Towards Becoming a More Economical Runner

No two runners are the same. This statement is true at the lowest and highest levels of running. Watching Zersenay Tadese, Eliud Kipchoge, and Lelisa Desisa try to conquer the seemingly impossible task of running a sub two hour marathon only further cemented this reality. Each runner ran with such incredible speed (more than 26 miles at a sub 5 minute per mile pace!!!), and yet so differently. This begs the question, should I ever change my own running form, or am I better off running the way I most naturally run?

Running economy is a measure of how efficient one runs, scientifically speaking, it’s a measure of the amount of oxygen utilized at varying speeds. If one person is able to utilize less oxygen while running faster than another, they are deemed more “economical.” While it can be fun to compare ourselves to other runners, for our purposes, as we seek to become better endurance athletes, the question we should ask ourselves is, how can I become a more economical runner? Can I use less energy to run at the same speed as I used to, and thus be able to run faster?

While the best way to work on running economy is to do a run gait analysis with a coach, there are numerous things you can do as a runner to make slight tweaks to your run gait, and improve your running economy. As always, make changes slowly, and take into account your injury history and biomechanics before making any drastic changes.

Here are a few tips to discern whether or not you can become a more economical runner:

  • Do I have extra weight I can afford to lose? Weight is one of the major factors in running economy. The less weight you are carrying the less oxygen it will take to move that weight forward, thus making you a more economical runner. If you focus on the off season on losing a few extra pounds, you can become a much more economical runner. Another major added benefit of weight loss is injury prevention, less weight means less impact forces, making you a more durable runner who is more likely to stay injury-free!
  • Am I taking less than 160 steps per minute? Even for the tallest athletes with the longest strides, less than 160 steps per minute is too few. Studies have shown over and over again that running with a cadence closer to 180 steps per minute is more economical from a mechanical perspective. We all have a self-selected cadence that we most naturally run at, but if that cadence is less than 160 steps per minute, try to increase it by 10% by using your watch or a metronome. This can be a slow process, but over time adjusting your cadence can make you more economical as well as reduce injuries.

How much am I bouncing while I run? One of the newer pieces of data a basic heart-rate strap and smart watch can provide is your vertical oscillation, that is, how much you bounce up and down as you run. Not surprisingly, the less you bounce up and down, the more energy is put into forward movement. One easy improvement to running economy is to compare and subsequently lower your vertical oscillation run after run by working on your upper body posture and leg extension.

There are lots of ways to improve your running as an endurance athlete, but improving your running economy can be a way to gain some “free speed.” Focusing on these three small things can help make you a more efficient runner and give all of your hard training the extra boost it needs!

1 A run gait analysis will identify aspects of your run gait such as the degree of hip drop, leg extension, ankle flexion, forward posture, and other factors that can be improved to make one a more economical runner.

2 Van Dijk, Hans, Report: The Impact of Running Cadence on Running Economy (ECOR and RE), Training Peaks, November 28th, 2017.