In light of the most recent sports event in Lebanon, the Beirut Marathon, we thought it would be interesting to look for potential winners who did not participate in the race.
Usain Bolt is undoubtedly the fastest sprinter ever, holding both the Olympic record and the World record of the 100m. That being said, is he good enough to win a marathon?
- Muscular fibers:
Let’s start with a quick observation and compare these two record holders:
On the left is Usain Bolt; he holds the world record of the 100m sprint with 9.58 seconds.
On the right is Eliud Kipchoge; he holds the world record of the 42km marathon with 2hours 01 minute 39 seconds.
Both are runners, both are African, and both broke these records in the last 10 years. But how are they different?
Their body shape is the first indicator of the major difference between them: their fibers.
In fact, muscles are made of 2 main types of fibers: slow twitch and fast twitch.
Fast twitch fibers are developed in athletes of sports that require strength, speed, or both. A few examples include weightlifting, golf and sprints. When they develop, these fibers can expand their size. That is why a sprinter has visible muscles.
On the other side, slow twitch fibers are developed in athletes of endurance sports like cycling and long-distance running. Unlike the first type, these fibers do not change in size no matter how developed they are, which explains why long-distance runners, even the best in the world, are visibly very thin.
- Respiratory capacities:
Maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) refers to the oxygen consumption of a subject when exercising as hard as possible for that subject. Since sprinters compete in event that will last for only a few seconds, their oxygen consumption will not be high, their VO2 max will then be relatively low. Long-distance runners, on the other hand, have the highest VO2max since they can tolerate intense exercise for a long time (running at high speed for hours).
- Other important factors play a role in separating sprinters from long-distance runners, such as their genetics, their training program, and their diet plan.
Multiple genes, such as ACTN3, have been found to be affecting sports performance, particularly determining whether an athlete would be better at sprints or long-distance events.
Sprinters and long-distance runners also differ when it comes to training: sprinters tend to go for strength training, exercising at high intensity which will help with speed and explosiveness, whereas marathon runners will train in endurance but at lower intensity.
Lastly, professional athletes today pay great attention to what they eat. Strength athletes, such as sprinters, will consume more proteins than endurance athletes, because their training intensity will lead to muscle depletion. Their protein intake targets muscle reconstruction. As for carbs, they are consumed in bigger quantities by endurance athletes since their training will use up all their storage.
It is therefore safe to say that Usain Bolt could never win a marathon. He might be the “lightning bolt”, but he is the fastest for only a few seconds. If it comes to lasting minutes and hours, his training program and his physiology would not allow him to compete at a high level.
Häkkinen K, Keskinen KL. Muscle cross-sectional area and voluntary force production characteristics in elite strength-and endurance-trained athletes and sprinters. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology. 1989;59(3):215-220.
Thompson MA. Physiological and biomechanical mechanisms of distance specific human running performance. Integrative and comparative biology. 2017;57(2):293-300.
Niemi A, Majamaa K. Mitochondrial DNA and ACTN3 genotypes in Finnish elite endurance and sprint athletes. European Journal of Human Genetics. 2005;13(8):965-969.
VO2 max – an overview | ScienceDirect Topics [Internet]. Sciencedirect.com. 2018 [cited 19 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/vo2-max