I got to thinking about running economy yesterday as someone asked how to get faster in a facebook group and then I thought to myself, "Why have you not done a blog on this?"
I think many times we think that we are just born with whatever genetic capacity we have for speed and that's all she wrote, and that's not the case. There are so many ways to get faster. That doesn't mean that you can get past your genetic limit (of course) but you want to make sure that you are reaching your genetic limit. This may take you years to do which is why the sport of running is so fun. You can always try new things to challenge yourself and get better.
Running economy is in simple terms the amount of fuel (oxygen) that you are using over a given distance. The nerdy definition through Wikipedia is the energy demand for a given velocity of submaximal running and is determined by the steady state consumption of oxygen and the respiratory exchange ratio. So, in efforts to be a better runner and if you look to pro athletes, you will see that they are using less oxygen (less gas/less fuel) and are more economical in their running. When I first heard about Lance Armstrong doping, and other athletes, I genuinely thought that the was using steroids. I groped all of that in the same bunch. I was also like 12. haha! But, the reason that endurance athletes dope is so that they can become more economical. They inject epoetin delivering more red blood cells which delivers oxygen quickly from the lungs to the muscles. It allows them to not waste energy as quickly therefore being able to run quicker for longer.
However, there are ways that we can naturally do this without crossing all those moral lines, obviously. One way is to increase the mitochondrial density of your muscle cells. If you remember from biology, mitochondria are the power source for cells. The more that we put a demand on mitochondria, the more we are going to increase the density which means the more that you run, the more mitochondrial density you can bring. This is why you will see the pros running 100 mile weeks. The important thing to remember is that first, you want to build this up 10% each week over time. You also want to be reasonable with your lifestyle and recognize that mitochondrial density does not trump sleep and recovery. The pros are not doing anything else (most of the time) therefore their bodies are able to rest in other situations. We call this "stressors" and the average person is going to have more general "stressors" each week.
If you are just starting out, you want to build these miles up just as base miles. The rule of thumb is that you want to do 500 miles before you move onto interval/speed and tempo runs. That's again not very realistic, so you have to find that middle road of increasing miles and then getting to a point (40 miles per week maybe) that you stop and add in speed work and tempo runs.
So, to conclude that part: Increase mitochondrial density by increasing mileage as much as possible to your lifestyle but only 10% increase per week! If you overtrain, that will DECREASE your ability to use fuel so don't push it too far. .There's a line for everyone, and you have to find yours.
Another thing that helps running economy, shown in clinical trials, is strength training. When you are stronger, the muscles in your legs are able to utilize more energy and waste less. You also are able to utilize the gravitational pull on the ground on impact in your favor for additional energy when your legs are stronger. I know that I talk a lot about hybrid training, and that when you are in the heat of training heavy miles, strength training takes a back seat but this is why it's so important to have strong legs and to strength train. One part of strength training is also making sure that you don't have any muscle imbalances in your legs. I feel as if my calves are different sometimes therefore I work to have the same on each side so that my impact when I hit the ground with each step is utilizing the least amount of energy as possible.
Another important aspect is weight. I'm not going to gointo that very much because I talk a lot about nutrition but it's just very important to eat well and to be at a weight that your body naturally lands at. If you are trying to force your body to be smaller than it naturally is than you are just going to be tired and fatigued. If you are eating more than your body needs and carrying weight then that reduce your running economy. Take that as non emotional objective information and don't beat yourself up all day over it! ;) I know how you girls are! haha!
The change in heart rate workouts (i.e. interval and speed workouts) is a huge one for running economy. There was a coach in the 1960s (don't quote me on time frame) that had his athletes start doing this interval workouts and he noticed IMMEDIATELY that at their next performance, they beat everyone by a landslide. It was as if he had found out about this miraculous new thing to get faster, and word started to spread. The distances vary dependent on the distance race that you are performing but the same rules apply and that is just that you want your heart rate to come up, then come down, then back up. You want to extend the amount of time that you can handle these speeds for these distances (400s to 800s to mile repeats) and overtime your body is able to handle the stressor better as you get closer to your VO2max (which is kind of what I like to call your genetic limit that I was referencing earlier). We cannot change our VO2max, but we can work to get as close to it as possible.
It's really important that you practice these tools in your slow workouts so that your body learns correct form and breathing and stride and muscle balance in your slower workouts. Your recovery days and slow workouts are just as important as your fast ones, and you want to treat them seriously. You DO NOT want to push pace. If you push pace on your easy days then you are not able to recover properly for your hard days. In order to increase your running economy, you have to have those adequate periods of rest between hard workouts.
Once you increase that running economy, get mileage high, and then taper (which I won't go into the science of a taper along with this blog but will at some point) and when you combine all of these things together, it's like BOOM on race day. The most important thing to note though is that if you aren't doing certain speeds in your speed workouts and your tempo workouts, you aren't going to miraculously be able to perform those speeds on race day so you can look up pace calculations for the speed that you want to go in your half or full marathon and it will give you the training paces that you should go.
I only have a few spots open for my run coaching, but I have some clients finishing up their races so if you are interested and would like to know how my coaching works, you can read this blog! :) Hope this helps regardless!