how to improve running economy

Think about Running Economy (RE) as the miles-per-gallon you get out of your body: it measures how efficiently you run for the oxygen you consume.


Running economy combines many different factors inside your body, including metabolic rate and cardiorespiratory, biomechanical, and neuromuscular characteristics.


The 4 Main Factors That Affect Running Economy

  • Metabolic Rate refers to how much energy your body uses in a certain time frame, such as 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 lighter person.


  • Cardiorespiratory combines the Greek word kardía meaning heart and the word "respiratory" which refers to breathing. You can think of cardiorespiratory fitness as the strength of your heart and lungs and thus their ability to efficiently get O2 to your working muscles.


  • Biomechanics include the makeup of your body (how you are built, the length of your legs, how tall you are, etc.) and how all the parts of your body work together. Each of these factors will affect how efficiently you can run.


  • Neuromuscular is a word derived from Greek and Latin, and it translates as Nerves and Muscles. Their ability to work together varies from person to person and affects RE. 


Each person is built differently, so we will all be suited to different disciplines. For example, long-distance runners can keep moving for hours but are generally slower than 800m runners.


The Effect of Good Running Economy

Some people will naturally have a very good RE, while others will have to work hard to make small improvements in their RE: genetics plays a big role, after all. Runners with a poor Running Economy will use more oxygen while they run, so they will be unable to run as fast or maintain their pace for as long as a runner with a good RE.


For those of you looking up at the running greats and thinking “How do they do that?!“, THEY HAVE GREAT RE, which has been developed over time. They have a much lower energy output than average runners covering the same kilometer.


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!


5 Exercises To Improve Your Running Economy

Running Economy is part of the 3 pillars of running success, along with VO2max and Lactate Threshold. Each of these affects how well you can perform. Elite athletes will have 3 strong pillars, which allows them to work far more efficiently and push much harder and faster than the average runner.


There are many ways to improve your Running Economy. A recent study into these three factors showed that short interval exercises have a much smaller effect on your RE than longer, more intensive training.


For longer distance runners such as those training for marathon distance, increasing your overall mileage is the most effective way of improving your RE. All of your training should be relevant to your goal race, so a 5k runner should focus on shorter, faster training.


1. Long Interval Training (LIT)

LIT is a type of training in which you exercise at a high workload and have a short rest in between each set. This is high-intensity training and in addition to improving your RE, it will also improveyour Lactate Threshold over time.

A great 50-minute activity to incorporate into your training plan once a week is LIT. Try the following:

  • 4 minutes of hard running followed by 2 minutes of rest.
  • Repeat this 5 times.
  • Start and finish this exercise with 10 minutes of warming up and cooling down.


2. Increase Your Weekly Mileage

Increasing your mileage leads to a gradual improvement of your form, as well as your cardiorespiratory function and muscle development. This change happens very slowly over the course of your running career and is constantly developing as long as you keep pushing yourself.

You will be playing the long game on this one, so remember you are always getting better!


3. Train At Race Pace

Many of us often forget to train at race pace. We sometimes forget that we will likely be running at a faster pace during the race and will be more motivated to keep pushing.

If all your training is at a slower pace, then when you go to the race, your result will reflect this. Training at goal race pace can include multiple sets of shorter distances than what you are racing for.

How would this work if you're training for a 10K? 

  • Including a warm-up beforehand
  • Go into 8x 1km repeats at race pace with a 200m jogging rest period between each set. This will get your body used to working at the pace you will be running in the race.

For shorter distance training run fewer sets or reduce the distance to 600 or 800m.


4. Hill Repeats

Hill sprints strengthen the muscles in your legs, giving you more power and an explosive stride. This will make you a faster and stronger runner. Hill sprints are one of the best forms of resistance training you can do.

  • For building speed and strength, find a shorter hill and do many repeats.
  • For building your aerobic capacity and muscular endurance, find a longer hill to train on.


5. Strength Training

Explosive heavy-resistance training can improve your speed as well as your energy and oxygen use. An important note here is to say that the exercises should be relevant to what you are training for.

Strength training for 5k and 10k runners should be about explosive power (think CrossFit style workouts), whereas marathon runners should focus on muscle endurance. With this type of training consistently incorporated into your training, you are improving your energy and oxygen use, allowing you to push harder for longer.

Strength training also improves your strength and power, leading to a more powerful stride. For marathon and ultra runners, strengthening quads and hamstrings will help to ease leg pain in those later miles.

Some examples of good strength moves for runners are:

  • Box Jumps
  • Squat Jumps
  • Alternating Leg Bounds
  • Barbell Squats


The Common Mistake That Inhibits Running Economy

Most people fail at one important hurdle: Their training is not consistent!

Without consistent and repeated training, you will slow or even reverse your progress. During training season, it is important to keep on top of your schedule and not miss too many sessions. (The odd one is okay! Just try not to make it a habit of it.)

Time off each year can be beneficial for you, however, as it helps your body recover at the end of your race season, but while you are in your training block keep at it and stay motivated!

Don't forget to take some well-deserved rest after training hard for that race. While you're recovering, come visit us at ZOOMA Run Club and tell us how your race went!




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