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The Five Components of Fitness for Runners

By: Kurt Ward, Ph.D. and Coach at runcoaches.com

Article originally featured in Run Utah Magazine Summer/Fall Edition 2018.  Click HERE to download Full PDF version of the Magazine.

The five components of fitness are essential to the overall performance of an athlete.  I often see people focus exclusively on one or two of the five components of fitness. For example, many young men often gravitate toward muscular strength with a tad of muscular endurance. In contrast, many women focus on flexibility through yoga and dance while neglecting muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. As a runner, I have found myself guilty of neglecting other components of fitness besides cardiovascular and muscular endurance. It was during these times of neglect that my performance suffered and I often became injured from muscular imbalances. Over the course of this article, each of the five components of fitness will be reviewed and evaluated to help you understand how each can be assessed and strengthened. As a quick refresher, the five components of physical fitness are: cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. These five components of physical fitness are used to evaluate the overall fitness of an individual.

Furthermore, these five areas provide a balanced approach to physical fitness; it is simply not enough to be strong in one area alone. Your individual goals and desires will determine what components are a higher priority for you and thus your area of focus. However, this does not imply that all other components should be neglected. For the purpose of this article the five components will be discussed with a distance runner in mind.

Cardiovascular endurance is the heart and lungs’ ability to work together to provide oxygen to the body during sustained exercises. This can be measured in several different ways but perhaps the easiest way to do this (without breaking the bank on expensive equipment) would be to perform the Cooper test. The Cooper test is a simple test that can be performed on a track or any flat area. To perform the Cooper test simply run as far as you can in 12 minutes. The test measures the cardiovascular fitness of the person taking the test and the outcome is based on the distance run, the individual age, and sex. For example, a 42-year-old woman that can run 2200 meters in 12 minutes would be considered to have good cardiovascular fitness. After performing the test for yourself, you can see how you stack up by simply searching google for the cooper test and examining the table for your distance, gender and age.

For an endurance runner, cardiovascular fitness is critical to your training. Depending on your age and running goals, this will likely be the major area to focus on during your training. For example, if you want to run a half marathon under 2:00 hours it will be critical to incorporate training runs that will improve cardiovascular endurance. These types of workouts might include intervals, tempo runs, fartlek, and other pace-based workouts.  

Being a runner for over the past 15 years, this has been my main area of focus. However, as I will discuss below, focusing on this area exclusively was when I experienced injuries and set backs in my training during my college running years. These injuries likely could have been avoided if I had taken the time to add more muscular strengthening and endurance activities into my weekly workout routine.

Muscular strength refers to the force a muscle can produce. One rep maxes for squats, leg press, or bicep curls are examples of muscular strength tests. Muscular strength and muscular endurance are often easily confused. Assessing Muscular strength is typically done independent of muscular endurance by using a 1-rep max. Simply stated: what is the most weight you can squat during 1 rep? This is an all-out effort to see how much force you can produce in a single effort. However, it is not recommended to test beginners with a 1-rep max for several reasons. First, as a beginner you likely do not have a good grasp on your current muscular strength and lack the knowledge on where to start. Second, this lack in knowledge in your current strength may result in overestimating your current level leading to an injury. While muscular strength alone is not critical to your success as an endurance runner its relationship with muscular endurance may help you become a better runner by preventing injuries from muscular imbalances.

Muscular endurance is the muscle’s ability to exert a submaximal force repeatedly over time. Examples include pushups, cycling, elliptical machines, and of course, running. As mentioned earlier, muscular endurance and strength are closely related. For example, if you are the stereotypical runner with a weak upper body (no judgement, you are in good company here) you might only be capable of lifting yourself a couple of times. This is likely due to a lack of muscular strength in the muscles you do not use as often. In this example, an individual’s strength is so low that their muscular endurance cannot be accurately assessed. It is quite common for endurance runners to have great lower body muscular endurance but lack upper body muscular endurance.

So how do you know if you are assessing muscular strength or endurance?  When looking at muscular assessments and trying to evaluate if it is a strength or endurance test, there is one key difference to identify. If the test is all out in one push, (i.e. 1 rep.), this is measuring muscular strength. If the test requires the same movement, more than once, then it will begin to evaluate endurance. One can begin to see how muscular endurance and muscular strength go hand and hand. For example, if  a runner wants to improve their upper body’s muscular endurance they first must improve their upper body’s muscular strength.

With the endurance runner in mind, the area of focus should be on exercises that help your running efficiency and increase your stamina. Therefore, muscular endurance should be a major part of any endurance runners’ weekly workout routine. However, you may find that you first have to increase your strength to work on your endurance. I recommend implementing exercises like non-weight squats, lunges, sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups two or three times per week. If you find that you can only do two or three of an exercise, do not fret and keep building more each week as you continue to build muscular strength on your way to improving muscular endurance.

As mentioned earlier, during my college years I experienced several injuries. I dealt with a knee tracking issue that would cause pain on the bottom inside of the knee when going down stairs and within 5 to 10 minutes of a run. After nearly two months of trying to resolve the problem with ice, anti-inflammatories and plenty of time off. It was discovered that my abduction and adduction muscles of my upper legs were much weaker than my quads and hamstrings likely resulting in the issue. Fortunately, by adding in muscular strengthening and endurance exercises I was able to get back to running within a few week of adding the exercise into my morning exercises. Fortunately, I haven’t had any knee pain since. By strengthening the muscles that are often neglected I have been able to stay healthy and strong even while adding more miles.

Flexibility is the ability of each joint to move through the proper range of motion for that specific joint. There are two types of flexibility: static and dynamic. Static flexibility exercises are large-range motions at a joint without any movement. For example, the toe-touch or the sit-and-reach test are both of static stretches. Dynamic flexibility is large-range motions at a joint with a movement. Examples of dynamic stretching includes drills such as leg swings, skipping leg extensions, bounding and even lunges. Distance runners should focus on dynamic flexibility exercises that help develop functional flexibility specific to the sport of running.  These dynamic stretches will also help strengthen and improve running form. There is a time and a place for static stretching as it can provide much needed rest and repair for your muscles and may benefit you after hard efforts (avoid static stretches before warming up!).

By adding drills to my distance runs I have noticed quicker recovery times, smoother form late in races, and a better kick. Similar to the muscular strengthening exercises, I believe post run drills have helped me avoid injuries and improve my times over the years.

Body composition is the amount of fat mass compared to bone, organs, and muscle mass an individual has. This can be measured in a variety of ways from skin folds, to bioelectrical impedance found on several at-home scales. However, these all have a certain level of error associated with them and should be regarded as an estimate and not an absolute. An endurance runner will obviously want to have more lean mass than fat. However, if your focus is on improving your cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, flexibility and muscular strength, your body composition will improve as you see your lean mass increasing and fat mass decreasing. Simply adding exercise into your daily routine helps but another factor that will contribute to your body composition is a well-rounded diet.

Each of the five components of physical fitness is important to your success and individual goals as a runner. However, depending on your own current goals certain components might require your attention more than others. Currently, my focus is on improving my cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance as I prep for a fall half marathon. However, as my goals change so will my main areas of focus. In my experience as a coach and athlete, I have found it to be important to assess myself in these five areas. First to see if I am working toward my short term and long term goals. Second, to avoid injury, that is often due to a lack of muscular strength in my lateral and medial leg muscles. Finally, to maintain a level of fitness that allows me to do the activities that I find personally rewarding. These can be beneficial to you too!


Kurt has a Ph.d from Auburn University in Kinesiology. He is currently an adjunct professor and assistant coach at Weber State University as well as a cofounder of runcoaches.com with Paul Pilkington. He is married to Taylor Ward and lives in Ogden, UT. While working on his undergrad at Weber State he competed in mid-distance events as a member of the Track and Cross Country team. He continues to run today and races all over the country with his wife. When he isn’t running he enjoys playing basketball and rock climbing.


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Eliud Kipchoge: The Worlds Greatest Marathoner Interview

By: Preston Johnson

Article originally featured in Run Utah Magazine Summer/Fall Edition 2018.  Click HERE to download Full PDF version of the Magazine.

Utah Running: First off, I wanted to thank you for taking the time to do this interview. We are beyond excited to hear from you. This interview is going to be a part of UtahRunning.com’s Summer Edition Run Utah Magazine. The theme of this magazine is “The Complete Runner: Training Your Body and Mind for Total Running Fitness”. After writing the outline for the magazine and deciding I wanted to write a mind over body article you were the first runner that came to mind. I believe lots of people have this perspective of you being the epitome of being mentally strong in competition and training.

The first instance that comes to mind of your mental strength is the Nike Sub 2-hour attempt. Attempting something that for years had been this elusive goal for the entire marathoning community yet had been seen as an almost impossible task. You went in with so much confidence and really changed the worlds perspective on if a sub-2 hour marathon was even possible. Can you talk to us a little bit about your approach to this event? Did you approach this event any different than you do a typical world marathon major? If so can you elaborate on some of those differences?


Eliud Kipchoge: Thank you once again, remember to every human being it was impossible, I approached differently in that, it took all my time for seven good months, I changed my thoughts and tell my conscience that, I am going through, be it in any circumstance.

For a normal marathon, it’s just running to win, but for breaking 2, it was about running against the unthinkable, that’s a big difference.

Utah Running: During the Nike Sub 2-hour attempt, we all watched in amazement as you came within seconds of making a sub 2 hour marathon a reality.  Could you describe the experience from your perspective? What were some of your thoughts throughout the experience and after you finished and the results had settled in?

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Why is Overstriding Going to Make Me More Injury Prone?

By: Preston Johnson

Whenever you find yourself with a group of runners it isn’t uncommon to hear the topic of heel striking (initial contact with the ground while running is with the heel of the foot) and forefoot striking (initial contact with the ground while running is with the forefoot) brought up. While neither of these styles are necessarily bad, studies have shown that those that over-stride and heel strike excessively have a much higher rate of developing a moderate or severe injury and it is shown to be less efficient and effective when trying to run fast. We want to dive into those concepts a little bit and talk about why it has those effects on your running and talk about how you can fix it.

To explain the effects of overstriding I am going to use some graphs generated from a ground reaction force plate (measures the amount of force on the plate over a period of time). Thanks to Newton’s 3rd Law we know that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So for the amount of force that a runner puts on the plate, as he runs over it, the same amount of force is exerted back on his leg. These forces exerted by the ground are common causes of many running injuries. Let’s compare the reaction forces between an overstriding, excessive-heel striker and a forefoot striker.


The major difference shown in the images above is fairly evident. We are focusing on the extra spike in the force of the heel strike graph. This extra spike of force exerted through your leg is not absorbed very well when overstriding. When you are overstriding, your heel strikes the ground out in front of you with your leg a lot straighter than it would be if you were landing just in front of your center of gravity with your ankle bone directly underneath your knee (the optimal place to land). The straighter leg will decrease the amount of force that is absorbed through your muscles and joints and instead the force is being absorbed through your bone, which is far less elastic than your muscles and ligaments in your joints. This increases your susceptibility to stress fractures and stress reactions. Another important factor is the rate at which the force increases. Notice that in the heel strike graph the rate at which the force increases is very sudden as opposed to the forefoot strike graph which has a more gradual increase. This sudden increase creates a much higher impulse force than a gradual increase does. This impulse force in heel strikers has been seen up to 7x the force of someone who lands just in front of their center of gravity.

We mentioned previously that overstriding also effects your overall speed. In the image on the left notice the angle at which your foot hits the ground when overstriding. Thinking again about Newton’s 3rd law (every action has an equal and opposite reaction) imagine the force
from hitting the ground with your heel, when you’re overstriding, going in the opposite direction. This force is represented by the red arrow. Notice that the red arrow is pointing backwards. Essentially this force is acting as a break and slowing you down with every stride you take. Upon toe off you are required to exert more force to maintain the same pace due to the breaking effect of the opposing force.

So, this information is interesting to learn about, but it isn’t beneficial to you unless you learn how to fix the issues it presents. Focusing on landing on your forefoot or landing in a certain spot when your running is not the right way to go about fixing this, it can become very monotonous and will easily be forgotten as you continue running. Your body naturally runs in the most efficient way it can, but it is not necessarily the most efficient way for a human to run. If you find yourself overstriding and want to change it, focus on Increasing your running cadence, your ankle bone being directly beneath your knee when you land, landing just in front of your center of gravity, and building towards a cadence of 180 steps a minute. Increasing the strength of your Hamstrings and Gluteus muscles is important when increasing your cadence and shortening your stride. Doing squats and hamstring curls every other day is an effective way to improve that strength. As you continue to build strength spend some time on your run listening to a metronome (boring, I know, but its beneficial) set to a cadence that is 5% faster than your current cadence ((Current Cadence x .05) + Current Cadence). Focus on matching each step to the beat of the metronome. As this begins to feel natural over several runs, continue to progress the metronome by 5%.

For additional information on running form and overstriding, check out the video below on the form of 4-time Olympic gold medalist Mo Farah.

Video Credit: James Dunne
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Is Static Stretching Before Your Run Hurting Your Workout Performance?

By: Preston Johnson

A widely debated topic in the running world is whether or not stretching before your run is hurting your performance? We have been taught since elementary school that we should stretch as part of your warm up, but a study in Brazil, among others, may say otherwise.

The study was focusing on the effects of static stretching on your muscles output of power and strength. Along with previous studies pointing to a dampening effect on your strength and power, there has also been more conflicting studies pointing to the fact that it may decrease your running economy.

First, we want to clarify that this is not saying that stretching doesn’t have a place in the running world, because it surely does. Stretching is still highly encouraged post-run to help any sore or tight muscles to aid in the recovery process. We are solely going to focus on the debate of whether or not it is essential to stretch before a run.

This study took eleven recreational runners and put them through several tests, including a 3-km time trial. This test was done twice once without stretching and a second time with static stretching prior to taking the test. The stretching consisted of seven lower-body stretches performed three times each for thirty seconds.

Speed was measured every one-hundred meters in both the stretching and non-stretching trials as well as the perceived exertion every four-hundred meters. The graphs below show the results of the trials.  Keep in mind that RPE on the graph on the right stands for “Rate of Perceived Exertion”.

The findings showed that there was a significant difference in perceived exertion and the actual pace being run when comparing the control time trial and the static stretching time trial. The pace was significantly higher with a lower perceived exertion level for the group that didn’t do any static stretching prior to the time trial. However, there was only a measured significant difference in the first 100 meters. The running economy of each runner was not effected by static stretching, but the stride duration was increased. Ultimately, the finishing time between the two groups was unchanged.

What do you think? Do you stretch before your workouts?
Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook Page.

To read the full study click here.

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Race Day Preparation

Pre-Race Preparation

No matter how hard you train, the days leading up to a race can make or break your performance. There is no one proven way to prepare for a race or big workout, so keep in mind that some, all, or none of these strategies may be beneficial to you. The following are some of the most successful approaches to race day.

Tapering: In the days leading up to a race, cut back on the length and intensity of your run. For some, it is mentally difficult to ease up during runs leading up to a race for the fear of “losing fitness”, but keep in mind that a few days out from a race you are already as fit as you’re going be for that race. You don’t have anything to gain from running faster or farther, but you have a lot to lose. Enjoy some easy runs and focus on the race ahead.

Nutrition: This is probably the hardest aspect of race day preparation to master. It is very individualistic, so tweaking the following ideas to fit what you know your stomach can handle while running is encouraged. Your mindset towards food as a runner should be something resembling “calories equal energy”. This doesn’t mean you should go eat a dozen donuts, however, not all calories are created equal. As you become accustomed to racing you will start to learn how much food you need to be properly fueled for the upcoming race. When fueling for a race, the majority of your diet should be complex carbohydrates (roughly 55-65% of your caloric intake). Common meals for runners to eat the night before the race that aren’t too hard on the stomach that also includes high amounts of complex carbohydrates are baked potatoes, rice, and pasta (ideally with a red sauce). What you should eat on race day is very dependent on when your race time is. We advise that you shouldn’t try anything new on race day experiment with what works for you on days when you workout, not on race days when you have more at stake. Aside from what to eat, don’t eat any meals too close to your race. If you haven’t made this mistake yet you are either very lucky or know your stuff, but if you have made the mistake of eating too close to a race, you will never forget it. As a guideline, most runners need at least three hours between their last small meal and their race, and many need even longer. Last tip for nutrition: make sure you stay hydrated! No matter what the temperature is going to be on race day, being hydrated helps your body run more efficiently. It impacts a lot more than just temperature regulation, it also impacts your bodies ability to deliver oxygen to your muscles, among other things.

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