We talk to our ZAP-Reebok elite runners about how being a distance runner means sometimes you have to be selfish. To be your absolute best you often have to think about yourself and do what’s best for your own running. As an elite athlete there are a lot of weddings, birthday parties, family reunions, and other things that most people would value more than their own running that get missed. So in the name of self interest, while I could write an article on how to fix the broader economy that has been grinding along the last several years, I want to focus on your personal economy. And this may come as a disappointment, but I’m talking about improving your running economy, not your financial well-being.
Strength vs Speed
We hear a lot about the importance of speed in distance running, and generally speaking, a more economical runner is a faster runner. Mo Farah, the double Olympic Champion from the UK, is the fastest finisher on the planet. And yes, being fast does play a role when you are closing 5ks and 10ks in 53 seconds. However, the more important factor at play, even at the highest level, isn’t foot speed, it’s strength. The runner who gets to the last lap more comfortably and better able to utilize their speed is often who wins the race. Mo Farah and the Olympic 10,000m silver medalist, Galen Rupp, are training partners under coach Alberto Salazar. Alberto readily admits that Rupp is the faster sprinter of the two; the difference is that Mo is the stronger athlete. For most of us mortals who don’t finish our 10k races with a quarter mile under 60 seconds, the strength element is even more dramatic. The most highly trained athletes on the planet race much closer to their maximum speed than most of the rest of us.
The efficiency seen at that level is due to greater aerobic development and a more efficient means of movement; and the two go hand in hand. For most runners the best thing you can do to improve your economy of movement is to spend a little bit more time on your feet. Additional time spent running easy aerobic volume will help develop the aerobic engine that dominates distance running performance, and it will enhance your body’s adaptation to the movement. The more your body does something the more efficient it becomes at that task; its just like a jump shot: practice makes perfect.
I emphasize the aerobic strength element because it is the single most important aspect of training, and when you discuss improving economy it’s easy to get distracted and neglect that fundamental component.
Before I introduce my three favorite elements you can incorporate immediately in your training program I want to briefly mention two additional training tools that can provide significant economical gains: weight training and faster interval work. As opposed to the traditional thought that distance runners should do high-repetition-low-weight gym work, most of the research indicates if you’re going to spend time in the weight room you should be doing low-repetition-high-weight neuromuscular training. This type of training doesn’t build muscle mass the way higher repetition training does, but does develop neuromuscular strength that translates to better running economy. But that’s an entire article in it’s own right, so let’s leave it there for now.
Incorporating some shorter, quicker intervals within a training program, typically with significant recovery, is another way to improve economy. During our adult running camps at ZAP Fitness we do a video analysis of everyone running at an easy pace and then again running at a quicker pace. Inevitably what we find is everyone is a bit more efficient running quicker. Which is why everyone should just run fast all the time…. just kidding!
Your body is amazingly adaptable to varying demands placed on it. When you ask more out of your body it finds ways to perform that task more efficiently. One of the simplest and most effective ways to improve your economy is to include strides at the end of your easy runs a few times a week. To properly execute a stride simply take a few minutes after your run to catch your breath and then run 15-35 seconds at a time, accelerating from a relatively easy pace to nearly full speed for the final few seconds. Do between 4 and 10 repeats making sure to take enough time between each to fully recover. The purpose is to stimulate the high efficiency of movement you tap into when running quickly and reinforce that behavior through repetition. The difference between the shorter strides and fast intervals is you are maximizing peak efficiency because strides aren’t long enough for you to lose efficiency through fatigue like you do in hard interval training.
For an added benefit, do your strides uphill once or twice a week. The economic benefits of running quickly are amplified when running uphill. The added stress of running uphill increases muscle recruitment, further improving your efficiency. Referring back to my hill training article from last October (which I know is fresh in everyone’s mind), hills also improve mechanical efficiency by emphasizing proper posture and foot strike. The enhanced muscle recruitment will, over time, become part of your natural muscle recruitment pattern, even when running on flat ground.
The final tip, which I’ve discussed in this column before, is to include some pickups late in your long run. The idea is to pickup the pace for 1 to several minutes at a time toward the end of the long run, targeting somewhere between 10k and half marathon effort on the pickups. In between each pickup you should resume your normal long run pace for 5-6 minutes. The pickups recruit fast twitch muscles late in the run when your slow twitch fibers are fatigued. This strengthens the fast twitch fibers and helps improve running economy and leg speed through increased muscle recruitment.
You still may not be equipped to jump start the global economy, but incorporating some of these techniques in your weekly routine can help kick your running into high gear!
*This Article Originally Appeared in the September 2014 Issue of Running Journal