Why Do I Run So Slow? Genetics or Environment

Ever wonder why some people or kids are faster than others?  I’ve wondered this for years as I’ve always been a rather slow runner.    The research and facts indicate there are two factors at play.  While you can’t do much to change the one factor, I’ve experienced amazing results by working on what I can control.

As a general rule, your running speed is determined by both genetic and environmental factors.  Genetics impacts the fastest speed you can possibly run if trained perfectly.  Environmental factors impact how close you can come to reaching that top speed.  Both elements should be considered when evaluating one’s running speed.

 There is little we can do about the genes we have inherited, but how those genes are expressed can be greatly impacted by environmental factors.  The body has an amazing ability to change and adapt over time based on the stresses it is exposed to.  The question of how much may never be known, but it may have more to do with the limits we put on ourselves as the following discusses.

The body’s preferred speed is the most energy efficient pace

For both new and experienced runners there is a pace our bodies naturally settle into that is the most energy efficient for us.  Think of car and the ideal speed at which you maximize gas mileage.  Our bodies do something similar.  Studies found that humans have a preferred speed for minimizing calories burned regardless of distance. 

This preferred pace could explain why it appears you run slow regardless of the distance you run.  Optimal speed does vary depending on characteristics such as weight, sex, age, and BMI but It has yet to be studied if this optimal speed can be influenced by training and other environmental factors. 

Knowing what drives you to move at a certain pace helps you to understand yourself better and perhaps adjust your expectations (more on that later).

It is interesting to note that speeding up or slowing down from this optimal pace results in more calories burned. If your goal for running is keep fit, slowing down will burn more calories.  Although this may be difficult to wrap our heads around, we all recognize that idling and barely moving a car would take more gas to get to your destination than if you went as fast as you could. 

 Link to the study: Running in the wild: Energetics explain ecological running speeds: Current Biology (cell.com)

Why can’t I run faster?

There are four main reasons why you can’t run faster.  Oxygen deficit, lactic acid build-up, inefficient muscle contraction, and your own mental state all put limits on how fast you can run.  The combination of all four determines the maximum pace we can sustain for a given distance.  Genetics and environmental factors each play a role in these.

Our genetic makeup affects our VO2max, muscle fiber type, flexibility, metabolism, endurance potential, and other running related traits.  However, environmental factors such as training, nutrition, stress, and mental attitude can affect how the genes are expressed affecting physiology.

There is little we can do about the genes we’ve inherited, but there is a lot we can do to influence our environment.  We want to give our body what it needs to reach the limits we are genetically capable of. 

Almost everyone can improve some aspect of their running performance.  You may not be giving your body what it needs to reach your potential, or you may not have a reasonable timetable for reaching your potential. 

 Your expectations and/or actions are likely preventing you from running faster.  Adjustments in one or both should be examined. 

Adjust your expectations

What do you consider to be slow?   This is a very subjective question, and it depends on what is considered slow by you and/or who you are comparing yourself to.  There are always going to be runners faster and slower than you.  How fast or slow you run is all relative. 

Is the expectation that you should be running faster reasonable?  We all have a mental map of the world and ourselves that doesn’t always reflect our current fitness level.  Be honest with yourself and examine what your training plan looks like, how long you’ve been running, and what or who are you comparing yourself to.  Ask a running buddy or enlist a coach to get a more accurate picture of your running performance.  You may find your perception may need a little adjusting.

Adjust your actions

As mentioned, there are two factors that influence our running pace, genetics, and our environment.  There is not much we can do about the genes we were given, but there is a lot that can be done to affect how those genes are expressed.  We all know practice makes perfect and with concentrated effort we can make improvements in our running performance. 

If you have a realistic expectation of what your capable of running and you’re not making progress than change your approach.  The body is amazing and is capable of more than we realize if we give it the tools it needs.  The bottom line is what you are currently doing is not getting you where you want to go.  You need a change.

How can I get faster at running?

The best way to get faster is by training based on strategies that have been proven to boost running performance.  Strength training, speed work, and long runs should be part of your weekly routine to build the body stronger and faster.  Work to reduce or avoid the environmental factors that will slow you down such as lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and stress.

Choosing the best approach to see maximum results is the secret key every runner looks for.  There doesn’t appear to be any one exercise or program that will work for everyone.  Rather concerted effort of strategies that have proven to work for most should be adopted (See How to Run Faster Tomorrow – Runningeek).

 It will take time, effort, and consistency to see result.  Above all, use your frustration to fuel your next workout and motivate you to try a new approach. 

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