What is Running Economy, and How Do You Improve it?

There are lots of ways to improve your running, and most of them we know. However, there is one mysterious phrase that comes up often that not many of us are too familiar with. It’s called “running economy”.

So what exactly is running economy, and how do we influence it in a positive way?

Scientifically, running economy is defined as, “the energy demand for a given velocity of submaximal running,” and is “determined by measuring the steady-state consumption of oxygen (VO2) and the respiratory exchange ratio.”

In simple terms, running economy is how much energy you expend to run at any given pace. Obviously, those who expend less energy can run further faster. Let’s explore that.

Exercise physiologists have shown that the amazing energy return system built into our feet and lower legs can be enhanced by fine-tuning your foot function.

One reason running economy is so mysterious is that it is a combination of many different aspects of the sport. Studies have shown that elite runners have a number of physiological and biomechanical factors working in their favor, including metabolic adaptations like increased mitochondria and oxidative enzymes, increased ability of the muscles to store and release elastic energy, and more efficient mechanics. All of these factors lead to less energy spent on moving forward.

The big question then, is: How do you improve running economy? While consistent yet varied training will naturally lead to greater running economy, there are things you can do aside from that.

Strength Training
Believe it or not, strength training is one of them. Strength training has been proven to allow the muscles to utilize more elastic energy and therefore reduce the amount of energy you waste in braking forces.

Fat Burning
Renowned endurance coach and author Dr. Phil Maffetone is a big believer in the effectiveness of teaching your body to burn fat.

“Slower training improves fat burning and develops the function of the slow twitch, red, aerobic muscle fibers. These muscles are directly related to better economy. This is the essence of building a great aerobic base, which usually starts with slower movements that gradually quicken,” writes Maffetone.

“Fat is the fuel for the aerobic muscle fibers, and a key for endurance racing,” he adds. “The more you make available, the faster your aerobic system will allow you to go, and the more you will slim down if body fat is too high. Even in a very lean athlete, fat stores can provide sufficient energy to many hours of training or racing—if the aerobic system is working well.”

Foot Biomechanics
Another area that can be developed to improve running economy is your feet. Exercise physiologists have shown that the amazing energy return system built into our feet and lower legs can be enhanced by fine-tuning your foot function. Start by spending more time barefoot, and progress to running some barefoot laps on your local high school track. Doing so will help build more efficient foot and lower-leg biomechanics.

Even though running economy is a combination of a great many factors, these simple steps will help.

Upcoming races: Saturday, June 16, Dos Rios 5K Splash and Dash at 8:00 a.m. at Cypress Bend Park, Peave Ave. in New Braunfels. Saturday, June 16, Lake Pflugerville Triathlon at 7:00 a.m. at Lake Pflugerville. Saturday, June 23, Brady’s Bridge Super Family Fund Run 5K at 8:00 a.m. at Old Settlers Park Lakeview Pavilion, 3300 E Palm Valley Blvd., Round Rock.

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