The energy cost of running (Running Economy or RE) is defined as the amount of energy required to sustain a given effort. In the laboratory it can be estimated by measuring oxygen consumption. This is a factor to be taken into account because, especially in long-distance races, it determines the final performance in an important way. This is because, for the same weight and gait, those with a better running economy consume less energy and thus can maintain that pace for longer. That is why you should spend more time both improving your technique and following some tips that help improve the energy cost of your running.
I understand that it is not easy for you, much less cheap, to go to a lab and have your oxygen consumption measured at different gaits to see how it changes as your speed changes or as your mileage increases. You must, however, take advantage of the conclusions reached by researchers who measured improvement in RE following specific work protocols.
To succeed at high levels having a high VO2 MAX is necessary but at the same time not sufficient. There are other aspects that contribute to the final result. It is important to determine what percentage of VO2 MAX you can use over a medium to long distance. This is true at every level of performance.
Improve your RE…
You need to stimulate and train the ability to use fats as fuel at increasingly higher work rates to “save” carbohydrates that are valuable and limited.
You need to acquire good running economy. Efficient RE allows you to consume less energy for the same amount of effort and thus improve your results. This can also happen during periods when for a variety of reasons you are unable to improve your performance despite hours of training. Between two runners with similar VO2 MAX, the one with the best running economy wins. To beat your opponent in a race, sometimes it is better to focus on running technique and muscle strengthening rather than doing one more repetition in each workout.
The first system for improving your running economy is to run. Continuity of training and increased volume produce both muscular and physiological adaptations. If you are at the beginning of a training journey, you have great room for improvement ahead of you, both from the standpoint of the conditional aspects such as strength, speed and endurance and the coordinative aspects related to technical learning. If, on the other hand, you have been training for many years and have reached a stalemate in your performance, then perhaps it is time to take a different path than increasing volume or intensity.
As with any amateur, finding time to devote to training is not easy in the daily routine.
The volume therefore cannot grow indefinitely. Focusing on the other side on intensity is not the right way. You know from personal or indirect experience that always pushing in every workout leads you progressively to both physical and mental overload. Physically you become more prone to inflammation and injury; mentally you risk burnout because you may turn a passion into a second job by living with anxiety and stress every workout. Challenging workouts that induce major adaptations must be part of a training program. But they cannot and should not become a constant.
Studies on efficiency improvement have been carried out mainly on high-level athletes; in the case of elite athletes, it is difficult to find improvement with specific running training because they are often, both in terms of volume and intensity and technical ability, close to their limit.
How do I improve myself?
There are basically three areas of work identified to improve RE:
- Training with exposure to heat;
- high altitude training;
- muscle strengthening.
Training and acclimatizing to high temperature conditions gradually creates adaptations that are useful in increasing the body’s efficiency during running. The advantage appears to be related to increased plasma volume. This makes blood flow less viscous and leads to reduced cardiac work and, therefore, lower heart rate.
High altitude training is used by professional athletes at times of the season close to major competitions. There are dozens of studies on this topic: the result is that the best solution would be to live and sleep at the highest possible altitude and then descend to lower levels for training. The intended purpose of staying at high altitude is to improve the transport and utilization of oxygen by our bodies.
The most accessible system for you is definitely the third one: muscle strengthening. You can incorporate it more easily into your training routine than the high altitude and heat that are not within everyone’s reach. You can also maintain it by varying the content at all stages of the year. One of the sure facts is that running economy tends to get worse as the miles go by. This has been found in both middle-distance runs, such as the 5K, and the marathon. Muscle strengthening not only increases your strength but also the control of all the muscle fibers involved and consequently the mechanics of running.
Depending on your abilities and how much/what sports equipment you can access, you can choose between pure strengthening to be done in the gym combined with more specific workouts such as plyometrics, which involves a series of very fast and explosive movements (such as certain types of jumps) used to increase muscle power. The benefit of empowerment is twofold. Improving the efficiency and flexibility of muscles and tendons will protect you from many injuries. But especially in terms of running economy, you improve the control and utilization of the muscle fibers involved in the specific movement. Increasing the quality of your muscle fibers allows you to use only those that you need in the movement, saving all the others that contribute to increased energy expenditure but do not serve to improve your running pace.
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