Elite runners have remarkable running economy: they are able to use a minimal amount of oxygen for maximum speed. Like a car that uses the least amount of fuel for the greatest distance, runners with the greatest economy have the best performance.
How can you improve your running economy? Research shows that intelligent training eliminates wasteful movement and muscle contractions that consume oxygen without moving the runner forward. Here are some of the latest and most innovative training tips to help you maximize the body’s use of oxygen fuel.
Endurance Training Teaches Running Economy
The most effective training for enhancing running economy is simply practice, practice, practice. The more you run, the more your body learns to move with economy. Evidence shows that novice runners need to put in the hours needed to activate this learning. The best training tip for them is running long distances (6-10miles) at a slow to moderate pace.
Why? Simply being in the field teaches you the basics. Endurance training teaches your brain and muscles how to be most efficient. Your body learns to reduce the vertical bounce typical of a beginner’s stride. Vertical oscillation, the tendency to move up and down during a stride, wastes energy without promoting speed. This can be managed with practice – 2 or 3 long distance runs spaced throughout each week.
Speedwork Primes the Experienced Runner
For more experienced runners, regular speedwork, in addition to long runs, will make a definite impact on running form and efficiency. The more economical your body is at faster speeds, the better its fuel conservation at slower speeds. Regular speedwork not only takes away the monotony of practice runs, they make you a more economical runner overall.
The key here is balance because excessive speedwork increases your susceptibility to injury; it also can end up making you less economical at slower speeds. The best form of speed work includes runs that utilize a variety of paces and one or two weekly speed sessions, enough to fine tune the body’s neuromuscular system for greater speed.
Strength Training like Plyometrics Improves Muscle Power
Fast runners are almost always lean, tending towards the ectomporphic profile. In fact, runners with the ectomorphic profile maintain the best running economy. According to Ross Tucker,Jonathan Dugas and Matt Fitzgerald in The Runner’s Body: How The Latest Exercise Science Can Help You Run Stronger, Longer and Faster (Rodale Press, 2009), body mass in the calves decelerates the limbs, requiring increased oxygen use.
However, a special type of strength training, known as plyometrics, can enhance running economy. This is a special type of exercise that involves jumping drills designed to improve fast, powerful movements without building calf mass.
Plyometrics improves the energy return from muscle and tendon. This is how it works. When your foot lands on the ground, your muscles are stretched, capturing energy from the force of the impact. When you push off, these muscles contract; the power in pushing off is stronger if the push immediately follows the stretch.
Why? The captured energy dissipates quickly if the pause between the stretching and the pushing is too long. Plyometric exercises strengthen the muscle-tendon unit so that energy return is more efficient in the unit. They also reduce contact time with the ground, helping runners develop an internalized “spring” in their strides, thus reducing fuel expenditure in running.
For most runners, weekly hill running coupled with a few plyometric drills will suffice. The key here is again balance as an overzealous pursuit of these exercises can backfire in the long run.
Flexibility is Not Necessarily Good for Running Economy
For years, runners have been told to stretch and warm up so that muscles are flexible and loose. New research suggests that “being less flexible is better for running economy'”. Tighter runners are more economical than looser runners.
Why? Stiffness and the ability of the muscle to capture and release energy reduces oxygen cost. The less flexible the trunk muscles, the more stable the pelvis and the more compact the running form. Less flexibility means that you don’t have to expend extra energy to keep the body stable.
This does not mean that stretching is not important. Do only enough stretching to stay balanced. Avoid unnecessary, “random, indiscriminate stretching”.
These training tips on endurance, speedwork, plyometrics and flexibility are the meat and potatoes of runners who want to see improvement in their running economy and performance.