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The endurance type vs the speed type – who is who?

Although we are all 70 per cent water and a marathon is 42 kilometres for all of us, the optimal sporting preparation process varies depending on the characteristics of the particular athlete.

I can't imagine training my athletes without bearing in mind a multitude of individual factors connected to the entire training process. One of the many aspects that I take into account is the internal structure of muscles, and in particular – the ratio of the fast- and slow-twitch fibres. They determine not only the individual predisposition to choosing a given sporting discipline or the main distance, but also the effectiveness of the specific training stimuli. Training methods that are good for the endurance type, in which case especially slow-twitch fibres do their job, usually prove to be much less effective for an athlete who has considerably more fast-twitch fibres.

In a few weeks, at the starting line in Susz, Marcin Konieczny and Maciek Dowbor will stand shoulder to shoulder. Although they train for the same race, I apply different training formats to them – different training types prove to be beneficial to each of them. Marcin is more of an endurance type, whereas Maciek is more of a speed type.
koń dowbor
both still young here :)

It becomes apparent when we compare their personal bests. When we pass the results of Marcin and Maciek through any running pace calculator, we will see relatively better results over longer distances for Marcin, and relatively better results over shorter distances for Maciek. If they were racing 50m freestyle or a 100m sprint, I would bet on Maciek Dowbor. However, in a 3800m swim or a marathon distance run, my favourite would be Marcin Konieczny – a.k.a. Mkon. A one km time trial would give Maciek the advantage, whereas a 100km cycling race would be best for Marcin. In this way, each of us can assess our own predispositions. Just enter your personal best for your main distance and compare it with the predicted results over shorter and longer distances. If you prepare for a 10K race and systematically train in a sustainable way, and you then perform much better in a half marathon than in a 5K race, it shows that you probably have endurance predispositions.

It is worth analysing the history of your training in a similar way. If a hard threshold continuous training is your worst nightmare, but you are able to do a really good quality job during a quality interval training, then I would expect that fast-twitch fibres predominate. If a training process based on large training volume and continuous training methods have proved to be excellent – then the contrary is most likely. When it comes to triathlons, a pretty good litmus test is swimming. Due to the discipline characteristics, much of the training consists of interval sessions. Even aerobic endurance is more often built up by workouts such as 30x100m rather than 3000m continuous swimming. In the cycling or running training, a similar approach is rarely applied, though Mihaly Igloi successfully trained middle- and long-distance runners by applying interval sessions almost exclusively. If, when using continuous methods in the cycling and running training, you do not make any progress, but while using intervals and repetitions in swimming training you constantly make progress, it is quite likely that you have a pretty high proportion of fast-twitch fibres. Or just that you have a knack for swimming :)

Much useful information can be gleaned from the course of the race, and in particular from the first and last few metres. Starting too fast is a common mistake, even among experienced athletes, and is equally often the case regardless of the ratio of muscle fibres. However, a too-fast start for the speed-type athlete is faster than a too-fast start of the endurance-type athlete. For the first several hundred metres, the speed type does not even feel how fast he is running. The runner feels that he has started really slowly, and that he is almost trotting, but in fact after the first kilometre he has already lost his chance of achieving the desired result. Going further – the endurance type will recover faster during the race after a too-fast start than the speed type. Over the last stretch of the race, the endurance-type athletes can perform a long and persistent finish, whereas the speed-type athletes can outdistance their rivals literally over the final meters – provided that they have earlier distributed the pace properly.

Another indicator is running technique. Athletes with a predominance of slow-twitch fibres usually have a "springier" running gait, with a longer float phase and a shorter stance phase. Among speed-type athletes, there are also more people running on the midfoot or forefoot. The characters of our story perfectly fit into this schema. Marcin runs flatly and with the heel striking first, while Maciek's natural running gait is characteristic for middle-distance runners – as long as he does not collapse from fatigue, he runs on the midfoot with a fairly long gait, and powerfully bounces from the ground.

Finally, let's take a look at scientific methods. The most reliable method is considered to be a muscle biopsy, though it is in fact pointless :) In his book "The Science of Running", Steve Magness recommends measuring the lactate level after the 400-600m run test. The highest lactate release is usually observed after 5-9 minutes. Depending on the concentration, a particular athlete can be classified into one of five categories: extreme endurance type (less than 6 mmol), predominantly endurance type (6-9), balanced type (10-13), predominantly speed type (14-18), extreme speed type (more than 18 mmol). A vast majority of athletes fall close to the middle of this scale, with extreme endurance-type and speed-type athletes being met relatively rarely.

Have you classified yourself into one these categories? The athlete's characteristics are just a starting point for individualising training in practice. But this is another subject to be discussed another time :)