A Training Tip Every Long-Distance Runner Should Know

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If you’re looking to nail your next marathon, your secret to success may lie in how many hill sprints you do — not how many long runs you’ve tallied. New research out of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, presented at the American Physiological Society’s annual meeting, found that anaerobic fitness was a key factor in the race times of ten different ultramarathoners.

Matt White, a physiologist and associate professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, and his team looked at 10 ultramarathoners — specifically, 10 men who regularly participated in mountainous races — assessing both their aerobic and anaerobic fitness levels. Aerobic fitness includes things like jogging and running, while anaerobic fitness is the type of training that leaves you totally breathless, like CrossFit or HIIT. For the study, aerobic capacity was measured by having the subjects run to the point of exhaustion on a treadmill, while anaerobic capacity was assessed through a seated cycling ergometer, a fancy term for a stationary bike, that measures your work output. After, the individuals — all of whom were of similar height, weight, and age — ran a 50k ultramarathon, or about 31 miles.

While all the men successfully finished the "race," simulated via the ergometer and treadmill, "the results indicated that those with higher anaerobic capacity were predicted to have a faster finishing time," said Michael Rogers, a graduate student at SFU and member of the research team. While you shouldn't ditch your long runs, this may indicate that you should add anaerobic work, like uphill sprints, to give you the kind of power of training that can propel you through a long race. 

This study should serve as a reminder of the often unsung merits of anaerobic training, particularly for endurance athletes who often shy away from it.

And while the sample size was small, John Ford, an exercise physiologist at Find Your Trainer in New York, says that the study is applicable to all endurance athletes. “It has a lot to do with what we call metabolic conditioning,” says Ford. Essentially, you’re using anaerobic exercise as another tool to increase how efficiently your body can produce energy. Plus, working uphill sprints into your workout routine will help you build muscle, says Ford. So, for more speed and strength, you may want to hit those hills.

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