If you ask any runner, their goal is often to run faster or run longer. We think of running in terms of endurance and speed. There is, however, one other valuable physiological component: running economy. Very few set the explicit goal of running more efficiently. However, running economy is essential if you want to run faster or further – or both. This post will explore what running economy is, how to develop it, and why improving it will make you a faster runner.
Not only will you run faster, but generally speaking, your runs will feel better. Improving your running economy makes runs feel smoother and more comfortable – and therefore more enjoyable.
What is Running Economy?
Running economy is one of the most important physiological components for runners, especially long-distance runners (5K and beyond). It matters more than VO2max and is one of the best predictors of marathon performance. But what exactly is running economy, and how do you improve it?
Running economy is how efficient you are at using oxygen at any given velocity. Simply put, more efficient you are, the faster you can run.
Running economy is complex: it depends on neuromuscular, cardiorespiratory, metabolic, and biomechanical systems. You neglect one of those aspects of your fitness and your training cannot reach its full potential.
Why Does Running Economy Matter?
While VO2max only improves until a certain point, you can make large gains through improving your running economy. A commonly cited example is Paula Radcliffe. Her VO2max barely budged throughout her competitive career, but her running economy improved and resulted in her setting a long-standing world record.
Two runners with the same VO2max can have wildly different running economies – by some estimates, up to 30%. Especially in longer distances like the marathon, the runner with the higher running economy will be faster.
If your goals include PRs, finish times, and placing in races, running economy will give you an advantage. Focusing on improving your running economy will allow you to thrive in your training and run more productive workouts.
If your goals are not race-related, you can still benefit from focusing on your running economy. The higher your running economy, the better your runs will feel. If you have always wanted to feel smooth and strong on runs, this is how you achieve that feeling. You will notice that runs will cease to feel like a struggle and feel more enjoyable as you improve your running economy.
How do I Improve Running Economy?
Since running economy depends on various systems, you want to improve each of those systems. The surprising thing is, grueling interval workouts or monster lifting sessions will not improve your economy. It improves off of moderate doses of intentional work. (This post does not cover every aspect of improving economy, but rather primary and practical aspects.)
Biomechanical: Strength training
Strength training is one of the best things a runner can do to develop their economy, regardless of age or years of experience. While any type of strength training will benefit you, lifting weights and plyometrics will render the most benefits for time invested. Why?
Both resistance training and plyometrics improve running economy via both the biomechanical and neuromuscular systems. Strength training, especially through total body movements (squats, deadlifts, etec) improves intermuscular communication; the more smoothly your muscles communicate, the more efficient your stride. Stronger muscles also generate more force, while plyometrics develop a stiffer spring to transmit that force. The more force you generate, the more ground you cover per stride at the same effort level.
Cardiovascular: Higher mileage
Aerobic development improves running economy. The more miles you run per week, the stronger and more your efficient your cardiovascular system becomes.This is why elite runners run such high mileage. The caveat is that your miles must have the purpose of improving your aerobic fitness, meaning that a majority of your miles must be truly easy. Too hard too often is counter-productive.
You also have to respect your personal limits. Higher mileage should encourage your growth and enjoyment as a runner. If you feel mentally burnt out or are often injured, you are better off scaling back your mileage to a sustainable level.
Neuromuscular: Short and fast intervals
There is a difference between running hard and running fast. Hard workouts are certainly valuable and should not be neglected. However, if you spend time, either concurrently or in a separate phase of training, in developing your skill of running fast, you will become a better runner than by hard workouts alone.
This is especially true if you struggle with form or turnover. If you run hard but your form falls apart, you are not reaching your potential. If you can train yourself to maintain a quick cadence without high energy output, your running economy will improve.
Running economy is a skill that should be learned before tackling big hard workouts. It is a skill that should be revisited frequently in training. From a biomechanical perspective, short intervals are valuable because they teach the skill of running fast. One-minute intervals and strides may not be exciting workouts, but they are effective for running fast.
The simplest way to improve your skill of running fast? Short intervals that are fast – but not all-out sprints. The best example of these are strides and surges, which you can do at any phase of training. These short intervals train your brain how to efficiently communicate with your muscles in order to run fast without expending huge amounts of energy.
I frequently prescribe strides and surges to my athletes. When they complete them consistently, their workouts become faster. They are not working hard; they are working more efficiently.
Finally, when it comes to race day itself, certain dietary measures can add small improvements to running economy. Beet juice makes your oxygen consumption more efficient. Caffeine reduces your perception of effort, thus enhancing your efficiency. (This is not completely comprehensive of the metabolic aspect. There are numerous metabolic adaptations that can occur from long runs, fasted training, a sound fueling strategy, etc, that span beyond the scope of this post.)
It is worth noting, however, that theses do not replace the previously mentioned training strategies. They enhance running economy more than they actually improve it. You need to be well-trained to benefit from these supplementation.
How to Improve Running Economy
The theory is interesting, but how do you actually improve your running economy? How do you apply these various concepts into your training?
Throughout the entire year, you can run relatively high mileage with short leg speed intervals. This approach to base building will develop a robust aerobic base and improve your running economy. Your mileage will vary based on training phase; it is unrealistic to maintain peak marathon or half marathon mileage year-round. However, by you can safely increase your base weekly mileage, your running economy will improve. From a practical standpoint, if you peak at 50 miles per week in marathon training, this means trying to maintain ~35 miles per week when not training for a race.
A weekly long run goes far in improving running economy, as well as support higher mileage. Long does not mean several hours on the road. Ninety minutes to two hours long enough to elicit the desired physiological benefits.
Strides and surges can also be implemented year-round – especially during base building. (The exception is during recovery weeks after a marathon or half marathon, when you want to avoid any fast running.) The volume will be low in relation to your weekly mileage – likely only a total of 10 minutes or less of fast running – but the benefits will accumulate.
Add onto all of that one to two weight lifting sessions per week, and you will soon notice that your runs are faster at the same effort level.
Sample Week: Base Building
Tuesday: Easy run
Wednesday: Easy run with surges + strength training
Thursday: Easy run
Friday: Easy run + strides
Saturday: Long run
Sunday: Easy run + strength training
Sample Week: Race Training
During race training segments, the inclusion of strides, surges, and short intervals will maintain leg speed. Leg speed training is especially valuable for marathoners, as running economy determines performance in the marathon just as much as endurance and lactate threshold.
Tuesday: Easy run + strides
Wednesday: Quality workout + strength training
Thursday: Recovery run
Friday: Easy run + strides
Saturday: Long run
Sunday: Easy run + strength training
The beautiful thing about running economy is that it produces significant improvements with minimal risk of overtraining. Beginners and experienced runners alike benefit from improving it. If you are focussed on long-term sustainable growth, you will improve by focusing on running economy.
Do you focus on training your running economy?