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Running Economy: A Complete Guide to Becoming An Efficient Runner

How many miles per gallon do you get as a runner?

For years, I’d heard the term “running economy” being used among my nerdier running friends and fellow coaches, and since the advent of the super shoe phenomenon, it feels like the term is now constantly being used as a reference point for running at your best.

But I have to admit, until recently, I realized that most of my athletes didn’t truly understand what it meant. So, I decided to do a deep dive into the term to explain clearly how to measure it, and why we should strive to increase our running economy to become better runners.

Running economy is both exactly what you’d expect it to mean, but also slightly more complex than merely “running efficiently.” Yes, simply put, your running economy is how efficiently you run. But more specifically, it’s a measure of how well your body uses oxygen while running at a given speed.

Studies show1Barnes, K. R., & Kilding, A. E. (2015). Running economy: measurement, norms, and Determining Factors. Sports Medicine – Open1(1). that two runners with similar fitness levels (VO2 max) can have varying running speeds if one has better running economy than the other. The runner with better runner economy can run up to 30% faster!

The bottom line is that the better your running economy, the faster you can run while expending less effort.

In this guide, I will delve into what running economy is, the factors that affect it, and my best expert coach tips on how to improve running economy for better long distance running performance.

A person running on a track.

What Is Running Economy?

It is important for coaches and runners to have a good understanding of what running economy is to be able to plan training cycles and running sessions.

As mentioned, running economy is the amount of oxygen your body uses to maintain a certain pace at a submaximal level.

A runner who utilizes less oxygen while running will have better running economy than a runner who uses more oxygen at the same running speed.

This is why improving running economy is so important; we all want to run faster!

What Are The Key Factors Affecting Running Economy?

How good or bad your running economy is depends on various factors.

Your metabolic (energy efficiency), cardiopulmonary (heart and lungs), biomechanical (how your body moves), and neuromuscular (brain and muscle) systems all play a part in how efficiently you run.

Running economy is a compilation of these different factors, some of which we can control and improve with hard work and specified training and others that are out of our reach and are mostly dependent on our genes.

Some of the most prominent factors include:

  • Metabolic Efficiency: How effectively your body uses energy in physical activity.
  • Cardiopulmonary Efficiency: How quickly oxygen is shuttled to your muscles for use and how efficiently waste products are eliminated.
  • Biomechanics: Running form specifics including gait, leg stiffness, ground contact time, stride rate, stride length, and footstrike.
  • Body Composition: Leg length, body mass, percentages of lean muscle and fat, and Achilles tendon moment arm length.
  • Muscle Fiber Type: Slow-twitch vs. fast-twitch muscles.
  • Neuromuscular Efficiency: The coordination between your nervous system and muscles and how quickly they react and work together.
A person on a treadmill wearing a mask.

How Do You Assess Running Economy?

To briefly get into the sports science of it all, running economy is the volume of oxygen used per kilogram body weight per kilometer run (ml/kg/km).2Intelligent Triathlon Training – Expert Swim, Bike and Run Coaching Services. (n.d.). Www.intelligent-Triathlon-Training.com. https://www.intelligent-triathlon-training.com/economy#:~:text=To%20measure%20running%20economy%20you

‌Therefore, measuring running economy must be done in a lab with specific equipment to measure your oxygen uptake (oxygen consumption) while running.

The technician will have you run on a treadmill for periods of time, beginning at a steady-state pace and gradually increasing the pace as you go.

These tests range from around 3 to 15 minutes in total.

They determine how much oxygen you use (oxygen cost) for each kilo of body weight per minute or how much oxygen you need to run one kilometer per kilo of your body weight.3Saunders, P. U., Pyne, D. B., Telford, R. D., & Hawley, J. A. (2004). Factors Affecting Running Economy in Trained Distance Runners. Sports Medicine34(7), 465–485.

‌Due to different factors, a “good” or “average” running economy is hard to ascertain. However, the study Running economy: measurement, norms, and determining factors gives us an idea of different measurements regarding athletes at different fitness levels from recreational to elite runners, in the following table:

Running Economy: A Complete Guide to Becoming An Efficient Runner 1
Barnes, K. R., & Kilding, A. E. (2015). Running economy: measurement, norms, and Determining Factors. Sports Medicine – Open1(1).
A person running on a road.

How Can I Improve My Running Economy?

#1: Train Consistently

Running more will ultimately lead to better running.

Consistently logging miles, gradually increasing training volume, and incorporating speedwork into your training program will all help improve your running economy. As your body adapts to more running, you will be able to run for longer distances at faster speeds, using less energy.

As a running coach, I strongly suggest gradually increasing your volume and/or intensity by using the 10% rule as a guideline to decrease the risk of overuse injury while still improving your performance.

As endurance athletes rack up miles, they will experience adaptations such as a lower resting heart rate and lower heart rate while running, which result in faster speeds with less energy expenditure.

Endurance training will also naturally improve how our muscles work together because we become more skilled in controlling our movements, resulting in better running efficiency.

#2: Add Variety To Your Training Plan

By including a variety of running workouts in your training plan and training at different running velocities, your body will adapt to using different energy systems (aerobic and anaerobic) when needed.

Depending on your current training cycle, include a mix of runs at different speeds, including slower running: long runs, easy runs, and recovery runs, and faster running: speed workouts such as track intervals, tempo and threshold runs, and hill sprints to maximize fuel utilization.

High-intensity runs should account for about 20% of your weekly training time, while low-intensity runs account for a whopping 80%.

Following a training plan written by a certified coach will ensure efficient and gradual improvements in performance.

A person doing a box jump.

#3: Add Plyometrics To Your Resistance Training

To be more efficient distance runners, we want quicker muscle activation, shorter ground contact time, and increased leg stiffness.

In addition to consistent running, plyometric training can help improve muscle strength, power, and neuromuscular characteristics linked to improved running economy.

Plyometrics are exercises that include jumping.

Some exercises to add to your strength training program include box jumps, jump squats, jump lunges, jump rope, skaters, single-leg hops, and broad jumps.

#4: Add Running Drills To Your Warm Up

As a compliment to plyometric exercises, you can add specific running drills to your dynamic warm up before each run including: A skips, B skips, carioca, bounding, and skipping.

Not only will these drills improve mind-body control, but they will also help improve biomechanical factors such as foot strike, ground reaction time, and turnover.

A person breathing deeply.

#5: Improve Your Breathing Technique

Work on your breathing technique and rhythm to lower energy costs. Find a breathing rhythm that feels most comfortable, such as a 2:2 rhythm, and practice using that same rhythm consistently through your runs.

Also, work on breathing through your nose when possible and resorting to mouth breathing when necessary. Try and keep your breathing rate under control to reduce energy demand, so it can be used on your running instead of trying to catch your breath.

Related article: How To Breathe While Running + 5 Expert Tips And Techniques

#6: Improve Your Stride Length And Stride Rate

This is a tricky one because a stride length that is too long will require more power at push-off and effort on the joints, but a stride length that is too short will require more muscle recruitment as they will need to work harder and more often.

So which is it? Finding a sweet spot for your stride length and stride rate will fall into place by, you guessed it, experience. Miles and miles of it.

Even though debatable, the “ideal” steps per minute for an efficient cadence has been said to be around 180 steps per minute. If you are anywhere between the 170-180 range, you are on the right track.

#7: Control Vertical Oscillation

If you bounce up and down quite severely when you run, you could be wasting precious energy.

Some vertical oscillation is just fine; however, if you feel as though your up and down movement is hindering your forward movement, you may need to make adjustments.

Try leaning forward a bit more while running so you are forced to quickly change your footing, and you don’t have time to bounce up and down.

A person running on a track.

#8: Try Carbon-Plated Running Shoes

If you are interested in getting some outside help, try a pair of supershoes. The Nike Vaporfly have been tested and retested and have shown a .9% – 4.2% 4Dominy, T., & Joubert, D. (2022). Effects of a Carbon-Plated Racing Shoe on Running Economy at Slower Running Speeds. International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings2(14). https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijesab/vol2/iss14/15/ improvement in running economy depending on your fitness level.

Whether your are a 5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon runner or ultra runner, working on these different aspects of your running can lower the amount of energy you use at race pace to improve your running economy, and, ultimately, your speed and race times.

Another interesting metric used by many coaches and runners to measure performance is the lactate threshold. For more information on how to use this metric to improve your running, check out this next guide:

References

  • 1
    Barnes, K. R., & Kilding, A. E. (2015). Running economy: measurement, norms, and Determining Factors. Sports Medicine – Open1(1).
  • 2
    Intelligent Triathlon Training – Expert Swim, Bike and Run Coaching Services. (n.d.). Www.intelligent-Triathlon-Training.com. https://www.intelligent-triathlon-training.com/economy#:~:text=To%20measure%20running%20economy%20you
  • 3
    Saunders, P. U., Pyne, D. B., Telford, R. D., & Hawley, J. A. (2004). Factors Affecting Running Economy in Trained Distance Runners. Sports Medicine34(7), 465–485.
  • 4
    Dominy, T., & Joubert, D. (2022). Effects of a Carbon-Plated Racing Shoe on Running Economy at Slower Running Speeds. International Journal of Exercise Science: Conference Proceedings2(14). https://digitalcommons.wku.edu/ijesab/vol2/iss14/15/
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Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community, she is known for her ear-to-ear smile, even under the toughest racing conditions. She is a UESCA-certified running coach and loves sharing her knowledge and experience to help people reach their goals and become the best runners they can be. Her biggest passion is to motivate others to hit the trails or road alongside her, have a blast, and run for fun!

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