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Why running? A guide for athletes.

January 17, 2022 11 min read

Why Running? Strong Work Sporstwear

This article is an automatic translation from our Original French blog. This text may contain translation errors. Thank you for your understanding.

However, one does not become a runner overnight. Running has its own terms, its own training and its own methods of evaluating performance.

This is exactly what we will explain in the first part of this article, which will deal with VMA, VO2 max, BMI and BF. Four acronyms that hide important concepts but are relatively simple to understand and use.

In order to understand how to progress in running, we will propose a weekly training plan that will be perfectly adapted to cross-country runners, with a small exception for sprinters.

In the second part, we will present the many benefits of running, benefits that go far beyond cardiovascular gains. Indeed, the effects of running could be of interest to the entire social body, in particular by acting on living together.

A final section will look at nutritional supplements. The practice of high-intensity sport may require the implementation of an adapted dietary programme.

The guide to running concepts

Sportsmen and women who practice activities other than running often come up against a relatively incomprehensible jargon. A technical jargon made up of acronyms:

  • VMA (maximum anaerobic speed).
  • VO2 max (maximum capacity to consume energy).
  • BF (body fat).
  • BMI (body mass index).

These are all central concepts in running that need to be understood, for at least two reasons. The first is that these concepts will lead to good control of your training. The second is that understanding these concepts will avoid nonsense.

We will start with VMA and VO2 max, before moving on to body mass indexes and fat mass.

Mastering the concepts of VO2 max and VMA for better training

VO2 max is the main indicator of an individual's cardiac health and their maximum capacity to consume oxygen, and therefore to perform.

However, VO2 max does not have the advantage of clarity. Its rate is expressed in mL/(kg min), which does not really make it your companion in your training sessions.

On the contrary, the MVA (maximum aerobic speed) represents the maximum speed that you are able to reach during an endurance effort.

MVA has the advantage of being easy to calculate and can be integrated into pace tables that allow you to know the lap times you should aim for during training.

To calculate your MVA, simply do a half-cooper on a running track. This is a 6 minute run in which you aim to run as far as possible.

Once you have run the distance, you divide the number of metres run by 100 and get your MAV in km/h. For example, a run of 1800 metres (5 laps) is worth 18 km/h of MVA.

With your MVA, you can then refer to a pace chart, which will show you your times over different distances as well as times for split training.

It gets even better. Knowing your VMA will make it easier to increase your VO2 max. How can you do this? Through short but high intensity training sessions.

A study has shown that working at an intensity of 80% to 90% of your capacity allows you to improve your VO2 max and therefore your cardiac, pulmonary and circulatory capacities.

In this respect, running is the most important activity for all sportsmen and women, as it improves their overall physical capacities.

Nevertheless, the increase in performance goes hand in hand with the metabolism. Thus, there is a direct correlation between VO2 max and body fat, making it necessary to look at BMI and body fat.

What BMI and body fat for running?

We won't dwell on the concept of BMI. It is defined as an anthropometric unit of measurement of height and weight characteristics in adults. Although it is very popular with the medical profession for its clarity, its results, based only on height, age and weight, are quickly biased.

Why is this? Because a muscular individual of 1m75 for 80 kilos will have a BMI of about 26, and will therefore be considered overweight, in the same way as an individual of the same height and weight who has most of that weight in fat.

This is why BMI is not a particularly important indicator in running. What is important, however, even in general sport, is body fat (BF).

Fat mass is the weight of all fatty tissue, whatever its type (brown, white, beige, subcutaneous or visceral fat). This fat weight is important because it has a direct impact on performance when running.

The fat mass of an average person is generally between 15% and 25% for men and 20% to 35% for women. It can go down to 5% for men, like cyclists, and 12% for women. Women need more fat, for example, to support their menstrual cycle.

To give you an idea of how much weight it takes off in performance, a cyclist weighing 1 kilogram less will gain 40 seconds on an 8% gradient over 15 kilometres and 2 minutes with 3 kilograms less. That's an eternity.

However, running does not mean that you have to go on a diet. Regular training is more than enough, especially in the beginning, to produce very good results. All you need to do is follow the right training.

The classic runner's training

The basic training in running is based on three different physical exercises:

400 metre splits,
30/30 splits.
long-distance running,
These exercises are weekly and therefore allow you to do three training sessions per week.

The 400 metre splits

The 400 metre splits are a classic in running training. It applies to sprinters (runners from 60 to 800 metres) as well as to half-distance runners (runners from 800 to 5000 metres) and cross-country runners (runners from 5000 metres and more).

The lap will be done according to the VMA (between 50 seconds and 2 minutes per lap) with a rest time generally between 50 seconds and 1 minute 10, depending on the level.

A session for normal race preparation (up to 10 kilometres) will require a repetition of 10 X 400 metres. Beyond that, for marathon preparation in particular, it will be necessary to plan identical training sessions but with repetitions of 20 X 400 metres.

This session allows you to work hard on your heart and lungs. The running phase will raise the cardio extremely high while the recovery phase will bring it down. It is these up and down phases that help to strengthen the heart muscle.

The 30/30

The 30/30 is a running exercise that aims to run for 30 seconds at a minimum of 90% of your capacity. This is followed by a slow run of 30 seconds.

This means that there will be an alternation of sprints and active recoveries. The aim is generally to train for a maximum of ten to twenty minutes, not including the warm-up.

Long distance running

Long-distance running allows the runner to run at about 60 or 70% of his or her capacity over a medium distance.

Generally, good training requires the athlete to cover a distance of between 5 and 10 kilometres.

Longer distances may be preferable if the athlete is preparing for a marathon (about 15 kilometres per run) or an ultra-trail (20 to 30 kilometres per run).

Be careful, if you practice a sport requiring great explosiveness, cross-country training is not suitable for you.

Indeed, cross-country runners do not have the same muscle fibres as sprinters. This type of fibre evolves with each training session. You should therefore not do long-distance running if you want to maintain a high level of explosiveness.

For sprinters, you should therefore be satisfied with split training and 30/30 training.

The different types of muscle fibres

To be clear on this question, you need to know that there are three types of muscle fibres:

Type I,
type IIA,
type IIX.
Type I corresponds to the muscle fibres of long-distance runners. They specialise in long-distance activities.

Types IIA and IIX are muscle fibres specialised in short-duration but very high-intensity activity. These are fibres that promote explosiveness and power.

Since power is the result of strength and speed, these are much larger muscles than muscles made of type I fibres. One of the reasons why endurance muscles are thin is that they save weight. They therefore allow you to run faster and longer.

The types of training that the athlete does aim to favour one type of fibre over another, as type I does not work particularly well with types IIA and IIX. It is no coincidence that athletes practising a sport requiring both endurance and speed do not excel in either.

Footballers are a perfect example. Ngolo Kanté, who is one of the most enduring professional footballers, has a VMA of only 21 km/h, while a top-level cross-country runner like Kipchoge has a VMA of 24.3 km/h.

The same is true for sprinting. We all have in mind the 37.6 km/h of Kylian Mbappé, considered a great sprinter in the world of football, against Usain Bolt's 44.7 km/h.

In other words, to get all the benefits of running without changing the shape of your muscles, you need to tailor your running workouts to what your sport requires.

If you play a sport like football or rugby, work on both speed and depth to keep your muscles versatile.

Now that you've seen how a complete running programme is organised, it's time to look at another important aspect of running: the benefits of running.

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The benefits of running are not just cardiovascular

Running is a sport that opens the door to performance improvements in all other disciplines. Why? Because it acts on the cardiovascular system and on aerobic capacity.

In other words, running allows you to :

strengthen blood circulation by strengthening the heart,
improve the oxygenation of the muscles, in particular by improving the amplitude of the lungs.
Studies even show that those who run regularly see their risk of dying from a cardiovascular disease reduced by 29% to 50%.

However, it has become almost a truism to emphasise the benefits of running, as they are well known.

We will therefore not dwell on these general benefits, which have become obvious to everyone. Instead, we will discuss the benefits of running for psychological conditions and quality of life.

Running helps to cure depression

Depression is a very common disorder, but one that is not widely discussed. The study on which we are basing our comments states that 19% of Dutch people suffer or have suffered from depression. It is therefore safe to extend this figure to other European countries.

The classic treatments are based on two pillars:

medication with antidepressants, and their range of undesirable effects (dependence, loss of libido, etc.).
psychotherapy, which requires an introspective capacity that not everyone is able to develop.
Studies on the effects of running have shown that running could be a new pillar in the fight against this serious condition.

Not only does running have no side effects (apart from the risk of injury), but it also improves the physical health of runners and reduces some of the side effects of antidepressants, such as fatigue.

The results of the studies on running are so encouraging that the authors of this research even advise its inclusion in health care centres. However, they point out the difficulties in motivating people affected by depression, as well as the high drop-out rate (in this case 30%).

However, the dislike of running does not only affect the frail. There are many athletes who hate running or who do not find it a source of pleasure. The origin of the problem could be found in genetics.

You can genetically hate running

Scientists have investigated the link between running performance and genetic prevalence. They found that the offspring of rats considered to be good runners ran 10 times faster than rats whose parents did not run.

Applied to humans, a study in the same year found that the brain's biochemical response to running was not the same from one individual to another. In some people, activity in the pleasure zone, called the nucleus accumbens, was more active than in others.

So for some of us, running causes the release of dopamine and serotonin. These are the same chemicals that make us addicted to drugs or games.

For others, running brings them almost no pleasure. They don't even understand why other people run. However, running is not just an individual pleasure or pain. It is also a shared activity.

Running helps to improve the quality of life

How can we get people to run and create a happier society? This is the question that researchers from the University of London asked themselves. They found the answer: by getting people to run together.

By proposing to citizens in urban neighbourhoods whose sedentary lifestyle has a profound impact on their general health, these scientists suggested that they participate regularly in "parkruns". In other words, running in the park.

The results of this study showed that 65% of the participants in the most disadvantaged areas had improved their physical capacities. 92% had better cardio, 90% recognised an improvement in their physical health, and 84% said they were happier and more mentally balanced.

These data confirm that group activities have a positive impact on people's happiness. They suggest that sport, and running in particular because of its ease of access, can help to make society happier as a whole.

So much so that some scientists have suggested that endorphin, the substance secreted by the body during exercise, could be the "drug of the masses".

Endorphin, the new name for happiness

Because happiness is simply ataraxia, in other words the absence of trouble, endorphin could well be this miracle substance.

Especially since endorphins also have a positive impact on our mood and help us to cope with pain.

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The importance of diet

Running, which is practised over long distances, is one of the most demanding sports in terms of weight. Diet plays a crucial role here. It is the exact opposite of what you can find in sports like bench press.

Where some people try to put on weight to be able to push more weight, the runner must lose fat mass until he reaches 10% fat mass. Women, on the other hand, will be able to reach a body fat of about 18%, knowing that below 12%, they would be putting their lives at risk.

How do you achieve such a low body fat?

When you start running consistently, the amount of energy you expend will easily consume your daily calorie intake. In the beginning, if you stop eating sugar (chocolate, sweets, sweetened drinks) and drinking alcohol, such as beer, you will lose body fat very quickly without changing the quality or quantity of your meals.

This means that the "diet", in a "leisure" approach to running, is simply to stop the abuse. On the other hand, you will quickly get a taste for the game and want to constantly improve your times.

For an athlete who is looking for performance, the implementation of a dietary plan is imperative. For this, you will not find a miracle recipe on the internet. Although the legend Scott Jurek tells us that eating onigiris is fantastic during a race, an appointment with a dietician is still necessary.

Why? Because deciding on your own, somewhat haphazardly, on a suitable diet is more than a little risky. The reasons are simple:

1. you have to adapt to your sport and its constraints.
2. you have to adapt to your morphology.
3. you have to adapt your diet to your personal tastes.

Dieting is not about depriving yourself of everything. However, whatever your tastes, beer, chocolate and sweets will not be part of a well thought-out diet. When you know what a good culinary approach brings to performance, it is well worth the effort.

A study has shown that a scientifically planned diet (including fluid, carbohydrate, sodium and caffeine intake) is much more beneficial than a personal diet. This resulted in a clear improvement in the performance of average marathon runners.

The study also adds that the consumption of food supplements containing nitrates, beta-alanines and vitamin D also increased performance.

Food supplements

As with dieting, one should be wary of the temptation to consume food supplements on one's own. There are two reasons for this:

1. food supplements are part of a large business.

2. they are likely to lead to a positive doping test.

Food supplements, a golden business

The dietary supplements market was worth $10.7 billion in 2020, with an estimated $16.7 billion in 2021. The trend is upwards with a projection of $34.5 billion in 2028.

In other words, if the companies in this market could make you eat supplements like you eat pasta, they would. It is not for nothing that the Anses (French National Agency for Food, Environment and Work) has published an article to warn consumers of food supplements.

Attracted by the sharp increase in cases of heart rhythm disorders or kidney or psychological damage, the Anses was keen to point out good practices:

1. consume food supplements with the advice of your doctor (particularly because medicines and food supplements do not mix).

2. check the composition of the product.

3. check that the product is safe (supply chain, etc.).


Running is an activity that can be combined perfectly with any other sport. It allows you to progress physically by strengthening your cardiovascular muscles and improving your aerobic capacity.

However, running requires that you respect a training programme that is calibrated to your musculature. It would be counterproductive to change the composition of your muscles from fibre type I to IIA or IIX and back again.

Running also has a metabolic effect, limiting body fat and improving overall performance. Nevertheless, too much running, and sport in general, can lead to secondary amenorrhoea.

It is therefore advisable, for high-level athletes, and even more so for sportswomen, to set up a specific diet.

A diet followed by sports professionals will enable you to greatly increase your sporting results. However, as a consumer, you need to be particularly careful about the products you buy. This can save your career and your health.