Running 101: Running Efficiency
If you are just joining the blog, this is the second post in my running 101 series. In my first post, I discussed the running gait cycle and proper running form as a response to a reader’s question. Once a runner discovers what proper form is, their next goal is usually to improve their running performance. Today, we will address the three components that make up running economy before we wrap up with tips for improving your running performance in the last post.
This post is the technical, nitty gritty of running science. I wanted to share these three components of running economy to help illustrate a few points and to help you understand the why’s of training. If you are interested in the how to’s of training come back next week. I’ll give a list of tips to help improve running based off the topics covered in the first two posts. Here’s why this post is important:
- First, there are a number of factors that when combined together determine how well a runner will perform. This includes genetic factors, running form, neural messaging, muscle programming and training.
- Second, even if you don’t have the ideal genes, or if you have “flaws” in your running form, this will not hold you back from improving your running ability (which is great news!). As we will discuss, the body does a tremendous job of self-optimizing your stride characteristics and running form to ensure that you are running efficiently according to your specific body type.
- Finally, having a little bit of insight into this information will help you identify different strategies to improve your running based on your own situation and running goals. The majority of the ways that we improve as a runner is to practice our craft. We can use different training techniques to improve our running form and stress our body to improve our oxygen usage and energy creation systems.
What is running economy?
According to Magness, “Running economy is a gross measure of efficiency, meaning that it is the result of both internal and external components, so that mechanical, neural, and metabolic efficiency play a role (pg. 81).”
What is biomechanical efficiency?
- Definition: the mechanical cost of running. This includes our muscle’s and tendon’s ability to store and release energy and the amount of waste in our movement patterns.
- Focus: the optimization of passive running mechanics, stride characteristics, and foot strike.
Optimal body positioning during the gait cycle can improve efficiency by optimizing the use of passive running mechanics. Our muscles have the ability to harness energy through the stretch shortening cycle which occurs as a muscle is actively stretched before contraction. In addition to this, our tendons have the ability to store and release elastic energy. Magness uses an example of foot strike in his text to illustrate this point. He discusses study results that suggest forefoot running increases running economy in certain populations with a few hypotheses explaining the results:
- In forefoot running, the ankle is more plantar flexed which increases the stretch reflex of the Achilles-calf complex and allows for more elastic energy storage (pg. 83).
- In a heel strike, the ground contact time is increased which may lead to increased dissipation of the elastic energy storage (pg. 84).
What is neural efficiency?
- Definition: communication patterns between the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system.
- Focus: optimization of neural patterning through repetition of movements.
Matt Fitzgerald discusses running as a self-optimization system in his book, “80/20 Running.” He tells us that the brain will automatically select to repeat muscle activation patterns that are most efficient. Even through the brain is incapable of executing the same exact motor plan for a stride twice, over time this repetition leads to improved motor programming and increase neuromuscular efficiency (pg. 88).
For this reason, I believe that you should be cautious and mindful when changing stride/form characteristics. Your body has already integrated information and mapped out the most economical running pattern for your personal gait patterns. Changing your gait patterns will lead to a short term inefficiency and perhaps a decrease in speed while your body is adjusting to the new neural pathways you are creating. Also, you will be using your muscles in a different way and this could temporarily increase your injury risk if your other muscles are not strong enough to support this new load.
What is metabolic efficiency?
- Definition: factors that impact energy production for muscles.
- Focus: training to target cardiovascular and cellular adaptions such as oxygen transport and cellular energy production.
Metabolic efficiency refers to the body’s ability to take in and transport oxygen along with the ability to use different fuel sources for energy production. As we progressively train, our body makes a number of adaptations to increase our metabolic capacity including: an increase in the number of mitochondria within our cells to increase energy production, and increase in the number of capillaries which increases oxygen delivery to our muscles, and an increased ability of our heart to pump blood as the heart muscle becomes stronger. Join me next week as we talk about specific workouts to help your body make these adaptations!
For further reading, you can access an excerpt from The Science of Running on the topic of running form here.
If you are not familiar with the tips mentioned in this post I encourage you to work with a trained professional prior to making any changes to your current workout routine to ensure your safety. This post is for informational purposes only and I am not liable for the decisions that you make in regards to the execution of your training plan.
- Fitzgerald, Matt (2014). 80/20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster by Training Slower. New York: New York.
- Magness, Steve (2014). The Science of Running: How to Find Your Limit and Train to Maximize Your Performance. www.scienceofrunning.com