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Enhancing Running Economy

Posted by: pshields on Monday, November 26, 2007 - 11:43 AM Print article Printer-friendly page  Email to a friend

Enhancing Running Economy

November 25, 2007

Owen Andersen

Research links five training strategies with economical running

Running science evolves, but our views about running do not.

We still believe that lactic acid is a "waste product" which causes fatigue and soreness, even though it is actually a key muscle fuel. We think that high-mileage training is the most-effective way to boost aerobic capacity, even though high-intensity efforts work better. We swallow the idea that low ferritin levels produce tiredness, even though the ferritin-fatigue connection does not exist. We hold fast to the notion that strength training is "anaerobic" and can't boost VO2max and endurance performance, despite the fact that certain kinds of strength training create major upswings in both aerobic capacity and racing ability.

And we believe that runners gradually become more economical over time by carrying out lots of training. The underlying theory is simply that running tons of miles forces the body to adapt biomechanically in ways which produce the most-economical strides.

Running science has not been kind to this idea, however. In fact, a key study carried out by Russ Pate (at right) and his colleagues at the University of South Carolina with 188 experienced runners found that higher training volume was not linked with better running economy at all (1). This same investigation discovered that running economy was actually negatively correlated with age. In other words, the more years an athlete had been running, the worse was his/her economy.

Exercise science tells us that running more miles does not enhance economy - but that there are five key strategies which do optimize this key physiological variable. First, high-intensity interval training can get the job done. In various inquiries, interval training at intensities ranging from 93 to 106 percent of VO2max has been linked with significantly upgraded running economy (2). In a study conducted by Veronique Billat and her colleagues from the University of Lille in France, just four weeks of training featuring interval sessions at 100 percent of VO2max bolstered running economy by 6 percent (3).

Hill training also has a strong effect on economy. In a study carried out at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, marathon runners who added twice-a-week hill workouts to their training regimes over a 12-week period advanced economy by about 3 percent (4).

Strength training can boost economy in endurance runners. An inquiry conducted at the University of New Hampshire with experienced, female distance runners found that a 10-week strength-training program enhanced economy by about 4 percent at 10-K race pace (5). The strengthening exercises in this investigation included squats, leg presses, bench step-ups, straight-leg and bent-leg heel raises, knee flexions, knee extensions, lunges, and a variety of core and upper-body routines.

Explosive training (combining reps of very fast running with high-speed, running-specific strengthening movements, including hops, jumps, bounds, and downhill sprints) is also great for enhancing economy. Research carried out by Leena Paavolainen, Heikki Rusko (at right), and their colleagues at the Finnish Research Institute for Olympic Sports has linked nine weeks of explosive training with an 8-percent gain in economy (the largest ever observed in published research) at 5-K-type running pace (6).

In this Finnish study, the explosively trained runners ran about 45 miles per week over the nine-week period and improved both running economy and 5-K performance. A second group of runners covered about 70 miles weekly, neglected explosive training, and was unable to advance either economy or 5-K time.

A separate investigation carried out by Rob Spurrs and his co-workers at the Human Movement Department at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia, discovered that just six weeks of explosive drills (with 15 total explosive workouts) enhanced running economy by from 4 to 7 percent at various speeds and upgraded 3-K running performance by almost 3 percent (7). The explosive movements utilized in this study included split-scissor jumps, depth jumps, double-leg hurdle hops, single-leg hurdle hops, squat jumps, and various bounding and hopping drills. The pervading theme for all of the exercises was to produce as much force as possible with the least amount of ground-contact time.

Finally, a significant reduction in training mileage can often enhance running economy (a finding which is just the opposite of the traditional view). In one study, a seven-day volume reduction which contained an essential core of high-intensity training improved 5-K performance by 3 percent and running economy by 6 percent in a group of well-trained endurance runners (8). The overall strategy blended an 85-percent reduction in weekly mileage with 400-meter intervals conducted at close to race pace. Reductions in mileage are sometimes referred to as "tapers," but tapering periods are usually associated with impending races, and the truth is that volume reductions can be inserted at any point in a runner's overall schedule (not just before competitions), with very positive results.

Running economy is a strong predictor of performance, and thus it is an attribute which an endurance runner should work on throughout the year. By progressing steadily through general strengthening, running-specific strengthening, hill training, and then explosive work, by blending high-quality, pure running training with these forms of strengthening, and by strategically inserting periods of reduced mileage into the overall training scheme, a runner can be certain that running economy is moving in the right direction.


(1) "Physiological, Anthropometric, and Training Correlates of Running Economy," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 24, pp. 1128-1133, 1992

(2) "Improved Running Economy following Intensified Training Correlates with Reduced Ventilatory Demands," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 30, pp. 1250-1256, 1998

(3) "Interval Training at VO2max: Effects on Aerobic Performance and Overtraining Markers," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 31, pp. 156-163, 1999

(4) "Endurance Conditioning," in Endurance in Sport, R. J. Shephard and Per Olof Astrand, Editors, pp. 294-295, 1992, Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications

(5) "Strength Training in Female Distance Runners: Impact on Running Economy," Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, Vol. 11 (4), pp. 224-229, 1997

(6) "Explosive-Strength Training Improves 5-Km Running Time by Improving Running Economy and Muscle Power," Journal of Applied Physiology, Vol. 86 (5), pp. 1527-1533, 1999

(7) "The Effect of Plyometric Training on Distance Running Performance," European Journal of Applied Physiology, Vol. 89, pp. 1-7, 2003

(8) "The Effects of Taper on Performance in Distance Runners," Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, Vol. 26, pp. 624-631, 1994
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