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What does strength mean in distance running?

"For distance runners, the term 'strength' has little to do with muscle strength," says Cathal Dennehy

World Athletics Championships Eugene, Oregon, USA July15-26, 2022 Photo by: Kevin Morris

If you have ever watched a distance track event or marathon, you’ve probably heard an announcer mention a runner’s strength. We can see a sprinter’s strength in their muscle size and explosive power–but what does strength refer to when we’re talking about distance runners, who are typically longer and leaner? 

World Athletics Championships Eugene, Oregon, USA July15-26, 2022 100m, Fraser-Pryce, Jamaica
Photo: Kevin Morris

Simply by looking at Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, five-time world champion, we can see strength embodied.  Distance runners, who are often leaner and less obviously muscular than sprinters, also get called strong, but it’s less obvious what observers are referring to.

Canadian half-marathon record holder Rory Linkletter, whose body is trained to carry him at a fast pace (but not a sprint) over many kilometres, is clearly a very different type of strong than Fraser-Pryce. It can be hard to determine what the word “strength” is meant to encompass when it’s used to refer to athletes like Linkletter, or Cam Levins, who broke his own Canadian record in the marathon on Sunday morning.

World Athletics Championships Eugene, Oregon, USA July15-26, 2022
Cam Levins. Photo: Kevin Morris

We asked commentator and writer Cathal Dennehy, whose distinctive voice you may have heard broadcasting many an exciting track event. “For distance runners, the term strength has little to do with muscle strength but everything to do with endurance and how effective they are at running distances above their race distance,” Dennehy explained. “It’s the ability to maintain pace and, specifically, the ability to put rounds back to back and repeat their optimal performance day after day–a key component of success at championships.” 

For distance and middle-distance athletes, the term strength has far more to do with consistently running at top paces over long periods of time. Stamina, often used interchangeably with endurance, is that ability. While athletes who run everything from the 1,500 metres to the marathon may not be touted as endurance athletes, it’s stamina, or endurance that they are using as they log fast miles, over and over. 

World Athletics Championships Eugene, Oregon, USA July15-26, 2022
Eilish McColgan in the 10,000m race Photo: Kevin Morris  

To work on your own strength (or speed endurance) as a distance runner, try incorporating fast-finish long runs into your training: run the last, shorter portion of your long run at a slightly faster pace than the rest of the run. If you’re an experienced runner, try back-to-back workouts to finesse your ability to run hard and long.