February 23, 2016AllPro Sports Performance

Running Economy – Beaten, Broken and Maybe Understood

running

What’s running economy?

Many fitness professionals, running coaches and even elite runners don’t know or understand what running economy really is. This blog post is directed at explaining the idea of running economy and a couple strategies for you to improve it.

First, running economy is going to get really boring, hard to read over and over again. Refer to it now as ‘RE’. Got it? Ok thanks.

So, let’s create an analogy to help explain RE. My favorite one is using cars. You’re probably guessing that mpg is synonymous to RE but that’s not quite accurate. Let me elaborate:

2 cars both get 42 mpg. One is the Honda Civic; it weighs about 2850 lbs. The other is the Chevrolet Cruze, it weighs about 3240 lbs. The Civic gets 14.7 miles per gallon, per 1000 lbs weight. The Cruze gets 13.0. Therefore, even though both cars get 42 mpg, the Civic is more efficient. It would have the better RE if they were humans.

Is your head spinning? I hope not.

For running, the variables are different but the principle is the same. A lot of you are very familiar with the concept of VO2. If you’re not, it’s a term that describes how much oxygen your body is utilizing for energy (how much its consuming). VO2max is what we use to describe your maximal oxygen consumption; it can put a number to your aerobic fitness.

Detour time. VO2max is typically expressed as oxygen consumed per kg body weight during exercise. Does that sound familiar to our car example? I will leave out the units and give you some specific examples. Average VO2max is between 40-45. I think the highest I ever got mine was 61. Highest I ever tested was 65. Lance Armstrong was reported at 84. The world record is 97 by a Nordic cyclist by the name of Oskar Svendsen (setting the record at the ripe age of 18).

Back to RE. You missed it, I know. So, if I have you run at 8 mph and your oxygen consumption is (again, arbitrary number) 40 and your friend’s is 45 at 8 mph, you are the more economical runner. You can most likely run longer and faster than your friend. Sorry friend.

There are a TON of variables that affect RE and sadly, most of it is hereditary. Don’t lose hope! There are things that you can do to increase your RE. I’ll cover each of them briefly for the rest of the blog.

First, train! Who would have thought! Endurance training gives you more cellular machinery to process oxygen (mitochondria) and therefore your efficiency also increases. Time, volume, experience all play a role. Research suggests that this aspect of improving RE can plateau, which makes sense.

Second, mix up your training. Using high intensity interval training is a great way to increase your RE by anywhere in between 1 to 7%. Here’s the fine lining though: your high intensity running can’t jeopardize the technique of running! A full on sprint is great but it’s not natural or repeatable. Run at the fastest speed you can hold for about 60-90 seconds. Take rest. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Thrid, find the right shoe. You don’t want to select a shoe that manipulates your running mechanics. You’re most efficient in a pattern that is natural to you. If you’re having a ton of difficulty even when you run naturally, that’s where our physical therapy staff can identify underlying problems and fix you up. There’s no scientific data between a minimalist shoe (Inov8) and a standard shoe but don’t ever wear a rocker shoe (Sketcher Shape Up). Just don’t do it.

I have incredibly flat feet. I wear the Brooks Adrenaline when I run because it has the hard, plastic arch support making it inevitably heavier. Could I be more efficient in a lighter shoe? Probably. But I’ll have to settle.

Fourth, strength train. Resistance training increases RE. Doesn’t matter if you’re a novice, recreational or elite runner. Specifically, training for power increased RE by 5% versus just 1.6% for a strength/endurance blend. Globally, improved strength of the muscles delays fatigue and improves your RE during the end stages of a long run.

Plyometrics should be incorporated into that strength training regimen as well. Typically you see improvements after 6-8 weeks of strength training but the benefits of plyometrics come at about 9-10 weeks after training.

Shameless plug: We at ProRehab’s Sports Performance Program offer strength and conditioning classes for triathletes, runners and cyclists (email me: [email protected], I’d love to talk). We incorporate heavy resistance, explosive power and plyometric movement patterns in our sessions.

Fifth, (man this guy just keeps going, 5 things?!) stretch regularly. This is an interesting point. You need the right amount of muscle stiffness to improve RE, so you can’t be too loose. Too tight and you are at an increased injury risk. Stretching the 3 areas of the leg/hip musculature 3-4 times per week for {3 x :20 hold} can counteract any excessive tightening from strength training and keep you in the “golden zone”.

Sixth, (seriously dude, bring it to an end soon) altitude training can benefit RE. The idea of “live high, train low” is the best way to do this. Everybody I train or know lives in Louisville or Indiana so a discussion about altitude is moot. However, for any Denver readers I have (Bueller? Bueller?) might find this interesting.

In summary, most of these aspects can increase your RE up to about 7%. Logically, a combination of all of these would give you the best shot but research tells us that RE is trainable up to about a 15% increase.

Thanks for sticking with me,

-Alex

Have questions or comments? I’d love to hear from you! Email me at [email protected].

Resources

  1. Barnes KR, Kilding AE. Strategies to improve running economy. Sports Med. 2015;45(1):37-56.
  2. Carter J, Greenwood M. Does Flexibility Exercise Affect Running Economy? A Brief Review. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2015;37(3):12-21.
  3. Sims, Patrick 1988-, ” The effect of a controlled frequency breath holding training program on running economy among elite college swimmers.” (2014). Electronic theses and Dissertations. Paper 1764.
  4. Sobhani S, Bredeweg S, Dekker R, et al. Rocker shoe, minimalist shoe, and standard running shoe: a comparison of running economy. J Sci Med Sport. 2014;17(3):312-316.