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Improving Running Economy

The term “running economy” refers to the volume of oxygen someone consumes relative to their body weight at the speed they’re running. Here’s a quick example that looks a lot like a word problem, but don’t worry, I’ll do the math for you:

Jim uses 60 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute to run at 8 minutes per mile.
Assuming he maintains that pace for a whole mile, he’ll consume 480 milliliters of oxygen per mile.

Gina uses 50 milliliters of oxygen per kilogram of body weight per minute to run at 8 minutes per mile.
Assuming she maintains that pace for a whole mile, she’ll consume only 400 milliliters of oxygen per mile.

Gina is a more economical runner than Jim. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Gina is a better runner. Jim might be faster, or have a higher lactate threshold (the speed at which his efforts shift from aerobic to anaerobic). At any given pace, however, Gina uses less energy per kilogram of body weight than Jim. That’s definitely an advantage.

Improvements to running economy are best made by practicing running at race pace or slightly faster for extended amounts of time. This practice will help you eliminate unnecessary body motions and feel more comfortable at faster speeds. The problem, of course is that it’s difficult to run fast for extended periods without suffering from fatigue that robs you of your economical running form.

The answer to this problem is to perform short efforts at a high rate of speed and recover by walking and jogging until you think you can repeat the next effort as easily as you did the previous. As a general rule, your recovery periods should be about 2-4 times as long (in terms of time) as your fast efforts.

Let’s look at an example:
Amy runs a 5K in 23:30 (7:34 min/mile). In order to work on her running economy, she’ll perform a workout like this after warming up with an easy mile and stretching.

Repeat 4 times:

  • 1/4 mile in 1:45 (7 min/mile pace)
  • Walk for 2 minutes
  • Run for 2 minutes at 10 min/mile pace
  • Walk for 1 minute

Since Amy’s fast effort is 1:45, her recovery time should be between 3:30 and 7:00. So, she walks for 2 minutes to catch her breath.  Then she runs easy for 2 minutes to keep her heart rate elevated and prevent her muscles from getting stiff. Finally she walks for a minute to prepare herself for the next fast effort. Her total recovery time is 5 minutes.

Ideally, fast efforts of this sort should not make up more than 5% of your total weekly mileage. Since Amy averages about 20 miles per week, she does four 1/4 mile repetitions (1 mile = 5% of 20 miles). If she averaged 40 miles per week, she could do 8 repetitions. She should conclude her workout with about a mile of easy running to cool down.

If you cannot perform a fast effort with the same ease as the previous effort even though you’ve spent 4 times the amount of time the fast effort required to recover, then your session is either finished, or you were running too fast in the first place. (Yah, you might want to read that sentence again… I’ll wait…) If you continue under fatigue, you’ll be practicing running fast with poor form – and that defeats the whole purpose of your workout.

Written by

Brian Darrow is a running coach in St. Petersburg, FL who specializes in online coaching for beginners. Follow him at ARunnersBlog.com

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