If everything’s equal between two runners, the taller runner with longer legs wins. However, a quick look at the best runners in triathlon shows that there’s no simple relationship between height and pace. So if it isn’t height, what components have the greatest impact on running ability?
Tall runners versus short runners
First, proportionality is more important than height. Michael Phelps is 1.93m tall, but his wingspan is 2.03m. He’s built to swim. Mo Farah’s disproportionately long legs compared to his body length allowed him to cover more range per step than every other athlete in the 2017 World Athletics finals according to a team from Leeds Beckett University. He’s built to run. However, simply having longer limbs doesn’t equip you to cover ground faster than another athlete.
How important is run economy, and how does leg length affect that?
A huge factor in running performance is the ability to react quickly and forcefully off the ground, so having the strength and power to do this from appropriate and consistent gym work and running sessions, such as hill run reps, is key. There’s evidence to show that runners who possess greater tension in running muscles and connective tissue are able to generate these forces with less effort, and this ability is what sports physiologists term ‘running economy’. Essentially, running economy is the ability to repeatedly produce these forces while utilising the minimal amount of oxygen possible.
- What’s the difference between slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibres?
- Ironman ability: is it in your genes?
- What are the main limiting factors for endurance athletes?
Other factors help to improve running economy including easy miles. For triathletes, this might mean a phase of training dedicated to higher run volumes in addition to the hill work and strength work already mentioned. Of course, growing stronger is key, but this can be further enhanced with the loss of any unhealthy body fat. Taller people are heavier and weaker due to longer limbs, so it’s an area where shorter frames have an advantage.
Finally, while you can’t make your legs grow, you can improve your range of movement with carefully planned, consistent flexibility work to help fully mobilise joints. This can be especially useful as we age, but should be performed in conjunction with strength work (after all, most tight muscles are weak muscles).