Running Economy - Learning how to Save
Your Energy

Running economy (RE) is the amount of energy that is needed for running at a given velocity and effort. It is measured by the runner's uptake of oxygen (VO2),  after they have reached a steady-state, and their respiratory exchange ratio (RER).

This is a lot of scientific wordiness but the basic idea of RE is simply that runners, taking into account body mass, with a good RE expend less energy and need less oxygen than runners with poor running economy.  It is a strong predictor of aerobic fitness level so we can assume that the higher our running economy is the higher our aerobic fitness level should be.

Why Should You Care About Running Economy?

There is a direct correlation between running performance and running economy.  The more  you are able to improve your RE the better the racer, and the runner you can potentially become.

RE takes into account proper running form, footstrike, running kinematics and kinetics, and physiological and biomechanical functions. By improving your RE you will be at a lower risk for injury, you can become faster, and you will be better equipped to reduce muscle soreness and fatigue after a running session.

 Factors that influence Running Economy

These factors are largely physiological and biomechanical and will vary between individuals.

  • Cellular metabolism
  • Mitochondria production (the mitochondria is  the power house of the cell and produces the cells energy)
  • Muscle Stiffness which is related to the quantity of elastic energy that can be stored and released in the muscles
  • Propulsive forces and the rate of force development that a runner can attain. Essentially, the shorter the time it takes to develop a contraction the less oxygen you will need.
  • Body position and running form
  • Gait pattern
  • Proper footstrike

How to Test Your Running Efficiency 

If you wish to know how exactly how efficiently you run you will need to find an exercise physiologist/scientist and a treadmill. Try to find an exercise laboratory or contact a college, university or research center nearby you that has a Kinesiology, Exercise, or Health program. Students need practice and they are usually more than willing to have a subject.  You will be analyzed while running on a treadmill and your body mass, footwear, and nutrition are all taken into account.  They will then be able to give you personal tips on how to improve your RE, gait, form, etc. It really is very enlightening especially if you are a serious runner.

How to Improve Your Running Economy 

  • Strength training - this allows muscles to store and use more elastic energy.  Knowing how to utilize elastic energy is the key to great RE.Strength training obviously makes your muscles stronger and more apt to become more effecient with energy expenditure. Weak muscles are harder to control and waste a lot of energy by not doing what we want them to do. Check out this beginner strength training program. 
  • Avoid running downhill before a race or important run in order to improve RE. Running downhill has proven to decrease RE from anywhere between 24-120 hours afterwards. This is due applying braking forces (eccentric forces) as you are running downhill. This is another bonus of strength training as it helps to maximize the conservation of energy when a runner applies breaking forces such as when running downhill. 
  • Perform plyometric exercises. These increase neuromuscular adaptations in the muscle, improve muscle stiffness (ability to store and release elastic energy) and alters your muscle fiber composition from anaerobic to more aerobic muscle fibers, necessary for endurance running.
  • Altitude training trains the body to use oxygen more efficiently and increases the metabolic functions in the muscles. The less oxygen that your body requires to run, the greater your RE will be. 
  • Train in warmer climates. Training in the heat allows your body's thermoregulation mechanism to improve which helps to reduce the work of your cardiovascular and muscular system and decreases your body's need for oxygen.
  • Run barefoot!  The jury is out that this improves RE at both low and high exercise intensities and increases your ability to use oxygen efficiently.
  • Train yourself to have the correct body position and good form. Being able to move efficiently will allow you to conserve more energy.
  • Prevent muscle soreness. If your body is recovering from exercise induced muscle damage such as soreness your body will not allow you to run as efficiently as normal and your RE will suffer.
  • Training and putting in the miles allows your body to adapt to an efficient pattern as it becomes more familiar with the movements that you are requiring it to do. That is why it is important to try and employ good form from the beginning of your love affair with running.
  • Run long distances. Those who are long distance runners have a higher RE than those who run middle or short distances. There bodies are more adapted to the challenges and demands of endurance running and they have learned how to save energy over the long miles they have put behind them.

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Assumpção, Cláudio De Oliveira. "Exercise-Induced Muscle Damage and Running Economy in Humans." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 04 Feb. 2013. Web. 29 Oct. 2014.

Perl, Daniel P., Adam I. Daoud, and Daniel E. Lieberman. "Effects of Footwear and Strike Type on Running Economy." Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 44.7 (2012): 1335-343. Web.

Reeves, K., J. Corbett, and MJ Barwood. "Barefoot Running Improves Economy at High Intensities and Peak Treadmill Velocity." The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness (2014): n. pag. Web

Saunders, Philo U., David B. Pyne, Richard D. Telford, and John A. Hawley. "Factors Affecting Running Economy in Trained Distance Runners."Sports Medicine 34.7 (2004): 465-85. Web.