure physiology and make predictions, the numbers are better than the athlete would have expected. Having some external assurance that they’re capable of better can help make that performance materialize.
 Adenosine Triphosphate – a chemical compound created in the body, which is necessary for muscle contractions.
© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019