Your running economy refers to the amount of oxygen you consume at a given speed.
If you are running with a friend at the same speed but you are using less oxygen then him (or her) – you are more economical.
And if you improve your running economy, you will run even faster – using the same amount of oxygen.
Running economy plays a very important role in distance running performance. In fact, it is considered to be a better performance predictor than VO2 max for top-level athletes.
We know that you can improve your VO2 max within your genetic potential only. But running economy can be improved significantly over time. And if you maintain your training level, your running economy will remain relatively steady with your age.
Running economy is complex and not well understood yet in comparison to VO2 max and lactate threshold.
There are many internal and external factors that affect your running economy. Some are genetic that you can’t do much about. And there are others which can be improved with training.
For example, you can’t change the ratio of slow-twitch to fast-twitch muscle fibers or body proportions. But you can improve your running technique, fatigue resistance, muscle stiffness, etc.
Here are 8 ways to improve running economy:
- Train more and Be consistent
- Improve your running technique
- Perform speed training
- Include hill work
- Perform strength training
- Incorporate plyometrics
- Wear proper running shoes
- Wear lighter clothes
1. Train More and Be Consistent
The number of years you’ve been training for and the volume of training have a great impact on your running economy.
Endurance training leads to many small changes in your body that make you more energy efficient.
For example, you could lose weight and reach an optimal level. Your cardiovascular system gets better at delivering oxygen to the working muscles. The firing time of your muscle fibers improves. Many other small changes happen in your body that lead to a better economy.
So increase your training volume (within your own limits of course). And train consistently – year after year.
2. Improve Your Running Technique
If you spend extra energy with each step, it will cost you big time with the increasing distance. Think about how many steps you have to take in order to complete a marathon.
The good news is, you can become more energy efficient by minimizing the unnecessary movements.
The excessive arm swinging and head movement. Side-to-side rotation of torso. Up-and-down movement (aka vertical oscillation). Braking. These are the movements that cost you more energy than necessary. Decreasing them will help you become more economical.
Running technique can be improved with speed training and hill training.
In addition to these, you can also perform running technique drills which are not hard to incorporate into your training. Just do them for 5 minutes, 10-15 minutes before your hard workouts.
The up-and-down movement (aka vertical oscillation) – When you run, there is a point of time when both your feet are in the air. This happens inevitably with every step you take. Runners who do this excessively, waste a lot of energy. Reducing this will result in short ground-contact time which is positively associated with running economy.
Overstriding – Many beginners make the mistake of overstriding when they run. It means their feet land way ahead of their extended knee and center of mass. It wastes energy. This can be fixed by increasing the running cadence. Take shorter and quicker steps. A good target is 180 steps per minute. Doing this will help you avoid overstriding and vertical oscillation.
3. Perform Speed Training
You can’t run fast with a bad mechanism. You’ll have to eliminate the unnecessary movements in order to do it.
That’s what speed work teaches your body. Learning to reduce those unnecessary movements will make you more economical.
A study was conducted with 20 trained runners who performed 10 sessions of high-intensity intervals over a period of 40 days. It found that runners’ economies got better and their 10k performances were improved.
So including a period of high-intensity interval training will improve your speed and running economy.
Perform some 200 – 400m intervals with long recoveries into your training. These are run at your race pace or faster. Recovery is very important as these workouts are quite demanding. You should be well recovered before performing each repetition. Also, make sure that you perform these with good running technique.
You can also perform 4 to 6 strides two or three times a week. And they can be done before, after or in the middle of your run.
4. Include Hill Work
Fast uphill running is a type of resistance training that is highly specific to running. It promotes good running mechanics; makes you stronger, faster, and more energy-efficient.
Short uphill sprints of 10-12 seconds with long recoveries in between are very effective for improving your performance.
5. Perform Strength Training
Many studies have proven that strength training can improve your running performance.
In addition to improving your running economy, it is great for strengthening muscles, injury prevention, correcting muscular imbalances, and increasing muscle stiffness.
There are several ways to incorporate strength training into your routine. You could lift weight in the gym, or even workout at home with bodyweight exercises. Or do a mix of both.
Just 2-3 sessions each week can give you great results.
Flexibility and Stiffness
When your foot lands on the ground while running, the muscles and tendons of that leg contract to absorb the shock of landing. In this process, they store impact energy. This energy is then used to propel you forward as you push off of the ground.
The muscles and tendons act as a spring in this process. And stiffer leg muscles and tendons are better at storing and using this energy. This means that excessive flexibility could be counterproductive for runners.
More economical runners have a greater ability of storing and utilizing this energy. So there may be an optimal degree of flexibility and stiffness required for a better running economy.
6. Incorporate Plyometrics
It’s been proven that short-term plyometric training improves your running economy. These explosive jumping exercises help you in many ways. They improve running technique. Decrease ground-contact time. Teach muscles to activate quickly. And increase muscle stiffness. All these adaptations lead to a better running economy.
So include a period (6 weeks for example) of plyometric sessions into your routine to gain these benefits. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on these sessions. 10-20 minutes plyometric sessions, twice a week, are sufficient.
7. Wear Proper Running Shoes
There are many factors of running shoes that affect the running economy. The weight, design, midsole materials, amount of cushioning, outsole design, etc.
Most people think that the lighter the shoe, the more economical it will be. Although a popular belief, it’s not always true. Because there are other factors like stride length, stride rate, foot-strike pattern that contribute to running economy. Additionally, the surface you run on also makes a huge difference.
A study was conducted to compare running economy values while wearing no shoes, minimal shoes, and normal running shoes. And it concluded that running shoes should be selected based on individual characteristics and preferences. Not with a global recommendation of an economical running shoe.
Generally, runners prefer racing shoes for their races. These are lighter than daily training shoes. So you can experiment with them and find out which type of shoes work best for you.
8. Wear Lighter Clothes
The weight, material, and fitting of your clothing affect your running economy.
Wearing too many clothes will get you overheated and dehydrated. Heavier clothes will cost you more energy unnecessarily. And loosely fitted clothes will increase energy cost because of the wind resistance.
So wear as little clothing as necessary. And make sure they have moisture-wicking properties to allow proper ventilation. Comfortably tighter to body clothes also help reduce the energy cost of running.
- Your running economy refers to the amount of oxygen you consume at a given speed.
- Improving your running economy will allow you to run faster than before using the same amount of oxygen.
- Running economy is a better predictor of performance in comparison to VO2 max for top-level athletes.
- Some of the factors that affect the running economy are genetic which can’t be changed. for example – body composition, the ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers.
- Training year after year with a relatively higher volume will improve your running economy.
- Improving running technique by eliminating unnecessary movements, makes you more energy efficient.
- Speed training, hill training, strength training, and plyometrics are great for maximizing your running economy.
- Proper running shoes and clothing also affect your economy.