Reader Question: Is it possible to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America did?

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I love superhero movies, but in order to enjoy them I have to suspend disbelief and stop being a scientist for a couple of hours, since most of what you see defies the laws of physics and well established physiological principles.

What the Ol’ Cap did was a physiological impossibility outside of the superhero movie universe. The runner would be going about world class 100m sprint speed (26 mph). That pace relies on energy primarily from phosphocreatine – essentially a “rocket fuel” with about 6 seconds “burn time” before it is depleted – plus energy liberated via anaerobic (without oxygen) processes. The longer the event, the more the ratio turns from anaerobic to aerobic energy sources. One simply can’t use aerobic metabolism to run 26 mph for virtually any length of time, let alone 30 minutes. 

There are interesting questions like this in exercise physiology meant to spur investigation and discussion of the limits of human performance. For decades people have tried to come up with the ‘absolute limit’ for a given event, and so far they have been eventually proved wrong. Long ago there was the sub-4 minute mile barrier, but as we got into, say, the 1930s it was becoming obvious to most people that it was humanly possible to run that fast and it was just a matter of time. (Roger Bannister ran under 4 in 1954 – after about a 10 year period of a few people getting close, like 4:01 – 4:02.)

Later there were calculations that no man could go faster than (I’m working from memory here so not an exact figure) ~ 3:50-something, until that was broken. The current world record, set in 1999, is held by Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj at 3:43.13. Of course we can say with certainty that no human will run a mile in 1 minute, or 2 minutes, or … well, we just don’t know for sure other than there is obviously a limit. El Guerrouj also holds the the 1500m WR of 3:26, which equates to about a mile of …. 3:43. So is the limit 3:43? Probably not; even though that record has stood for 17 years, it always seems someone could go 1/10 second faster, or at least 1/100. Is a sub 3:40 possible? I wouldn’t bet against it.

What is the fastest a human could run 13 miles? We don’t know (the world record for the half marathon – 13.11 miles – is 58:23) but it certainly isn’t anywhere close to 30 minutes. A 30 minute half marathon would be run at an average pace of 2:17 per mile, and equates to a 2:05 mile in quality.

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Reader Question: What can I do to improve my 100m dash time?

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What can I do to improve my 100m dash time?

I am about to finish my freshman year of high school, and I want to be winning varsity races by the time I’m a sophomore. My personal best this year for the 100m is 11.57, but I want to be running high tens by grade 10. My track coach currently is terrible and only made me slower. Any suggestions?

That’s a tough situation to be in; perhaps a talk with your coach about why you think the training isn’t working for you is in order. I can’t know the specifics, but often high schools take any sport that isn’t football or basketball (and maybe baseball) much less seriously – as if they are just conditioning for other sports or purely recreational. In those cases I’ve seen the track coach be appointed not because he or she is a great track coach, but because he or she is a good football or basketball coach. But that should not be an excuse for that coach, who supposedly understands something about exercise physiology, not to get up to speed on the techniques of coaching track & field events.

One of the main factors for sprint training that might be missed by some coaches is the proper work to rest ratio. For a 100/200m runner, you want a training session of multiple short, fast sprints followed by very long recovery periods in between, often a 1:12 to 1:20 work to rest ratio, based on time ( e.g. an 8- 10s sprint followed by a 2 – 3 min rest) during which you walk and recuperate (and maybe do a few flexibility moves) so you are ready to be able to give a full effort on the next and all subsequent sprints. As a distance runner it pains me to say this, but to be a good short sprinter you have to mostly avoid endurance training, which has the effect of teaching some of your fast twitch muscle fibers to behave more like slow twitch (a positive for a marathoner, but a negative for a sprinter or power athlete). Carl Lewis wrote about rebelling against his high school coach who wanted him and the other sprinters running lots of laps, because he knew this would not be good for his speed. I remember watching Carl on a TV show called Superstars in which the contestants were jocks from different sports; during the 800m race sure enough, sub-10 second 100m runner Carl was really struggling on the second lap. It is okay to run a few easy laps as part of your warm-up, though; you want your muscles warm before you start sprinting. The bulk of the warm-up should still be various drills and range of motion exercises that follow the jogging.

If the coach really isn’t going to help you much after trying your best to communicate, the alternative could be (with the coach’s permission) to hire a personal coach to write your workouts. In the offseason there should be no problem working directly with a personal coach. (Ask around, and also look on the internet; http://coachup.com is one resource). There are also various commercial ‘speed schools’ and performance training centers you could look into. The main thing you would focus on is building your strength and power in the offseason, so they would show you safe and proper form for weight training and plyometric drills. They would also at some point do more direct work to help you translate that power into a faster start out of the blocks and on into the rest of the phases of the sprint, using good running form.

Of course this is going to cost some money, so that will factor into your and your parents’ decisions. Still, it isn’t something that is easy to do properly on your own, and the chances of injury in a do-it-yourself program are pretty high. But as a learning tool, you might pick up a copy of a book called Explosive Running by Michael Yessis.

On a positive, 11.57 is a good time for a freshman, especially since you might not have received the best coaching, and physical maturity alone is going to help you improve on that. Be patient, train consistently, and the speed will come out. Make sure you have both short term goals (as you stated in your question) and longer term goals (in the back of your mind) to motivate you, such as where you want to be your senior year and if you want to run in college.

Good luck!

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