Whether your focus is on 5k, 10k, marathons, or ultras; improving running economy – the energy cost of running – is one of the most underrated training approaches.
To run well requires working on several components: speed, strength, aerobic fitness, endurance and efficiency – to name a few.
While speed, strength, aerobic fitness and endurance are more overt; we can only assess running economy in a sports laboratory.
Sure, some runners appear to ooze efficiency. And it’s tempting to assume that’s the case. The truth is… you cannot tell just by observing – and some efficient runners can have quite rugged techniques.
Regardless of your efficiency, improving your running economy should be a key training focus.
In this article we are going to look at 10 of the most effective ways to improve running.
What Is Running Economy?
Put simply, running economy refers to the energy demand of running at a given submaximal velocity, or speed.
One point to note here: running economy differs from efficiency, which is a measure of the ratio of work done to energy expended (Barnes and Kilding, 2015).
We can assess running economy by comparing speed with oxygen uptake – the lower the oxygen uptake, the greater the economy of motion. This is measured in a sports science laboratory, where oxygen consumption is measured at sub-maximal speeds – sometimes we test this over different speeds, to observe how running economy changes relative to speed.
Like other performance components (VO2max, velocity at VO2max, lactate threshold, etc.), there can be wide individual variation. In fact, this can vary by as much as 30% between trained runners with similar aerobic capacity (Daniels 1985).
While running economy tests can be useful for assessing training progress and performance, they yield little information that we can use for training purposes. And even if you have excellent running economy it’s still something to work on improving (both as a short and longer term training focus).
With that in mind…
How To Improve Running Economy
With running economy, there are several approaches that will improve this, both in the short and longer term.
1. Increase Training Mileage
Achieving a good volume of low/moderate intensity training is vital for long-term improvements. Of key importance, is that improving running economy may be related to the mileage that you accumulate over several years of training (Midgley et al., 2007).
While you won’t get the big short-term benefits gained with intervals; you will achieve consistent but compounded results, as you accumulate mileage.
With low intensity training the benefits occur through a gradual refinement of running technique, enhanced aerobic efficiency, and a gradual muscle fibre transition towards greater aerobic efficiency.
2. Include High Intensity Intervals
Including high-intensity running intervals is a must.
A noteworthy point here is to include a range of intensities: 1500m, 3k, 5k and 10k pace.
By doing this, you improve economy across a range of speeds. This also improves the efficiency of fast and slow twitch muscle fibres.
While these running paces are beneficial, running at the velocity associated with VO2 max appears to provide additional benefits.
3. Improve Running Economy At Race-Pace
Runners are more economical at the paces use during training.
With this in mind, it’s necessary to include sufficient running at race paces.
Some example sessions include:
- 8 x 400m at 1500m pace, 200m jog rec
- 5 x 800m at 3k pace, 400m jog rec
- 5-6 x 1km at 5k pace, 200-400m jog rec
- 6-8 x 1km at 10k pace, 200m jog rec
For a half-marathon runner, this might be 2 x 15-20mins at half marathon pace.
And for a marathon runner, this could include longer 40-60min efforts at goal pace.
4. Sprint Intervals
Often overlooked, these are one of the most effective and time efficient ways to improve running economy.
You will also achieve rapid results.
I’ve covered this in much greater detail in a previous blog post: sprint training for distance runners.
Here’ are a couple of examples:
- 8-10 x 150m, 3min recovery
- 5-8 x 200m, 3-4min recovery
5. Run Hill Repeats
Hill running is another great approach.
This strengthens key running muscles and tendons, encourages good running technique and has a positive effect on endurance.
As with running intervals, it’s wise to use a range of intensities and varied hill training methods: hill sprints, short hills and longer hill repeats – and not forgetting downhill running!
You can also use different gradients to modify the training effect.
You can learn more in the hill running section.
6. Strength Training
We can use strength training to enhance running efficiency and economy.
This related to several factors, but primarily improved neuromuscular coordination and musculotendinous stiffness.
Another benefit is increased joint stability. This reduces the need to recruit stabiliser muscles. In turn, this reduces the energy cost of running.
Taken together, this allows muscle to generate force more efficiently, and transfers more potential energy into movement.
Examples of good strength training exercises for runners include:
- Single leg squats
- Forward and backward lunges
- Single leg deadlifts
- Calf raises
Including plyometrics is another powerful method.
The easiest approach is to include running drills during the warm-up to faster running workouts.
Examples include: High knees, A-Skips, straight leg drills, high skips, bounding.
You can also include jumping exercises such as forwards backwards hopping, single leg hopping, hurdle jumps, squat jumps and drop jumps.
8. Reduce Muscle Imbalances
With running economy, symmetry is a key factor.
Recent research identified that just small ground contact time imbalances – between the right and left leg – noticeably reduced running efficiency.
You can learn more about this and how to improve symmetry in the following article: ground contact time balance.
9. Find Your Optimum Running cadence
One area that has drawn a lot of attention is cadence. And it’s common for runners to seek to increase running cadence – normally to the “magic” 180spm.
This is not the best approach for most runners. While research indicates that inexperienced runners may benefit from increasing cadence, their optimal range was substantially below 180spm (van Oeveren et al., 2017).
In fact, the research highlighted how the optimum cadence range differs between runners. It’s also different at various running paces. With this in mind, we shouldn’t encouraging runners to focus on 180spm.
What we know is…
- Less-well trained runners may benefit from slight increases in their cadence.
- Whereas, well-trained runners tend run at close to optimal cadence.
A crucial point here is to identify your optimal running cadence. If you find your normal cadence is below optimal, then one approach is to increase this during some of your easy pace runs – but don’t increase this too much (~3-5% is a suitable starting point).
My preference is to use intervals that push the upper limits of cadence. For me, 400m intervals are really effective.
These are brief enough to sustain a fast cadence. And long enough to increase your ability to sustain a brisk cadence.
While you can run longer intervals, we notice that cadence drops off when interval length increases.
10. Focus On Efficient Technique
How much attention do you pay to running technique?
Most runners aren’t conscious of their own technique. And importantly – what’s wrong with their technique!
The most common issues relate to poor arm technique – things like arms crossing over the midline, or not driving back at the elbows. We also observe hunched shoulders, hips dropping, low head position, and over-striding.
But if you’re not conscious of these… how can you improve them?
The solution: get some feedback – ideally from a coach.
Another option is to ask someone to film you while running. We find this useful when used with running strides (filming from the front and also the side). This can help to bring awareness to areas of technique that might need correcting.
Another option is to engage in mindful running. This requires bringing your awareness to the act of running. Over time, this can become increasingly effective.
We can also use specific drills to emphasize correct technique: high knees, A-skips, straight leg drills, etc.
Whichever approach you choose, it’s important to bring awareness to correct technique.
After all, practice doesn’t make perfect… it makes permanent! So, poor technique today will reinforce poor technique tomorrow.
That is… unless you break the cycle and practice proper technique.
We can use many methods to improve running economy.
Some bring rapid improvements (sprint, strength and interval training). Others result in more gradual adaptations (training mileage, technique work).
The best approach is to incorporate these “consistently” within your training program. With consistent and deliberate training, you will achieve greater long-term adaptations that will compound over time.
Acevado, E.O. and Goldfarb, A.H. (1989). Increased training intensity effects on plasma lactate, ventilatory thresholds, and endurance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 21, 563-568.
Costill, D.L. (1986). Inside Running: Basics of Sports Physiology. Benchmark Press: Indinapolis, USA.
Coyle, E.F., Feltner, M.E., Kautz, S., Hamilton, M.T., Montain, S.J., Baylor, A.M., Abraham, L.D. and Petrek, G.W. (1991). Physiological and biochemical factors associated with elite endurance cycling performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 23, 93-107.
Fallowfield, J.L. and Wilkinson, J.L. (1999). Improving sports performance in Middle and Long-Distance Running. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons, LTD.
Jones, A.M. (1998). A five year physiological case study of an Olympic runner. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 32, 39-43.
Londeree, B.R. (1997). Effect of training on lactate/ventilatory thresholds: a meta analysis. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 29, 837-843.
Martin, D.E. and Coe, P.N. (1997). Better Training for Distance Runners (2nd edition). Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL, USA.
Neumann, G., Pfutzner, A. and Berbalk, A. (2000). Successful Endurance Training. Oxford: Meyer and Meyer Sport (UK), LTD.
Noakes, T.D. (1991). Lore of Running. Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL, USA.
Pate, R.R. and Branch, J.D. (1992). Training for endurance sport. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 24, S340-343.
Barnes, K.R., Kilding, A.E. Running economy: measurement, norms, and determining factors. Sports Med – Open 1, 8 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40798-015-0007-y
Daniels JT. A physiologist’s view of running economy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1985 Jun;17(3):332-8. PMID: 3894870.
Midgley AW, McNaughton LR, Jones AM. Training to enhance the physiological determinants of long-distance running performance: can valid recommendations be given to runners and coaches based on current scientific knowledge? Sports Med. 2007;37(10):857-80. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200737100-00003. Erratum in: Sports Med. 2007;37(11):1000. PMID: 17887811.
van Oeveren BT, de Ruiter CJ, Beek PJ, van Dieën JH. Optimal stride frequencies in running at different speeds. PLoS One. 2017 Oct 23;12(10):e0184273. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0184273. PMID: 29059198; PMCID: PMC5653196.