Following the 1968 best-selling publication of “Aerobics” by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the number of runners and joggers increased exponentially through the 1970s. Frank Shorter’s gold and silver medals in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic marathons, respectively, and Jim Fixx’s best-seller, “The Complete Book of Running,” helped fuel this trend as running became a mainstream fitness activity. During that same time, the number of participants in the Boston Marathon increased nearly 8-fold between 1970 and 1979.
In January of 1975, The Cooper Institute invited a group of 20 elite distance runners to participate in a comprehensive study. This all-star lineup included Frank Shorter, Steve Prefontaine and Jeff Galloway, all of whom were household names at the time. Drs. Kenneth Cooper and Michael Pollock both headed up the unique project to collect an impressive volume of data from some of the best runners in the world.
Top Row L-R Dr. Mike Pollock, Kenny Moore, Steve Prefontaine, Jim Crawford, Ted Casteneda, Philip Ndoo, Unidentified, Dr. Kenneth Cooper. Middle Row: Jeff Galloway, Doug Brown, Russell Pate, Perry Pittman, Gary Tuttle, Richard Pettigrew, Mike Manley. Bottom Row: Unidentified, Ron Wayne, Jim Johnson, Paul Geis, Don Kardong, Unidentified, Frank Shorter
The research team put the runners through a series of grueling tests to measure the performance of these athletes. Some of the most important testing components included:
- Resting heart rate and blood pressure
- Resting ECG
- Percent body fat with underwater weighing
- Measurement of VO2 max with maximal treadmill stress test
- Measures of running efficiency
- Lung function testing
- Biopsy of calf muscle
In summary, this 1975 study found that the elite runners had significantly lower resting heart rates, BMIs, and percent body fat than average men within this age group. The runners also had significantly higher VO2 max, maximal heart rate, left ventricle size, running efficiency, lung function, percent slow twitch fibers, and muscle enzyme activity than average men.
These findings gave researchers a much better understanding of how elite distance runners are different from us mere mortals. Subsequent research has revealed that while the amount and type of training is obviously a critical factor, genetics also plays a huge role in determining whether someone can become an elite distance runner.
Main Research Findings:
Resting Heart Rate and Blood Pressure: The athletes had a much lower average resting heart rate of 47 beats per minute (BPM) compared to the average of 70 BPM of the average American. The average resting blood pressure in the group was normal at 116/78 mmHg.
Body Mass Index (BMI) and Percent Body Fat: It should be no surprise that the athletes had a much lower BMI and body fat percentage than the average 26-year-old American male. Their average BMI was 20.4 kg/m2 with 4.7% body fat (range between 1.2 and 10.8%). The average American male in this age group has a BMI of 26.8 kg/m2 and 18% body fat.
VO2 max: This is a measure of how much oxygen the body can use during maximal exercise, and is more commonly referred to as cardiorespiratory fitness level. The average VO2 max was 74.1 mL/kg/minute (range between 71.3 and 84.4 mL/kg/minute). Steve Prefontaine had the highest VO2 max in the group. The average American male in this age group has a VO2 max of approximately 44 mL/kg/minute.
Maximal Heart Rate: The average maximal heart rate achieved during the treadmill test was 198 BPM. The average maximal heart rate for men in this age group is approximately 190 BPM. Even more interesting is that the left ventricles of the runners were considerably larger than average, which enabled their hearts to pump a greater amount of blood per beat.
Running Efficiency: Each athlete ran on the treadmill at a speed of 10 mph while wearing special headgear, which allowed the researchers to measure how much oxygen their body was using at that speed. The less oxygen used, the more efficient the runner's stride at any particular speed. The researchers observed that elite runners required only 52.6 mL/kg/minute to run at 10 mph, while a group of non-elite runners required 55.6 mL/kg/minute. Thus, while running at the same speed, elite runners were approximately 6% more efficient than the non-elite.
Lung Function: This was determined by measuring forced vital capacity (FVC), which is the maximal amount of air that can be exhaled from the lungs following a maximal inhalation. The average FVC of the elite runners was 5.8 liters of air, which is about 10% higher than the average 26-year-old male.
Muscle Biopsy: This test measures what percentage of muscle fibers are fast-twitch versus slow-twitch. Fast twitch fibers are well-suited to power/speed/strength activities, while slow twitch fibers are well-suited to endurance activities. Biopsies can also measure the ability of the muscles to utilize oxygen by measuring the activity of certain muscle enzymes. On average, the calf muscles of these elite runners were 79% slow twitch, as compared to approximately 55% in a group of untrained men. The enzyme activity within the calf muscle of the runners was approximately three times greater than that of untrained men, indicating a superior capacity of their muscles to use oxygen.
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Fink, W., Costill, D., Pollock, M. (1977). Submaximal and maximal working capacity of elite distance runners. Muscle fiber composition and enzyme activities. Annals of NY Academy of Sciences. 301:323-327.
Gibbons, L., Cooper, K., Martin, N., Pollock, M. (1977). Medical examination and electrocardiographic analysis of elite distance runners. Annals of NY Academy of Sciences. 301:283-296.
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