The Key Physiological Traits Benefiting Marathon Runners

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The Key Physiological Traits Benefiting Marathon Runners

Are marathon runners born naturally gifted? Or do they have to develop their skills through arduous training? Science shows that, indeed, running performance is influenced by a person’s genetics. Yet, there’s also potential room for improvement through the environment and the right training. In what follows, we break down some of the key physiological traits benefiting marathon runners.

Maximal oxygen uptake

Maximal oxygen uptake or VO2 max is the body’s capacity to transport and utilize large quantities of oxygen for the working muscles. It’s expressed as millimetres of oxygen consumed per kilogram of body weight per minute (ml/kg/min). The higher a person’s VO2 max, the more oxygen his or her body can utilize.


To put things into perspective, the average sedentary adult has a VO2 max of 45 ml/kg/min. According to data published in the journal Frontiers in Cardiovascular Medicine, “VO2max values in elite marathon runners are between 70 and 85 ml kg −1 min – 1.” Higher VO2 max values like those allow for faster running speeds during long-distance racing and tend to result in winning performances.


Now, there are four critical physiological factors impacting VO2 max: maximal heart rate, stroke volume of the heart, blood haemoglobin content, and the proportion of blood transported to the working muscles. While some of these factors can be developed through training, others are genetically set.

Lactate threshold

A person’s lactate threshold is the determinant of when his or her body starts to accumulate lactic acid (fuel for the cells during intense exercise) from anaerobic respiration (a respiration type that breaks down sugars to generate energy in the absence of oxygen). For marathon runners, this is extremely important as, the higher their lactate threshold, the faster they can run.


The lactate threshold can be expressed as a percentage of the VO2 max. For instance, the average marathon runner’s lactate threshold occurs at 75 to 80% VO2 max. Elite world-class marathon runners, on the other hand, typically have a lactate threshold of over 85% of their VO2 max.


But how can marathon runners find out their lactate threshold? A way to do this is by taking the Conconi test, which can be performed in a laboratory environment or independently with the help of a trainer or assistant.

Running economy

Finally, running economy (RE) refers to the relationship between oxygen consumption (VO2) and running speed. In other words, it is the amount of oxygen the body needs to run at a certain pace. The less energy and oxygen consumed at any given pace, the better. Physiology researchers define RE as “an important physiological measure for endurance athletes, especially distance runners”.


Several factors affect RE, including muscle fibre composition, joint flexibility, body shape, and resistance on the run. While factors like muscle fibre are part of a person’s genetic makeup and can’t be altered, it’s possible to improve the running economy through training.

Don’t have the traits listed above?

If you’re interested in marathon running, yet lack the psychological traits mentioned above, you can still acclimate your body through training. A personal trainer may be able to get you on the right track. Making good use of technology can be beneficial as well. Nowadays, you can find almost anything on the internet. From iGaming platforms with a huge list of live RTP games to training guides to help you reach your running goals.


You may want to take into consideration the core elements of marathon training, which are:


  • Building your weekly mileage over time by running three to five times a week;
  • Doing a long run every seven to ten days to gradually acclimate your body to long distances;
  • Practising intervals and tempo runs to enhance your cardio capacity;
  • And giving yourself plenty of time to rest and recover in order to avoid injuries and burnout.

To conclude

Maximal oxygen uptake, lactate threshold, and running economy are some of the key physiological demands of marathon running. While some of the factors influencing the aforementioned markers are genetically fixed, others can be improved through training.