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Sports Medicine, Training and Rehabilitation
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The relationship between marathon running performance and indices of aerobic power during the competition period
, Harry Lemberg
, Üllar Kaljumäe
& Jaak Maaroos
Institute of Sport Pedagogy, University of Tartu, Ülikooli 18, Tartu, 51014, Estonia Phone: 372–7‐434–186 Fax: 372–7‐434–186
Institute of Sport Pedagogy, University of Tartu, Ülikooli 18, Tartu, 51014, Estonia
Department of Sport Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Tartu, Ülikooli 18, Tartu, 51014, Estonia
Version of record first published: 08 Jul 2009
To cite this article: Ants Nurmekivi, Harry Lemberg, Üllar Kaljumäe & Jaak Maaroos (2000): The relationship between marathon running performance and indices of aerobic power during the competition period, Sports Medicine, Training and Rehabilitation, 9:4,
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254 A. NURMEKIVI et al.
Marathon running may be classified in the moderate intensity zone of power
generation and is characterized by compatibility between a subject's Q2
uptake and the corresponding energetic need. Since aerobic metabolism pre-
vails during marathon running both basic aerobic power output indices
characterizing it, as well as the training principles producing it, are essential
for development of a training strategy. Marathon performance depends on
a runner's maximal O2 uptake, lactate threshold and economy of running
(Costill et al, 1971; Joyner, 1991; Pate and Branch, 1992). Maximal Q2
uptake indicates the highest level of aerobic metabolism and aerobic power
attained by a subject (Dobeln, 1956; Korobov and Volkov, 1983). This is an
important criterion of a runner's aerobic potential. However, the VO2max
level of performance can be maintained for only about lOmin. For this rea-
son, there are useful indices characterizing a marathon performance to be
determined from running tests at speeds less than at VQ2max. These indices
include blood lactate threshold or anaerobic threshold and the economy of
running, i.e. the Q2 cost to run at any given speed up to maximum. The role
of the latter indices in predicting a running results has been observed in sev-
eral studies (Conley and Krahenbuhl, 1980; Svedenhag and Sjodin, 1984;
Daniels, 1985; Costill, 1986). The lactate threshold of the majority of mara-
thon runners is in the range of 2-3mmol/l (Costill, 1970; Farrell et al,
1979). Thus the lactate threshold is localized between the aerobic and anaer-
obic thresholds, usually being less than 4mmol/l (Sjodin and Jacobs, 1981).
Top marathon runners are able to run a marathon at a speed requiring an
O2 uptake of aproximately 85% VQ2max (Pollock, 1977; Farrell et al, 1979;
Costill et al, 1986; Daniels and Daniels, 1992).
Joyner (1991) considers it expedient to differentiate between a low, med-
ium and high lactate threshold relating to an O2 uptake of 75%, 80% and
85% of VO2max, respectively. According to this author, the scale of low,
medium and high economy may be applied to assessing a runner's economy.
Running economy appears to interact with VO2max and blood lactate
threshold to determine the actual running speed at the lactate threshold,
which is generally a speed similar to or slightly slower than that sustained by
individual runners in the marathon (Farrell et al, 1979). According to
research conducted by Daniels and Daniels (1992) with a group of top ath-
letes, a higher VO2max speed was a considerably better predictor of the run-
ning result than VO2max or running economy taken separately. In an ideal
case each marathon runner would have both a high VO2max and high econ-
omy. Actually, most often these latter indices are inversely, not directly,
MARATHON PERFORMANCE AND INDICES OF AEROBIC POWER 255
connected. Classical examples of this are the world class marathon runners
Clayton and Shorter who each possessed a modest VC^max index (69.7 and
71.3 ml • min"1
respectively) but possessed a high economy in running.
From the viewpoint of training it is important that the anaerobic thresh-
old and VC^max be improved independently of each other (Denis et al.,
1982; Henritze et al., 1985). Consequently, their particular development at
different preparation stages preceding a marathon competition is both pos-
sible and justified. The quickest modification effected both by short term
training or by training covering several years is that to VC^max, i.e. aerobic
power, while a longer term of development is needed to increase the anaero-
bic threshold running velocity (Volkov, 1986). The general principle of a
prolonged adaptation being needed in some variables, is well described. At
the beginning of an adaptation there is first a shift in the power generation
then an increase in capacity occurs and lastly an improved efficiency of
bioenergetic processes takes place. Aerobic capacity is defined as the ability
to maintain maximal O2 uptake; aerobic efficiency describes the process of
supplying the minimum aerobic energy, needed to perform the task during
the performance of a specific workrate (Korobov and Volkov, 1983). An
ability to increase the velocity of running at the anaerobic threshold indi-
cates an improvement in aerobic efficiency.
Development of different aerobic power components each at a different
stage of preparation is an important feature in planning yearly training for
top marathon runners of today (Lenzi, 1983; Krause, 1988; Smehnov, 1990;
Vuorimaa, 1991). In the preparatory stage the main stress is on increasing
a runner's strength endurance and aerobic threshold velocity, during special
training stages the accent is on increasing aerobic efficiency, i.e. running ata
a high velocity with minimum VO2 requirement.
Specialized research (Velikorodnoh et al., 1986) has shown that excessive
intensification of a marathon runners training immediately before final pre-
paration for top competitions (an attempt for excessive development of
aerobic power) leads to a deterioration in the competition result. In order to
avoid this danger, the above authors recommended that specific training
should be in the velocity zone corresponding to that estimated to be needed
in a forthcoming competition.
The aim of the present work is to:
(1) establish the relationship between a marathon running competition
result and aerobic power indices immediately prior to a top competition;
(2) determine whether any revealed relationship is compatible with the logic
of the structure of the training strategy preceding competition.
256 A. NURMEKIVI et al.
The subjects were 5 marathon runners in good training on whom labora-
tory condition tests were made prior to their participation in a marathon
The final competition was preceded by specialized training. The mean
(±SD) age of subjects was 27.4 ±4.7 years, body height 176.8 ±2.2 cm,
body weight 66.54 ±2.1 kg, and mean marathon running result 2.27.30.
Initial evaluation tests on the subjects were conducted in the Sports
Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinic associated with the Institute of Sport
Pedagogy the University of Tartu. A stepwise incremental running test was
performed to volitional exhaustion on a treadmill LE 3000 (Germany) by
each subject. The initial speed 8km/h was increased by 2km/h every 3min.
until 14km/h and from that point by 1km/h to exhaustion. The treadmill
gradient was 1° during the whole test. Respiratory gas exchange (RGE) was
measured with a gas analyzer "Oxycon Record" (Germany). A sample of
exhaled air was analyzed every 30 s. Q2 uptake was measured and the high-
est value attained during the test was regarded as the VC^max index. The
anaerobic threshold was determined to be the point where ventilatory
equivalent for oxygen (VE/VO2) increased sharply while the ventilatory
equivalent for CO2 (VE/VCO2) remained steady (Wasserman, 1973). The
aerobic threshold was determined as the optimum level of aerobic metab-
olism and it coincided with the work rate at which the lowest amount of O2
was found in the exhaled air (Anderson and Rhodes, 1989).
The level of O2 uptake at the aerobic and anaerobic threshold work
rate; the aerobic and anaerobic threshold onset time; and the % of VO2max
at the anaerobic threshold were determined. Heart rate (HR) was con-
tinuously recorded from an applied sport tester PE 3000 (Finland). Max-
imal test time in minutes was recorded.
Training preceding the tests was structured using ideas of modern training
methodology for the marathon race (Lenzi, 1983; Vuorimaa, 1991). The
main attention at the beginning of the preparatory period was paid to
improving general muscular efficiency, running technique, flexibility and
aerobic and anaerobic threshold running speeds. Continuous running at a
progressively increasing pace was practiced. At the base training stage an
emphasis was made on aerobic power (fast continuous running, fast pro-
gressively increasing pace running, repetition and uphill running). The level
of other important abilities - aerobic base endurance and muscular effi-
ciency was maintained. The training methods most used in the specific train-
ing cycle before an important competition were marathon pace runs and
MARATHON PERFORMANCE AND INDICES OF AEROBIC POWER 257
prolonged medium pace runs as the best drills to induce the necessary spe-
cific adaption of the metabolism. Slow pace runs as exercise for recovery
and regeneration and muscular efficiency exercise were used as maintenance
training. Duration of the preparatory stage was two months. The mean and
standard deviation as well as the correlation between different indices was
Results are presented in Tables I and II. The group mean marathon
running competition result was 2.27.30, the best individual being 2.17.42
and the worst 2.45.30. The group mean O2 uptake per 1kg of body
weight was 71.1 ±5.04ml-min"1
emphasizing the good aerobic
power of the subjects. This latter was further confirmed by the subjects'
• 1 1
individual differences in VC^max/kg (best 77.8ml-min~ -kg , worst
) being comparable with their difference in compe-
tition results. The realization of a runner's potential, however, depends on
TABLE I Marathon running competition results and aerobic power
indices (X± SD) in marathon runners (n= 5)
Index X SD
1. VO2max (ml • min""1
2. Max test time (min)
3. Max HR
4. O2 uptake at anaerobic threshold level
5. Anaerobic threshold onset time (min)
6. % of VO2max at anaerobic threshold
7. O2 uptake at aerobic threshold level
8. Aerobic threshold onset time (min)
9. Marathon running competition result (min)
TABLE II Correlations between a marathon running competition result and aerobic power
indices (X± SD) in marathon runners (n= 5; for r > 0.85, p significant at p < 0.05 level)
258 A. NURMEKIVI et al.
the quality of the training work. The subjects' % of VC^max at the anaero-
bic threshold was also high at 86.4% ± 2.5.
The difference in functional power between the marathon runner's with
the best and the worst competition result was reflected in a runners respec-
tive times to volitional exhaustion on the treadmill test - 27 and 19min
respectively. The same contrast was observed in the time needed to attain
the aerobic and anaerobic threshold respectively - a better prepared mara-
thon runner attained a threshold level velocity considerably later in the test
at a much higher velocity of running.
Correlation analysis revealed a close connection of the competition result
with maximal test time (r= —0.93), and also with the time of attaining the
aerobic (r = —0.89) and anaerobic threshold (r = —0.95). A significant index
predicting a marathon running competition result was the % of VC^max
attained at the anaerobic threshold (r = —0.96). A statistically significant
association between the competition result and VC^max (ml • min~~ •kg" )
was not established.
It is logical to presume that in order to attain top condition, the specific
working power and capacity indices of a marathon runner have to be highly
developed. Tests conducted during a preparatory stage may not yield objec-
tive information on the attained power a few months hence. For this reason
it is essential to assess aerobic power indices of a runner immediately prior
each important competition. It is not necessary to cover a long distance in
order to estimate the aerobic power of a marathon runner. The maximal test
time serves as an objectives and significant index. This is confirmed by high
correspondence between this index and marathon running result (r =
—0.93). In the present study the results are compatible with earlier research
(Noakes, 1988; 1991) proving the high predictive level of the treadmill test
for marathon running performance.
The present work has shown that during the competition period VC>2max
) does not directly influence the competition result of a
marathon runner (r = —0.54; p > 0.05). It appeared that a far more impor-
tant index of possible competition success is the % VC^max value at the
anaerobic threshold (r = —0.96). The importance of the aerobic and anaero-
bic threshold velocity in influencing a marathon runner's competition result
during the principal competition period is also demonstrated by the compe-
tition result being highly correlated with the running velocity attained at the
MARATHON PERFORMANCE AND INDICES OF AEROBIC POWER 259
aerobic (r = —0.89) and anaerobic threshold (r= —0.95) respectively. Conse-
quently, it is essential at the time of a principal competition period that both
the runner's respective aerobic and anaerobic threshold running velocity is
closely aligned with the typical marathon runner's running economy. The
mentioned threshold velocities are closely connected to a marathon runner's
Joyner (1991) has presented a table on low, medium and high economy of
a marathon runner based on the O2 uptake of a runner at the lactate thresh-
old level and the corresponding results of the various runners of different
quality. Since the subjects in the present research recorded both a competi-
tion result as well as an anaerobic threshold O2 uptake level, Joyner's table
could be used for determining a runner's economy - low, medium, or high.
Knowing the aerobic power and running economy level of a given runner,
it is possible to make training corrections and establish the most suitable
strategic approach for future training of each individual.
The results of the present study confirmed a staged accentuation of
intense training was best for competition, a fact widely recognized now in
a top marathon runner's training. This tactics is in good accordance with
earlier research (Lenzi, 1983; Velikorodnoh et al., 1986; Vuorimaa, 1991)
and guarantees optimal development in a specific sequence of aerobic power
basics, i.e. strength endurance and delay in respiratory gas exchange onset
threshold with increased running velocity leading to development of greater
aerobic power, aerobic efficiency and finally high aerobic capacity. The
highest level of the latter should be attained at the time of the principal com-
petition period. Since four of the subjects in present study attained a per-
sonal record at competition post-testing and one subject showed a result
close to this, it can be maintained that the preceding training was correctly
structured and guaranteed an individually high functional power and endur-
ance at the time chosen for competition.
(1) The competition result of a marathon runner during a competition
period was first influenced by developing aerobic efficiency the detailed
criteria of which are a delay in reaching the respective anaerobic and
aerobic thresholds during an incremental treadmill test to volitional
exhaustion, attainment of the highest possible % of VC^max at the
anaerobic threshold, and development of the highest running velocity at
this level of oxygen uptake.
260 A. NURMEKIVI et al.
(2) It is shown that when the preceding training is structured on the princi-
ple of creating training conditions for increasing the anaerobic thresh-
old, then aerobic power and finally aerobic efficiency, in sequence, it
guarantees that an optimal level of aerobic power/capacity for a mara-
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