A Booming Running Economy

With a growing body of literature investigating running economy, runners are starting to better understand the role it plays in performance.

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Go faster, longer by improving your run efficiency.

The economy is a hot topic these days, especially among runners. With a growing body of literature investigating running economy, runners and researchers are beginning to better understand the important role it plays in performance.

While the physiology at work is complicated, running economy is all about how efficiently your body utilizes oxygen at a certain speed. “Simply stated, an athlete requiring less oxygen to maintain a given speed or pace is operating at a lower heart rate and that lower heart rate means less sweating, lower body temperature, and a lower likelihood to experience premature muscle fatigue,” explains Mike Hamberger, a USA Track & Field coach and three-time Ironman based in Washington, D.C. “Another way to think about it is that improved running economy means an athlete can go faster for longer at the same perceived exertion as his or her previous self.”

A review published this year in the Journal of Sports Medicine looked at a group of studies on the subject, helping to narrow down some of the main factors that most notably influence running economy. Chief among them were training mileage, hill workouts, interval training and plyometrics. By focusing on these four things over a full training cycle, you’ll find yourself running faster with less effort.

1. Increase your volume. Building mileage starts on the first day of training. While the actual volume of training will mean different things to different runners, most coaches stick to increasing mileage about 10 percent from one week to the next. This is particularly important during the base phase of training when you should be focusing more on volume than intensity. Over time, running greater mileage will help increase the density of the capillaries in muscle fibers and increase the size of mitochondria, known as the powerhouses of the cell. “The significance of these adaptations is that eventually the muscles can work harder and more efficiently for longer durations,” says Hamberger. “With a higher capillary density in the muscles, more blood can be delivered to the working muscles and simultaneously, the substrates that cause muscular fatigue can be removed more efficiently.”

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2. Go uphill. “Hill repeats are a great choice for boosting running economy because this type of workout drives the heart rate to near maximum,” explains Hamberger. To do repeats, he suggests finding a hill that is 150–400 meters long and at a 3–9 percent grade. The idea is to go hard up the hill and jog slowly on the way down. This means that you won’t completely recover between repetitions. Not only does this have a positive influence on cardiovascular fitness and strength, it can also be a great workout for building mental toughness.

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3. Do short, fast intervals. Regardless of how intervals are structured, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) requires you to push yourself to run about 95 percent of your max heart rate for short intervals oftentimes executed on a track. “Because the aerobic system is taxed to its fullest with intervals, these workouts are the best boost to overall fitness regardless of the race for which an athlete is training,” Hamberger says. He reminds runners, however, that this type of workout should be done after building a good aerobic base in order to avoid injuries.

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4. Jump! Plyometrics, which can include everything from high knees to bounding, help to improve muscular power, as well as the vitality of joints, tendons and ligaments. “A plyometric exercise is a quick, powerful movement using the spring-like action of the tendons, and [building that] power has been associated with improvements in running economy,” explains Hamberger. Put simply, plyometrics can help you harness explosive power to give you more bang for your buck stride for stride.

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