On Running Economy
There’s a great debate on how running performance is affected by running efficiency or running economy. Efficiency, in a general sense, implies doing something in the most efficient manner, i.e. wasting the least amount of resources. Instead of the term efficiency, scientists use the term running economy. This is similar to the fuel economy of a car, which measures the amount of fuel used to cover a specific distance.
Running economy is strongly related to running performance. An Italian study from 1993 predicted that a 5% improvement in running economy would lead to a 3.8% reduction in time for a 5 km race. There are many potential influencers that affect running economy: weight, air resistance, muscle fiber type and nutrient metabolism, to name a few. However, the period when the foot is in contact with the ground is the phase of running when almost all energy is expended. While many exercise physiologists believe, or hope, that economy improves with training, they confess that it’s not clear what kind of training or how much it takes to make a difference.
“The goal of running faster,” says professional marathoner Stephanie Rothstein-Bruce, “is to run more economically and use the least amount of energy that you can.” This idea is particularly important in long-distance running. After you’ve run 20 miles, the last thing you want to do is expend any extra energy — you don’t have much of it left! With a few smart tweaks to your routine, you can run much more efficiently with the energy you have — without having to pop an extra gel.
According to Alberto Salizar, head coach of Oregon NIKE Project, “There has to be one best way of running. It’s got to be like a law of physics. And if you deviate too much from that – the way I did in my career – it can be a big handicap. Dathan can’t be a heel striker and expect to run as good as the best forefoot runners.”
This quote references a controversial debate from 2010 when Alberto Salazar was coaching Dathan Ritzenhein, multiple US Olympian and one of the world’s greatest distance runners. Salazar wanted to change Dathan’s form from heel striker to fore/mid foot runner. This resulted in injuries and a frustrating time off from competing. Fast-forward to today and Dathan considers himself to be in the best shape of his life. He serves as his own coach adapting from the philosophies and mentors he’s worked with.
Personally, with much research and guidance from coaches and experts, I have spent time and work on changing my running form to become a more efficient runner. I went through ups and downs throughout my journey but I am happy and grateful to have had the experiences and lessons. When I took up running, I had no idea about what my running form looked like. I just went out and ran as fast as I could. I was competitive by nature and I pushed myself hard. I remember feeling frustrated while training with an elite group of fast runners because I wanted to run faster and I didn’t know how to get there. While working with a different coach, his first attempt with improving my running performances was to do a gait analysis. He watched me run on the treadmill and outdoors while videoing me and then said, “We have a lot of work to do.”
He showed me that I was clearly a heel striker and how that was breaking my stride. I had lots of hip discomfort, which he thought was attributed to my form. I had a long pretty stride but it wasn’t economical. I was “overstriding.”
I became obsessed with learning how to become a mid foot striker. It took time until I found the sweet spot. At first I was too much on my forefoot, which caused some ankle problems. I worked with a specialist who taught me the Pose method that helped improve my cadence and my contact time with the ground. He also suggested I remove my orthotics and run in minimal shoes, thin as paper, to feel more contact with the ground, which resulted in two stress fractures.
I learned over and over about the best exercises to help my running economy and strengthen areas in need. For example my core was too weak so other muscles were recruiting and causing injury. My hamstrings were too weak for this new form of running. My glutes tend to get sleepy, causing my back to atrophy and a myriad of issues follow suit. I continued working with trainers and gait analysis specialists, physiotherapists and I did my own research. I had great success after the hard work and struggles. When I turned 40, I PR’d in the Chicago marathon by almost four minutes with a time of 3:08.
I feel stronger today and have a good understanding about running economy and the importance of working on form, strength and mobility for the longevity in running. In regard to changing form for economy, my thoughts are that each body is completely unique and different. I personally know my limitations and I do my best with my body mechanics. I believe 180 steps per minute is a great number for efficient running but it’s also important to propel forward and run in your running style fluidly and free. I try not to think too much about how I’m running but every now and then I check in. “Is anything nagging?” I listen to hear how my feet sound hitting the ground and so forth. If I do feel things are off, I do some correcting with form and strengthen areas that feel like they’re not firing or strong. I’ll go for a tune up to my chiropractor or get some soft tissue work done. I make sure to get back to core stabilization and drills.
photos in this article by Laura Barisonzi