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Article - 15 April 2011

Running Economy. Why improving it will take your running to the next level.

Improve Your Running Economy

The Latest Research Suggests That We Could All Improve Our Running Economy. Here Is How.

 Of all the factors that determine our ability to run fast over long distances, running economy is probably the least understood by exercise physiologists. Indeed, ask any recreational triathlete what is the most important quality needed to be a fast runner, and the chances are that ‘VO2 max’ will get the first mention. Running economy probably would not even make it into the top five. Yet, when running at submaximal speeds over distances in excess of about 3 km, it is at least as reliable an indicator of performance as maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max). Scientists have only recently started to delve deeper into the area and so are only now beginning to better understand its importance to runners of all abilities. According to the latest research on the subject from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, there are at least two very significant aspects of the running action that we need to be aware of and work at improving if we are to optimise our own economy – vertical movement and horizontal braking force. In this article I will take a look at exactly what running economy is, why you need to know about it and how to improve it. If you thought that being a fast runner was down to how well endowed you are with aerobic capacity, think again. The evidence suggests that increased and sustainable running speed is there for the taking irrespective of your current level of aerobic conditioning.    

 Over Emphasis On VO2 max

 Maximal aerobic capacity (VO2 max) has been the rockstar of endurance performance measurement for many years. This is probably because it is a relatively easy thing to quantify in a lab and results in a single value which is proven to be closely correlated to endurance performance. Certainly the best runners in the world have high VO2 max values. But if VO2 max was all that mattered, then races would be held in laboratories where the highest number would win. Thankfully, it is not and this is where running economy becomes so relevant. If VO2 max is a measure of our maximal ability to take in, transport and use oxygen, then economy is a measure of how much oxygen we use to run at a given speed. Any distance over about 3km forces us to run at less than maximal aerobic capacity and this means that running economy becomes increasingly relevant to performance. For triathletes, where a swim and a bike ride have already drained reserves, it maybe that economy during the run leg is the most critical factor.

 Speed For Free

 Some years ago, just before a Hyde Park 10k race got underway, I found myself standing by a private enclosure where the elite athletes were able to warm up. Unfortunately the barrier surrounding the enclosure meant that I could only see the heads and lower legs of the athletes. One runner in particular stood out because of the way in which her feet barely seemed to make contact with the ground, running on egg shells was how I would describe it. Furthermore, in relation to the top of the barrier her head was rock steady - no discernible vertical movement whatsoever. That runner, a certain Paula Radcliffe, was only demonstrating what the latest research into the factors affecting running economy by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology have just concluded - that up and down vertical movement together with high horizontal braking forces caused by heel striking are both negatively correlated to running economy. This study was carried out on highly trained elite runners over only 3km. It is likely that such athletes already had pretty good movement patterns and any such observations in less well conditioned non-specialist runners such as age group triathletes would be even more relevant, especially over longer distances. Here are four ways to get economical in your running:

 CADENCE – Lengthening your stride when running is not the way to get faster. A longer stride is more likely to encourage heel striking which in turn generates horizontal braking forces. This, as we now know from the Norwegian study, is not the way to improve running economy. A mid to forefoot strike directly under your centre of mass will eliminate the deceleration caused by heel striking.

Drill: Shorten your stride until you are closer to 180 foot strikes per minute. It will feel like baby steps at first but persevere and every time you go for a run, count foot strikes over 30 seconds to keep a check on it. You can also try barefoot running occasionally - this helps to encourages fast, light feet.

 CONTACT– Minimal ground contact time is the hallmark of a really economical runner. Watch the Kenyan runners, the most efficient runners on the planet, as they glide effortlessly over the terrain. In their case, ‘absolutely flying’ is not that far from the truth! It is thought that their superior economy comes from having very stiff muscle-tendon units or ‘springs’ which allows them to spend very little time in contact with the ground with each step.  

Drill: Every time you go for a run simply imagine you are running on red hot coals over varying distances with bare feet. Start with just 50 metres or so and progress to 4-6 bouts of 50 metres. Be aware of what your legs feel like. That is the feeling you are after as you run. 

 CORE– All self respecting triathletes should be familiar with core exercises such as the plank, bridge and their variations. If improved running economy is to be a goal, then a strong core is essential in reducing wasteful movement as you run. The best distance runners appear ‘still’ when they run with compact movements coming from strong trunk and pelvic muscles. Core is key. Neglect it at your peril.  

Drill: Planks – all the variations held for at least 30 seconds at a time and progressing from there. If you do not know what a plank is, the clue is in the name.

 STRENGTH– Strength comes in many shapes and sizes, but here I am specifically referring to strength derived from plyometric training. Numerous research studies have shown that plyometric movements – hopping, bounding, jumping and certain types of speed work such as short hill sprints – are very effective at increasing muscle-tendon stiffness in the legs which improves energy transfer through a mechanism known as the Stretch Shortening Cycle. Try it yourself – hop on the spot but allow your legs to be quite soft. Notice how slow you hop and how much time your feet spend in contact with the ground. Now try it while really tensing your legs. The difference is immediate and exactly what you are striving for as you run.

Drill: If there is one piece of plyometric training equipment which should be in every runner’s kit bag it is an old fashioned skipping rope. Start with 5x1 minute bouts of skipping with feet together progressing to alternating feet. With any type of plyometric movements take it easy at first as it is not without risk of injury due to its high tendon loading. One session a week is plenty.   

 There is no doubt that the world’s best endurance athletes are born and then trained. But for the rest of us all is not lost. The fact is that our own performance limits are very likely determined more by our economy of movement than our ability to aerobically metabolise energy. It maybe the case that approaches to training shift to increasingly focus on how we move, rather than on the engine that makes us move. Perhaps our VO2 max number is not the be all and end all we had come to believe. Certainly in the world of exercise physiology, understanding exactly what improves movement economy is where it is at. Here we have focussed on running but watch this space. Whether swim, bike, run or even your household budget, the future is economy. More speed for free, if you please.

 Ultimate Economy

 Paula Radcliffe (RUNNER) - Radcliffe’s physiologist, Professor Andy Jones, measured a 15% improvement in her running economy over an eleven year period between 1992 and 2003. Her marathon world record of 2:15:25 achieved in 2003 came when she was running at her most economical. Her aerobic capacity as measured by VO2 max actually declined slightly over the period. This highlights that economy is the key to sustainable speed, but it can also be very individual – Paula’s rolling head motion clearly works for her, even though you would not want to copy it. However, you should endeavour to replicate the way she appears to run on egg shells – light and fast feet are a powerful combination.

 Zersenay Tadese (RUNNER) – This Eritrean athlete holds the world record for the half marathon (58:23). He is also reportedly the most economical runner ever measured. To put this in a numerical context, you and I, as moderately trained individuals would use around 250 ml/kg/km of oxygen when running at a pace of 4 min/km. Tadese was measured using only 150 ml of oxygen when running at 3 min/km! Even elite Kenyan runners use in the region of 190 ml of oxygen for that speed. How so economical? The scientists suggested that it may be due to the small size of Tadese’s lower legs. But take a look at him on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKlOq13SDtM) note his relaxed, compact running style with high running cadence and minimal ground contact time.

 Javier Gómez (TRIATHLETE) – The current ITU World Champion from Galicia in Spain is arguably the best runner in elite Olympic distance triathlon, frequently posting sub-30 minute 10k times off the bike. It is his ability to quickly find his rhythm and to settle into his stride that is so impressive. We all know how it feels in the first kilometre of running off the bike – very uncomfortable. Often age groupers will run with a considerable forward leaning posture at this point. Watch Gomez and you will notice that not only does he remain upright in posture from the start of the run but his upper body remains incredibly ‘still’ yet relaxed - a great example of a functional core strength allowing him to be as economical as possible.

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