Top Ten Ways to Improve Your Running Economy
By Rick Morris
Your running economy is a good measure of how efficiently you run. How much energy you expend to propel yourself forward. Improving your running economy will also improve your endurance, speed, stamina and race performance. There are a number of ways you can improve your running economy. Here are our top ten ways to improve your running economy.
Both running up a long moderate grade and blasting up a short steep grade will do wonders for your running economy. Running uphill requires more explosive use of your hamstrings, calf muscles and glutes. The strength and power gained translates into a longer and quicker, more efficient stride. Running uphill also forces your foot strike to take place directly under your center of gravity – right where it should. If you tend to over stride, hill running will help you correct that common and performance destroying form flaw. Studies agree that hill running is beneficial to you. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden found that twice weekly hill workouts improved running economy by 3 percent.
What goes up must come down. That axiom also hold true with hill running. If you run uphill you eventually must run down. You already know that uphill running is great for your running economy. How about running downhill? Good news – running downhill is also great for your running economy – if you do it properly. When you run downhill there is a tendency to “fight the hill” by reaching out in front of your body to slow down your decent. Not only is that bad form but if you do it during a race you are slowing your pace. When running downhill focus on maintaining a quality stride. Your foot should continue to touch down directly under your center of gravity. Don’t over stride by reaching out in front of your body. Maintain a quick, light and fluid stride with a proper foot strike. Allow the hill to carry you – don’t fight it. Practice maintaining a foot strike directly under your center of gravity on the downhill – that will make it easy on the flats.
Running at paces that are close to your vVO2 max (velocity at VO2 max) have been proven in numerous studies to be a key factor in improving your running economy. Those fast paces improve your neuromuscular conditioning, power and mental toughness. A study by running scientist Veronique Billat suggests that running economy can be improved by 6% with just 4 weeks of vVO2 max workouts. Click here for more information on vVO2 max.
Strength training is something that many runners shy away from. In the past, many coaches have recommended staying away from strength training because they believe that any additional muscle mass will slow you down. Today we know that including moderate levels of strength training – especially running specific strength exercises can greatly improve your running economy and running performance.
Strong muscles make you more injury resistant and improve your running strength. But to reach your peak potential you need muscles that are not only strong, but powerful. A strong muscle will generate a lot of force – as a running you need a lot of power. Power is the ability to generate that force quickly and explosively. Strong powerful muscles will allow you to cover more ground with each stride, without increasing your effort levels. The best way to improve the power of your muscles is by performing explosive, plyometric exercises such as hops, jumps and bounding. A recent study conducted in Finland found that concurrent explosive strength exercises and endurance training improved running economy by about 8 percent.
Running economy is all about running easy. If you run at the same speed with less effort you are a more economical runner. So how to you accomplish that. One way is to let physics do most of the work. Your muscles are a lot like rubber bands. When you pull or lengthen a rubber band it gets longer and stores up some energy. When you release that rubber band, the energy it had built up is suddenly released and it flies across the room. When you run your muscles will take a similar action. When you land with your lead foot under your center of gravity your leg muscles lengthen and begin to store energy. When you push off that energy is released and it propels your forward. A more elastic or “springy” muscle is return more of that stored energy than a less elastic muscle. How to you make your muscles more “springy”? The best way is by combining strength training, explosive plyometric training and high intensity interval training.
Without a doubt, the most common form flaw among all runners is over striding. If you reach out in front of your body and land on your heel you are over striding. Over striding destroys your running economy because it interrupts your forward momentum or “puts on the brakes” with ever step you take. Then you must “muscle” yourself forward into the next stride. When you heel strike your foot and legs also absorb a lot of the build up energy in your muscles and you lose the “springiness” or elasticity that is so important for running economy. Always concentrate on landing either of your forefoot or flat footed directly under your center of gravity.
The next time you are watching a world class running event, watch the stride of the top runners. They all look very smooth and fluid with very little vertical movement or “bouncing”. Staying smooth and fluid will keep all of your momentum moving forward and you will waste little energy on up and down movements. To improve the fluidity of your stride focus on running with “soft” knees. Don’t completely straighten or “lock” you knees at any point in your stride. Also concentrate on pawing back with your lead foot so that it matches your forward speed at touchdown. That will avoid any braking effect.
One big difference in the stride between top level runners and recreational runners is stride rate. Most top level runners have a stride rate that is between 90 and 95 strides per minute at all running speeds. Recreational runners tend to have slower stride rates. The main reason for this is ground contact time. If you spend less time on the ground your stride will become more efficient and you will run faster. To decrease your ground contact time focus on landing with your foot directly under your center of gravity and on quickly picking up your feet. Strength training and explosive plyometric training will also help you decrease your ground contact time.
This is something that is often ignored and always under appreciated. You should always “feel your stride” You should always be aware of what each part of your body is doing and where your body parts are in relation to one another. This is called proprioception. If you don’t know what your feet and legs are doing there’s no way you can tell if your stride is correct. Focus on feeling your foot touchdown and paw back. Feel your forefoot grip the ground and pull you through. Always be aware of where your foot touches down under your center of gravity. Feel your balance with each stride. You can work on your proprioception by including some barefoot running and also by performing exercise on a wobble board.