Runners come in many different shapes and sizes. A runner is literally a person who moves faster than a walk for any amount of time over any distance. Simply put, all you need to run is an able body and desire. But is there an optimal runner’s body? Do you have to be long and lean to be deemed a runner? Of course, we know the answer is not exactly (see the first sentence). So let’s break it all down.
BODIES THAT RUN
While many mammals would crush humans in a speed contest, the human body excels in long distance running. With an upright posture, bipedal gait and springy tendons and ligaments, the human body is literally the ideal running vehicle, according to Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman.
No doubt, our bodies were built to move. They were built to walk, jump, squat and run. Sprinters, marathoners, people running from the car to the house in a rainstorm — we’re all runners. It’s very likely that each one of us has run at some point in our lives. So at that point in time — however fleeting or not — you were a runner.
THE TYPICAL RUNNER BODY TYPE
But running is easier for some people than others. To find out why, we spoke with Dan Plews, PhD, a sports scientist and co-owner of Plews and Prof, who works with professional and Olympic athletes to improve their running mechanics.
If you go to any race — from 5Ks to marathons — you’ll see varying body types crossing the finish line. The stopwatch knows no difference in weight, height or girth. However, what is fairly apparent is the consistent pattern of small-framed, extremely lean runners making the podium. A quick review of the winners of any major marathon over the past few years shows a trend of lithe, gazelle-like athletes.
According to Plews, it’s no coincidence that these bodies excel at distance running. Moving anything is easier when it weighs less — and this principle can be applied to our bodies when we run. “Bodyweight is important when it comes to distance running as you have to transfer this weight from point A to point B,” he says. “By being light, we make running a little easier.”
He also points out that speedy runners are typically blessed with lower ankle and wrist girths, reducing the moving weight and creating a more efficient stride. But, it’s important to note that having low body fat isn’t the only factor that helps these athletes consistently earn medals.
THE TRAINING FACTOR
While many professional runners are genetically predisposed to a smaller frame and leaner body fat percentage, Plews says our bodies adapt to movements we perform on a regular basis. For pros, running is literally what pays the bills, so their full-time job is to prepare for — and perform in — races with big paydays. Their days are spent training, fueling and pampering their bodies for the stress of competition. After years of very specific training, their bodies transform into the ideal vehicle to carry them to the finish line before anyone else.
In reality, most of us don’t have single-digit body fat, and we don’t regularly win major races. But Plews says improving your running can be as easy as following suit with the pros. “It’s no secret that being leaner generally helps people run better,” he says. “By being smart around the type and timing of macronutrients you consume, you can lose weight. However, rapid weight loss [particularly through calorie restriction]is generally not best practice.”
Keep in mind that weight loss on its own will not instantly increase your pace. You’ll also need to put in the work to improve your running with a balanced approach of speed work, longer distance runs, strength training, cross-training and recovery.
So while there might be a body type better suited for running long distances very quickly — as there is for running short distances very quickly — all bodies can and should run. If you have two working legs and a healthy heart, you have a runner’s body.