Running Economy

Running Economy is one of those terms that is often batted around by runners and coaches, perhaps without much understanding of what it means. At its heart, a runner’s Running Economy is a measure of how efficiently they run. 

Actually defining Running Economy – what it really is, and how to measure it, can be a difficult and confusing question to find the answer to. The internet is filled with different terms such as Vo2 Max, biomechanical and submaximal output, but what does it all mean?

In this article, these questions will be answered and we’ll go through how you can improve your own running economy to improve your running game.

The Definition Of Running Economy

Running economy (RE) is the amount of oxygen (O2) that your body uses to maintain a certain pace. One easy analogy is to think about it as the miles-per-gallon you get out of your body: it measures how efficiently you run for the oxygen you consume.

Running Economy (RE) is a combination of many different factors inside your body including metabolic rate, cardiorespiratory, biomechanical, and neuromuscular characteristics.

Many other factors can affect your RE, but these are the main 4 to hone in on.

Why Should You Care About Running Economy?

There is a direct correlation between running performance and running economy. The more you can improve your RE, the better the racer, and the runner you can potentially become.

RE takes into account proper running form, footstrike, running kinematics and kinetics, and physiological and biomechanical functions. 

By improving your RE you will be at a lower risk for injury, you can become faster, and you will be better equipped to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue after a running session.

Therefore, the benefits of focusing on your running economy are:

  • a lower risk of incurring a running injury
  • an increase in your capability to become faster in a faster period
  • you will need less energy when running to run faster and longer
  • you will experience less fatigue when running longer distances and at faster paces
  • you will be better equipped to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue after a run

These benefits will all translate into your next race training or big running goal.

The 4 Main Factors That Affect Running Economy

Your Metabolic Rate refers to how much energy your body uses in a certain time frame, for instance over a minute of running. For example, a heavier person would require more energy to run at a 9 min/mile pace for one minute than a smaller, lighter person.

Cardiorespiratory comes from the Greek Cardio meaning heart and Respiratory meaning lungs. You can think of it as the strength of your heart and lungs. They can get O2 (oxygen) to your working muscles.

The Biomechanical makeup of your body is how you are built, the length of your legs, how tall you are, and so on. Each of these factors will affect how efficiently you can run.

Neuromuscular is another Greek word that translates as Nerves and Muscles, and their ability to work together varies from person to person.

Everyone is built differently so we will all be suited to different disciplines. Long-distance runners are generally slower than an 800m runners for example.

The Effect Of a Good Running Economy

Runners with a poor Running Economy will use more oxygen while they run, so will be unable to maintain their pace for as long or as fast as a runner with a good Running Economy. 

So for those of you looking up at the running greats and thinking “how??“, they have GREAT RE (which has been developed over time). They have a much lower energy output than average runners running the same kilometre.

The lower your RE, the more perceived effort you will feel while you are running. Meaning each run will feel harder than someone with a better Running Economy. 

But if you are worried that you may be lagging behind your fellow runners, don’t! While you can’t change your genetics, you can improve your Running Economy and become a more efficient runner!

How To Test Your Running Efficiency

When testing your running economy you will find out how much oxygen is required for you to move 1 kilogram of your body mass. Therefore, if you wish to know exactly how efficiently you run, you will need to find an exercise physiologist/scientist and a treadmill. 

Try to find an exercise laboratory or contact a college, university or research centre nearby that has a Kinesiology, Exercise, or Health program. 

Students need practice and they are usually more than willing to have a subject.  You will be analyzed while running on a treadmill and your body mass, footwear, and nutrition are all taken into account.  

They will then be able to give you personal tips on how to improve your RE, gait, form, etc. It really is very enlightening especially if you are a serious runner.

How To Improve Your Running Economy

Strength training 

Strength Training allows muscles to store and use more elastic energy. Knowing how to utilize elastic energy is the key to great RE. Strength training obviously makes your muscles stronger and more apt to become more efficient with energy expenditure.

Muscles that are not strong take more effort to keep in check, resulting in a lot of energy being squandered to make them do what we want. It is not beneficial to jog down an incline before an important race or physical activity to improve RE. It has been established that running downhill results in a reduction of RE for a period of up to 120 hours afterwards.

This is due to your body applying braking forces (eccentric forces) as you are running downhill to help you not run out of control on your way to the bottom.  This is a good thing however unfortunately it requires a lot for our bodies to do this.

The good news is that another bonus of strength training is it helps us to maximize the conservation of energy when we apply braking forces when running downhill and therefore we, again, improve our running economy.

Perform plyometric exercises or running drills

Running drills increase neuro-muscular adaptations in the muscle, improve muscle stiffness (ability to store and release elastic energy) and alter your muscle fibre composition from anaerobic to more aerobic muscle fibres which are necessary for endurance running.

This means that your body is more capable of running long distances because it has replaced faster twitch-power muscles with slower more aerobic muscle fibres that can use oxygen more efficiently. 

Run at a higher altitude

Altitude training trains the body to use oxygen more efficiently and increases the metabolic functions in the muscles. The less oxygen that your body requires to run, the greater your RE will be.

As there is naturally less oxygen at higher altitudes this forces your body to need less oxygen to run long distances. This translates to you becoming a stronger runner.

Train in warmer climates

Training in the heat allows your body’s thermoregulation mechanism to improve which helps to reduce the work of your cardiovascular and muscular system and decreases your body’s need for oxygen.

Wear minimalist running shoes

Running in minimalist shoes versus more traditional, standard, shoes improves RE due to the natural way they allow your foot to move.

Simply put, traditional running shoes bind your feet up and do not allow them to move in their natural way, minimalist shoes don’t do this allowing you to increase your running efficiency. 

Keep putting time in on the roads

Training and putting in the miles allows your body to adapt to an efficient pattern as it becomes more familiar with the movements that you are requiring it to do.

Run long distances

Those who are long-distance runners have a higher RE than those who run middle or short distances. Their bodies are more adapted to the challenges and demands of endurance running and they have learned how to save energy over the long miles they have put behind them.

5 Exercises To Improve Your Running Economy

There are many ways to improve your Running Economy. Research into the 3 aspects of success for runners indicated that brief-intensity exercises have a minimal impact on one’s endurance compared to longer, more difficult training.

To improve your RE status for races like marathons, the most effective way is to increase the number of miles you run. Any practice you do must be pertinent to your aim, therefore for someone who is going to run a 5K, you should concentrate on sessions that are quick and intense.

1. Long Interval Training (LIT)

LIT is a form of training where you work out at an intense level, with brief pauses between each set. This type of exercise is very strenuous and over time two-minute you will see an increase in both your anaerobic endurance and your lactic acid threshold.

Incorporating LIT into your weekly training plan is an excellent 50-minute activity.

Try the following:

Four minutes of strenuous running, then followed by a two-minute rest period.

Repeat this 5 times.

Begin and conclude this activity with 10 minutes of warming up and cooling down.

2. Increase Your Weekly Mileage

Gradually upping your mileage can lead to advances in your form, as well as heart and lung fitness and muscle growth.

This evolution takes place gradually throughout your running journey and will continue to grow as long as you keep challenging yourself. This is a long journey, so keep in mind that you are improving all the time.

3. Training At Race Pace

We frequently neglect to practice running at the speed of a competitive event. Often overlooked, running at a greater velocity during competition and being inspired to keep going is typically the norm.

If you have only run at a training pace, you haven’t adequately prepared for the race, and your performance will suffer as a consequence. Doing workouts at the same speed as a race entails multiple shorter intervals than the race distance.

As an example, we are going to use a 10k:

Before beginning, do a warm-up. Then, run eight 1km repeats at race speed with a 200m jog rest in between every repetition. This will help your body become accustomed to the speed you will be racing at. For shorter distance running workouts, reduce the number of sets or cut down the distance to 600 or 800m.

4. Hill Repeats

Running up hills can build the muscles in your lower body, resulting in more power in your strides and causing you to become a quicker, more powerful runner.

Resistance training with hill sprints is one of the most effective activities available. If you want to improve your speed and strength, locate a hill that is not as tall and repeat going up it numerous times. If you are out to increase your aerobic fitness and muscle stamina, you should try to locate a hill that is taller for training.

5. Strength Training

High-intensity strength training can increase your speed, along with your power and oxygen efficiency. It is essential to remember that the workouts should be pertinent to whatever you are preparing for.

For 5k and 10k runners, strength training should emphasize generating explosive power, like CrossFit-style exercises, while marathoners should concentrate on muscular endurance.

By incorporating this kind of training regularly into your regimen, you are upping your ability to utilize oxygen and energy, allowing you to keep going with greater effort for a longer period.

Training with weights can boost your strength and power, resulting in a faster pace and an improved running form. For people who race over long distances, having strong thighs and hamstrings can reduce leg discomfort during the later stages of the race.

3 Pillars Of Success

Running Economy is part of the 3 pillars of success, each affects how well you can perform. Elite athletes will have 3 strong pillars which allow them to work far more efficiently and push much harder and faster than the average runner. 

The 3 pillars are VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold, and Running Economy. VO2 Max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take to your muscles during peak exercise.

Your Lactate Threshold is the level at which the intensity of exercise causes Lactic Acid to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed. These are the burning, tiring muscles you feel running up a steep hill.

The exercises involved in training your RE often train each of these 3 pillars at the same time, and together they improve your performance. This is why a proper training plan will push you on to greatness much faster than ad-hoc training. 


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