Race Performance Shown Unrelated to…Fitness?

You would think fitness would be a pretty big factor in race performance, right? A new study showed the highest performing athletes aren’t always the fittest in terms of lab measurements.

Sometimes the factors that influence performance in certain sports are not what you would think. We all grow up thinking that the fittest athlete always wins, but sometimes there are other major factors at place. For example, wind resistance is a major performance factor in cycling. In fact, in some cases it might be even more important than the fitness level of the athlete.

In a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers looked at how fitness correlates to trail running. Specifically, they looked at trail runners in the Transalpine-Run, an eight day, 305km trail run with 13.5km of ascent. This is a tough race, so you would think the fittest person would win.

First the researchers looked at the standard fitness markers of the participants, such as VO2 max and maximum heart rate. During the race the researchers measured the performance of the athletes as well as their heart rates, and measured their power with a jumping test after each stage.

The results were fascinating, and will probably surprise many readers. The average heart rate in the first stage was a little over 80% of the athlete’s max. From there, it dropped down to a little over 70% and held steady for the duration of the race. Muscle damage was related to the drop in heart rate. So far, there’s nothing too shocking here, but it gets more interesting. Jump performance (power and strength) declined throughout every stage. The decline was not related to ultimate performance, however. In fact, none of the fitness factors measured by the researchers correlated to performance.

That last line deserves its own paragraph: fitness levels, as measured in a lab, did not correlate to success in amateur trail runners.

The researchers offer a few possibilities for differences in performance. After all, if it’s not fitness it has to be something. They speculated that recovery, pacing, nutrition, genetics, psychological, or environmental factors might be at play. I personally submit that bodyweight is of paramount importance, with lighter being better, as well as foot size. Running with large feet requires more energy, which adds up over long distances.

For those not competing in running, this has important implications as well. If you’re not built to be an efficient runner, hitting the road or trail might make a better fitness tool for you. The less efficient running is for you, the more cardio work you will do at any given speed. A 6 mph jog might be more than enough to get the heart pumping for a 200lb athlete than it would be for a 150lb athlete who might not even break a sweat at that speed.

Whatever the reason for differences in performance, the measures that we typically use like maximum heart rate or VO2 max don’t seem to matter as much as we thought. We might all be built to run, but some of us are seemingly better built for it than others.


1. Gatterer, Hannes, et. al., “Race Performance and Exercise Intensity of Male Amateur Mountain Runners During a Multistage Mountain Marathon Competition Are Not Dependent on Muscle Strength Loss or Cardiorespiratory Fitness,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27:8 (2013).

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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