Understanding and Improving Running Economy

August 29, 2012 9:00 am 4 comments

What is running economy, and why is it important? Ask most people what gives a person the ability to run faster than someone else, and they’ll say they have a greater aerobic capacity or V02 max. V02 max is a measure of a person’s maximal ability to use oxygen during exercise and is an indicator of a person’s aerobic fitness. Once exercise intensity goes above a person’s V02 max, lactic acid starts to accumulate and fatigue sets in, which limits performance. V02 max varies from person to person based on gender, age, genetics and level of conditioning. While it’s true that elite runners typically have a higher V02 max, it’s not the only factor that affects how fast you can run. Running economy also plays a role in whether you’ll cross the finish line ahead of your competitors.

What is Running Economy?
Running economy is a measure of how efficiently your body uses oxygen during sub-maximal exercise. If you’re a more “economical” runner, you use less oxygen at a given running speed than a person who has less running economy, and you waste less energy. This means you can run for longer periods of time without becoming fatigued. It’s like being a fuel-efficient car rather than a gas guzzler. In longer distance races, running economy is a better predictor of performance than V02 max among athletes with roughly similar aerobic capacities, and it’s something that can be improved with training.

How Can You Improve Running Economy?
The more muscles you recruit when you’re running, the more oxygen you use at a given speed and the less economical you’ll be. Therefore, running form has a lot to do with running economy. Some common problems with form that decrease economy include leaning too far forward at the waist, holding your arms or shoulders too tensely or flailing your arms when you run.

Stride length is another factor. Runners who over-stride tend to have lower running economies. On the other hand, many runners naturally choose a stride that’s most economical for them, so changing your stride or form to improve running economy is something you should do only if you have obvious problems. Correcting muscle imbalances, strengthening your core muscles and focusing on relaxing your body when running can all improve running economy.

Research also shows that lower-body strength training and plyometric exercises like squat jumps and lateral bounding to develop power improves running economy by increasing the force that you use to push off the ground when you stride. Strength training helps to correct any muscle imbalances that cause unnecessary energy expenditure. This shows how important cross-training is for runners. Training at higher altitudes also improves economy by forcing the muscles to use oxygen more efficiently.

Other factors that can affect running economy include environmental factors like wind resistance and the weight of your running clothing. In terms of gender, some studies suggest that men have slightly greater running economies than women.

The Bottom Line?
Running economy is one reason it’s important to use good running form and to develop strength and power through cross-training. It’s one more factor that determines how well you perform when you run longer distances and one you can improve through training.

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Written by Matt Lobel

Matt Lobel

Matt Lobel is a published author, entrepreneur and multi-sport athlete who has been an active runner for the past twelve years. He has competed in a variety of races, from 5ks to Marathons to Iron-distance triathlons. His experience with various training methodologies supports his passion for the sport and provides his readers with a wealth of information.

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  • I’ve never had a good grasp of running economy. I always associated it only with good form. Your explanation makes a lot if sense. The gas guzzler vs. economy car analogy is what clarified it for me.

    • Glad to help out George! Without good running economy we’ll never be efficient runners (and thus never achieve our true potential). SOOO important.

      Thanks for dropping by our magazine and hope to see you back soon!

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