Running Surfaces and Aerobic Performance on Finish Time in Mountain Running
Two new studies have just been published. The first study, which examined running surfaces and impacts to total stress on the musculoskeletal system, found out what most trail runners already know - running on grass is better for you then asphalt, concrete, and rubber (tracks). What surprises me is that the authors state that there is still controversy in the literature regarding the biomechanical
effects of different types of running surfaces on foot–floor
interaction. Really? I thought that was covered back in the 80s or even earlier. However, that may have just been non-scientific hype when trail running was just getting "popular" and part of the sales pitch to get road runners to switch over to trails. Well, now we have scientific proof that running on softer surfaces is better for you.
The second study looked at individual aerobic performance on finish time in mountain running. The authors analyzed data from 869 finishers of 3 international mountain running competitions and found that the difference in anaerobic threshold between the winners is about 7 times greater then those in the back-of-the-pack. 7 times!! That is a big difference in anaerobic threshold. What does that mean for those striving to improve their times and performances in mountain competitions. One, it means they have to work really, really hard, but it also means that there is most likely a law of diminishing returns for those of us trying to get better. Once we start training to boost our VO2max and anaerobic threshold, we will see big returns and steadily move up in results. However, after more and more training, eventually we will near our physiological limit for VO2max, and our progress will become more and more finite. Whether the gap between one's untrained VO2max and one's highly trained VO2max is seven times greater is unknown (that is not what this study looked at), it does continue to lend weight to the philosophy that you need to include speed/interval/hill workouts into your running training if you want to reach your potential. Since these training methods do work to increase one's VO2max, while simply running at altitude does not, the science continues to argue for one to incorporate a little speed/interval/hill training into their workouts. The big question, however, is whether a combination of altitude and speed/interval/hill would work to increase one's VO2max even more then without altitude. The science is still out on that question, but I think it just might.
Update: Set a new PR on my 15K loop today. The old was 1:11, but the new one is 1:09. This is a loop run with 1,700' of elevation gain that I use as my speed training loop. My time continues to drop (to my surprise), and since it is at 9,100' in elevation, I think there may be something to training at altitude that most scientific studies have not gotten to yet. Altitude alone doesn't really provide any noticeable benefits, but systematic training (with speed workouts, intervals, hill repeats, etc.; and not just daily mountain runs) just might.