The Hanson’s Marathon Method Chapter 2: Physiology

Chapter 2 of the Hanson’s Method starts going into the physiology of marathon running. Luke Humphrey thinks that most runners and coaches tend to overthink the physiology of running. He feels that if a runner understands the basic physiological adaptions that go into a marathon plan, they will feel more confident in his/her running. Their plan is tailored towards the physiological adaptions needed to run the 26.2 miles. They had divided the plan into 5 basic principles:

Marathon Muscles
VO2 Max
Anaerobic Threshold
Aerobic Threshold
Running Economy

Marathon Muscles

There are more than 600 muscles that work to create motion and force. Each muscle is divided into three types of muscle fibers. The muscle fibers responsible for locomotion, the ones that make running possible, are the skeletal muscles.

The skeletal muscles include slow-twitch fibers (Type I) and fast-twitch fibers (Type II). Each muscle contains both types of fibers, which are bound together like a bundle of cables. A muscle is made up of thousands of these bundles, and each bundle is controlled by a single motor neuron. Altogether, the bundles and the motor neuron create the motor unit. Since each bundle contains only one type of fiber, slow-twitch fibers and fast-twitch-fibers receive their information from separate motor units. The structure of a skeletal muscle system is what dictates marathon ability.

Type I (slow-twitch fibers)
These types of muscles are particularly important for endurance events. Slow-twitch fibers efficiently use fuel and are resistant to fatigue. Slow-twitch fibers are also aerobic, meaning the use oxygen to transfer energy. This is due to them having large capillaries, which gives them a much greater supply of oxygen than fast-twitch fibers. Additionally, slow-twitch fibers use the mitochondria-known as “the powerhouse of the cell”- to do aerobic metabolism. The mitochondria use fats and carbohydrates as fuel sources and allow your body to keep running.

The slow-twitch fibers have a slower shortening speed than other types of fibers. This serves as an important function for endurance runners. Although these fibers cannot generate as much force as other muscles, they supply energy at a steady rate and a good amount of power for an extended period. Overall, Type I muscles are more efficient and persistent, allowing them to ward off fatigue during the long haul.

Type II Fibers (Fast Twitch Fibers)
Type II fibers are bigger and faster than Type I fibers. While they can pack a powerful punch, they fatigue rapidly. These fibers have very few mitochondria, so they transfer energy anaerobically (without oxygen). Type II’s fibers user a lot of the high-energy molecule, ATP, causing them to quickly tire and weaken. This is why a 100-M Olympic champion can set a record-setting pace for just the length of the homestretch. While a marathon champion can set a record-setting pace for 26.2 miles. These different records are set due to different muscle fiber types.

Type II fibers have different sub groups. The most common ones are Type IIa and Type IIb. Type IIa muscles share characteristics similar to Type I fibers because they have more mitochondria and capillaries than other fast-twitch fibers. As a result, Type IIa are aerobic, but can provide more powerful contractions than Type I fibers. While Type IIb fibers contract powerfully, transfer energy anaerobically, and fatigue quickly.

Maximizing Muscle Fibers
The right training will help you maximize your individual potential. In order to get your muscles to respond the way you want them to on race day, you need to train them to fire in a specific manner. When you start out, the motor units will begin recruiting slow-twitch fibers. You will heavily rely on hose fibers unless you do something such as: Increase your pace, encounter a hill/force that creates resistance, or exhaust your slow-twitch fibers.

It is likely that youl’ll rely on Type I fibers during the first half of the marathon. As Type I fibers tire, our body will start using Type IIa fibers. If trained properly, you’ll have enough leeway to use these fibers the rest of the marathon. The Hanson’s Method seeks to maximize the use of Type I and Type IIa fibers without having to resort to Type IIb fibers.

VO2 max

VO2 max stands fo “volume of oxygen uptake”. It is defined as the body’s maximum capacity to transport and utilize oxygen. If a person’s VO2 max is 50/ml/kg/min, it means that its 50 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute. The higher the number, the better.

Since blood carries oxygen to the muscles, the heart will need to be considered for VO2 max. The heart, being a muscle, can adapt to training stress the same way other muscles can. When you improve your VO2 max you will be able to pump more blood with greater force and less effort. By allowing larger amounts of blood into the bloodstream, oxygen in the blood can reach the running muscles more efficiently.

The VO2 max is the ceiling for your aerobic potential, but it’s not the determining factor of your potential performance. Other physiological benefits contribute to how well a person can run a marathon.

Although it’s not necessary to determine your VO2 max, knowing it can be a great indicator for progress. There are a number of ways to determine your VO2 max. Some of these are more expensive than others. The cheapest way to determine this is through the Balke Test, which only requires a track, a stop watch, and a calculator. The Hanson’s Method outline the Balke test in their book. For more details regarding it, I would recommend picking up a copy.

Anaerobic Threshold

Marathon training heavily relies on the aerobic system as an oxygen supplier. The anaerobic system is powerful and explosive, but since it does not use oxygen, it can only provide short speed burst before depleting energy stores. Once energy stores are depleted, lactic acid, or lactate, build up in the muscles and running ceases. While lactate has been given a bad rep for causing soreness and fatigue, it actually serves as an energy source for muscles, allowing them to go further before depleting.

Researchers have learned that the fatigue is caused by the physiological phenomenon. The real culprits are electrolytes- sodium, potassium, and calcium- which are positioned along the muscles and each have its own electrical charge that triggers contractions. If a person is training at high intensities over time, the potassium ion outside the cell will build up and will not be able to switch places with the sodium ion in the cell. This leads up fatigue and causing your body to slow down to a halt.

In fact, not only is lactate not bad for you, it plays an important role in marathon training. When running a moderate pace, the aerobic system will simultaneously process and remove lactate produced. However, when intensity increases, lactate is produced faster than your body can get rid of it. This buildup of lactate in your blood stream is known as the anaerobic threshold.

Anaerobic threshold is the best predictor for entrance performance. When a person gets closer to his/her VO2 max, blood lactate starts to accumulate. While training may raise your VO2 max a few points, it can have a significant impact on the anaerobic threshold. The Hanson’s Method advises to see how your body responds to the workouts on this plan. As a general rule the anaerobic threshold can be maintained for about an hour. Test out your pace and ask yourself, “Can I hold this for an hour straight?’ Adjust accordingly based on your response.

Aerobic Threshold

Our energy system uses fats and carbohydrates as its energy source. As a marathon runner, you want to focus on using fat as your primary energy source. Our body stores small amounts of carbohydates for quick energy, but our fat stores have a near endless source of energy. Even if you have a small body fat percentage, your system will still have enough fat for fuel. This is due to fat having twice amount of calories per gram as carbohydates. However, because the oxidation of fat is much slower than the oxidation of carbohydrates the body will look towards burning carbohydrates as when dealing with distance and intensity.

The point in which the body begins to burn carbohydrate stores, since fat cannot be burned without oxygen, is called the Aerobic Threshold. This is the reason why carbohydrates provides the majority of energy when running at faster paces. The downside of relying on glycogen stores is that you only have 2 hours worth. Once you have depleted it, you hit the infamous “wall” and slow down severely. For the marathon runner, a larger volume of fat will need to be burned. By doing Aerobic training, new enzyme activity and oxygen is introduced. Mitochrondia will become big and plentiful to oxidize fat and turned into energy. Essentially, the point of “hitting the wall” is pushed back or never reached.

Running Economy

Running economy is described how much oxygen is required to run a certain pace. Running economy depends on two components. The first depends on high training volume. While you don’t need to shell out 140 miles a week, the mileage should at least be sufficient for your event. This varies on the runner’s experience, maximum speed the runner can run, and the event the runner is training for.

The second component is speed training. When a marathon runner trains at a certain pace, s/he logically becomes more economical at that pace. It’s essential that you do not run faster than prescribed. If you are running faster than at a level you’re ready for, it can lead to being over trained, burn-out, or injured.

By understanding the physiology behind the Hanson’s Method you can see why the workouts become justified. All the aforementioned benefits can be reached through the program, to achieve your best 26.2 mile run.

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