Running Economy Explained: What It Is, 5 Workouts To Improve It

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Running Economy is one of those terms that is often batted around by runners and coaches, perhaps without much understanding of what it means.

At its heart, a runner’s Running Economy is a measure of how efficiently they run.

Actually defining Running Economy – what it really is, and how to measure it, can be a difficult and confusing question to find the answer to.

The internet is filled with different terms such as Vo2 Max, biomechanical and submaximal output, but what does it all mean?

In this article, these questions will be answered and we’ll go through how you can improve your own running economy to improve your running game.

We will cover:

  • What Is Running Economy? The Definition And How To Measure it
  • The Effect Of A Good Running Economy,
  • Exercises To Improve Your Running Economy,
  • Common mistakes and misunderstandings with Running Economy.


Let’s jump in!

Definition of Running Economy Explained

The Definition of Running Economy

Running economy (RE) is the amount of oxygen (O2) that your body uses to maintain a certain pace.

One easy analogy is to think about it as the miles-per-gallon you get out of your body: it measures how efficiently you run for the oxygen you consume.

Running Economy (RE) is a combination of many different factors inside your body including metabolic rate, cardiorespiratory, biomechanical, and neuromuscular characteristics.

There are many other factors that can effect your RE, but these are the main 4 to hone in on.

The 4 Main Factors That Affect Running Economy

Your Metabolic Rate refers to how much energy your body uses in a certain time frame, for instance over a minute of running.

For example, a heavier person would require more energy to run at a 9 min/mile pace for one minute than a smaller, lighter person.

Definition of Running Economy Explained 2

Cardiorespiratory comes from the Greek Cardio meaning heart and Respiratory meaning lungs. You can think of it as the strength of your heart and lungs. It is their ability to get O2 to your working muscles.

The Biomechanical makeup of your body is how you are built, the length of your legs, how tall you are, and so on. Each of these factors will affect how efficiently you can run.

Neuromuscular is another Greek word that translates as Nerves and Muscles, and their ability to work together, which varies from person to person.

Everyone is built differently so we will all be suited to different disciplines.

Long-distance runners are generally slower than an 800m runner for example.

The Effect Of Good Running Economy

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Some people will naturally have a very good RE, while others will have to work hard to make small improvements in their RE: genetics plays a big role, after all.

Runners with a poor Running Economy will use more oxygen while they run, so will be unable to maintain their pace for as long or as fast as a runner with a good Running Economy.

So for those of you looking up at the running greats and thinking “how??“, they have GREAT RE (which has been developed over time). They have a much lower energy output than average runners running the same kilometer.

The lower your RE, the more perceived effort you will feel while you are running.

Meaning each run will feel harder than someone with a better Running Economy.

But if you are worried that you may be lagging behind your fellow runners, don’t!

While you can’t change your genetics, you can improve your Running Economy and become a more efficient runner!

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3 Pillars Of Success

Running Economy is part of the 3 pillars of success, each affects how well you can perform. Elite athletes will have 3 strong pillars which allow them to work far more efficiently and push much harder and faster than the average runner.

The 3 pillars are VO2 Max, Lactate Threshold, and Running Economy.

VO2 Max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take to your muscles during peak exercise.

Your Lactate Threshold is the level at which the intensity of exercise causes Lactic Acid to accumulate in the blood at a faster rate than it can be removed. These are the burning, tiring muscles you feel running up a steep hill.

The exercises involved in training your RE often train each of these 3 pillars at the same time, and together they improve your performance. This is why a proper training plan will push you on to greatness much faster than ad-hoc training.

A training plan will work in specific training to improve all parts of your running game. We have free training plans here on Marathon Handbook which you can download for free!

Definition of Running Economy Explained 5

5 Exercises to improve your running economy

There are many ways to improve your Running Economy.

A study into the 3 pillars of success in runners showed that short intensity exercises have a much smaller effect on your RE than longer, harder training.

For longer distance runners such as marathon distance, increasing your mileage is the most effective way of improving your RE.

All of your training should be relevant to what your goal is, so for a 5k runner, you should focus on shorter faster training.

1. Long Interval Training (LIT)

LIT is a type of training where you would exercise at a high workload and have a short rest in between each set.

This is high-intensity training and as well as improving your RE your Lactate Threshold will also improve over time.

A great 50-minute activity to incorporate into your training plan once a week is LIT.

Try the following:

4 minutes of hard running followed by 2 minutes of rest.

Repeat this 5 times.

Start and finish this exercise with 10 minutes of warming up and cooling down.

2. Increase Your Weekly Mileage

Increasing your mileage leads to a gradual improvement of your form, as well as cardiorespiratory function and muscle development.

This change happens very slowly over the course of your running career and is constantly developing as long as you keep pushing yourself.

You will be playing the long game on this one, so remember you are always getting better!

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3. Training At Race Pace

Most of us often forget to train at race pace. It is often forgotten that you will run usually at a faster pace during the race and be more motivated to keep pushing.

If all your training is at training pace, then when you go to the race, you have not trained properly for it, and your result will reflect this.

Training at a race pace includes multiple sets of shorter distances than what you are racing for.

As an example, we are going to use a 10k:

Including a warm-up beforehand, go into 8x 1km repeats at race pace with a 200m jogging rest period between each set.

This will get your body used to working at the pace you will be running in the race.

For shorter distance training run fewer sets or reduce the distance to 600 or 800m.

4. Hill Repeats

Hill sprints strengthen the muscles in your legs giving you more power and an explosive stride which will make you a faster and stronger runner.

Hill sprints are one of the best forms of resistance training you can do.

For speed and strength, find a shorter hill and do many repeats, and for building your aerobic capacity and muscular endurance find a longer hill to train on.

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5. Strength Training

Explosive heavy-resistance training can improve your speed as well as your energy and oxygen use.

An important note here is to say that the exercises should be relevant to what you are training for.

So for 5k or 10k runners strength training should be about explosive power (think CrossFit style workouts), whereas marathon runners should focus on muscle endurance.

With this type of training consistently incorporated into your training, you are improving your energy and oxygen use, allowing you to push harder for longer.

Strength training also improves your strength and power leading to a more powerful stride and for marathon and ultra runners, strong quads and hamstrings help ease leg pain in those later miles.

Some examples of these are:

  • Box Jumps
  • Squat Jumps
  • Alternate Leg Bounds
  • Barbell Squats

Our Complete Guide To Weightlifting For Runners

Definition of Running Economy Explained 1

The Common Mistake That Inhibits Running Economy

Most people fail at one important hurdle:

Their training is not consistent!

Without consistent and repeated training you will slow or even reverse your progress. During training season it is important to keep on top of your schedule and don’t miss too many sessions

(The odd one is okay! Just try not to make it a habit of it.)

Time off each year can be beneficial for you however as it helps your body recover at the end of each year but while you are in your training block keep at it, and stay motivated!

Take some well deserved rest after training hard for that race.

Photo of author
Tom McMeekin-Donnelly is a runner, outdoor enthusiast and cyclist. Tom competes in ultra-marathons in the UK and Ireland. Tom runs anything from a marathon to 100 miles. He can often be found in the mountains around his home in Ireland.

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