Were Olympic level athletes born or built?  Do elite athletes just work harder than everyone else, or were they born to win?  The debate may never end, and while elite runners have probably been given a bit of a genetic leg up, they certainly work hard for their sport.  If you’ve ever wondered what that “working out hard” means exactly, keep reading.  This is the life of an elite runner.

Elite distance runners train seven days per week with few exceptions.  Even though they’re logging miles in the high double digits (even considering mixing up the pace with speed work), the typical elite distance runner can pump out 80-100 miles in the time it takes most people to run 10 or 20.  After adding up the hours spent warming up, warming down, tending to their bodies, and running hard, elite runners can spend anywhere from 10 to 30 hours training weekly.  That’s the same as dedicating about a day of your life each week to running, 1/7th of your time on this earth.

Some runners look at this kind of commitment nonchalantly.  One such example is Emily Levan. After placing twelfth in the Boston Marathon Emily explained away her running schedule like she was talking about everyday essentials like brushing her teeth and taking a shower.

To train for the Boston Marathon, Levan ran 90 and 100 miles per week. On speed days she would log anywhere between 8 and 14 miles of marathon pace runs or mile repeats with a two mile cool down, but on Levan’s self proclaimed “mellow” recovery days she would run about eight miles twice per day.  Saturdays usually ended up being long run days, when means Levan would run a 20 or 22 mile run in 2 to 3 hours.  All said and done she says she could fit her training into less than four hours per day, but each day needed total commitment.

That said, that kind of commitment certainly isn’t easy.  Elite runners live a high pressure lifestyle that’s often extremely intense. One Olympic trials runner told me that she used to cry every single day before her workout for years.  She dreaded every run like nothing else, but when she got injured everything fell apart.  Running had become deeply ingrained in her being and she was desperate to get back to work.

The single biggest challenge and source of anxiety for most distance runners is the dreaded injury.  World class athletes might suffer from some sort of minor injury about once per month but usually they push through it, treat it aggressively, and pray that it will go away so that they still have their livelihood.

After all, many of the most elite runners have made serious sacrifices to get where they are.  Elite runner Mike Spinnler told a newspaper this year that many elite runners have to turn down serious career goals in order to commit to running.  Most elite runners also have to watch their diet, meaning they eat a lot to refuel after grueling workouts, but end up eating a lot of bananas, rice, salmon, protein shakes, and other notoriously-good-for-you foods.

Once runners achieve great times they can start entering into serious competitions with seriously low times.  The 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Qualifying time for males drops in at 2:19 while women have to cross the finish line in under 2:39.

When an elite distance runner can take the pavement at that kind of pace they can start thinking about purse money.  Still, a lot of the most elite runners in the world say that they’re poor but happy, and that they usually make much more money on sponsorships than they do on actual prize money.   At least that’s the case unless they start ranking high in major marathons and breaking some real records.

The first place marathon runner in New York City’s ING Marathon, for example, could win $130,000 or $200,000 depending on whether or not they are a previous winner or not.  Second place drops down to $65,000 though, and third gets a cool $40,000.  First place Boston Marathon runners get $100,000 and no matter what the purse looks like, there are bonuses worth thousands upon thousands of dollars for runners who shatter records.  Not too shabby if you’re doing one of the things you love most in the world.