Becoming an elite runner takes years of training, dedication, and certainly relies on some natural ability as well as hours of training.
While you may run regularly for fitness, this alone doesn’t qualify you to become an elite runner. In fact, there’s quite a big gap between elite distance runners and recreational and fitness runners.
Research has found that elite distance runners share three inborn, physiological traits that set them apart from the rest.
- A high VO2 MAX capability
- Superb efficiency of movement
- The ability to run long distances at their anaerobic threshold
While hard work and consistent training allow any runner - regardless of age or ability - to improve, heredity factors are what helps those select few make it to the top.
This is the volume of oxygen a runner can consume during maximum exertion.
Athletes with high VO2 MAX usually have large, powerful hearts which are capable of pumping large volumes of blood to the exercising muscles.
According to a physiologist at Wake Forest University, “the heart of an average adult during exercise pumps out about 15 to 18 liters of blood per minute.
The heart of an elite distance runner typically pumps out 30 to 35 liters of blood per minute during strenuous exercise." That’s a huge difference.
So, can you increase your VO2 MAX?
You can, and you do this through training, but this will only take you so far.
Elite runners generally have bigger, stronger, and more powerful cardiovascular systems. This means that even when elite athletes are out of condition and haven't run for several months or longer, their VO2 MAX is still significantly higher than that of fitness or recreational runners.
Elite runners are also characterized by their impressive efficiency, which means they exert themselves less than slower runners at any given pace.
Physiologists have found that the better the runner, the less effort they need to exert.
Finally, elite runners will have the ability to continually run at near-maximum effort or at their anaerobic threshold.
According to one exercise physiologist at Georgia State University, this threshold is the one where you can no longer carry on a conversation while you’re running. If you can - you’re not exerting maximum effort.
A runner’s ability to run at their anaerobic threshold improves with training, as does their VO2 MAX, however, elite athletes genetically have a higher threshold.
What qualifies you as an elite runner?
There are several factors that qualify you as an ‘elite runner’, of course, first and foremost you need the ability and the experience to be qualified as an elite runner.
Most elite runners have a shoe sponsorship from a major sports brand, and the idea is that the company will replace the shoes before they become worn out.
With most elite runners meeting a weekly mileage of 100 miles, their running shoes take a pounding — with the average shoe lasting two to four weeks — or less when the shoe is used for speed training.
Elite runners will also have intense training schedules and train pretty much every day.
Training can take up about 30 hours a week. About 10 hours of this is spent actually running, whereas the rest is made up of driving to the track, warming up, warming down, recovery, and dressing. Treating an injury - which is frequent for elite runners - can add another four to 10 hours.
Elite runners will vary widely in how many days of speed training they do, though most elite distance runners will practice some form of acceleration work about every other day. Intense speed workouts will be less frequent - usually once or twice a week.
How do you become an elite marathon runner?
As we said before, to become an elite marathon runner, you need to have been dealt certain genetic cards. That said, you also need to improve your running time and ability through intensive training, and with this, anyone can become a better runner.
Successful distance running is a long-term endeavor and you shouldn’t expect to get there straight off the bat. In order to become a good runner, you need to make running a habit and keep your training consistent.
There are no shortcuts to success: you need a gradual, progressive approach to running that focuses on long-term goals and consistency.
Outcome goals are also important. You not only need to make sure you run frequently, but you need to develop the bigger picture: your warm-up routine, regular workouts, and strength training. Then address your sleep pattern and diet.
Focus on one long run and 1-2 faster workouts per week, this way, the pace of the runs you do in between can depend more on how you’re feeling.
If these base runs are slower, it doesn’t matter too much. The main thing is that you’re meeting your target pace on your priority days, and if you need a slower pace and extra recovery on the other days, it won’t matter too much.
You should also vary your training with dynamic stretching, strength training, and other forms of aerobic exercise.
Just ensure that the other activities you do are similar to running - for example, cycling or aqua jogging. These will boost your aerobic fitness without posing a high risk of injury.
Do runners make money?
Only professional runners make money from running, and only the very best will make large sums of it.
There are numerous ways in which runners make money.
Some races and events will offer prize money - for example, if you win first place in the Diamond League, you may take home $10,000, while the world champion of the Cross Country Championships would win $30,000.
The easiest money runners can make are through shoe contracts, however, this still requires gaining the attention of big brands such as Nike, Adidas, and Brooks, and unless you’re Usain Bolt, you won’t make loads of money from this.
Some of the most famous elite athletes also make money from appearances, for example, appearing at a meet or an event simply for marketing purposes.
However, only the very best - and most prominent - runners qualify for appearance fees.