If you want to run further and faster with less exertion, you must perform like a hybrid car, not a gas-guzzler. Like cars, runners exhibit a range of fuel economies, only they draw on oxygen rather than petrol. ‘We’re not technically burning oxygen, but we need it as part of the energy-liberating process,’ says coach Greg McMillan. By training your body to sip instead of gulp oxygen, you can log longer runs or cover a typical distance with greater speed.
‘Economical runners enjoy more wiggle room before fatigue sets in,’ says McMillan. They burn through muscle glycogen stores more slowly, so their tanks can power them over greater distances. But becoming more economical also makes you speedier over shorter distances, because burning less fuel leaves more energy for explosive power. It may even decrease injury risk by distributing work across more muscle fibres, says Tara Whiton, an exercise physiologist and running coach.
READ: What is running economy?
The good news is you can, with the right approach, improve your running economy: ‘Our bodies are always trying to find the least taxing way to do things,’ says McMillan. Try one of these four strategies.
1/ Run more
Research has shown that runners who run high mileage (more than 70 miles per week) tend to be more economical, but even modest mileage increases recruit more capillaries and mitochondria (which help oxygen get to and fuel working muscles). To boost volume without increasing your injury risk, try adding five more minutes to each run, or upping your frequency (try changing a rest day to an easy run). Don’t worry about intensity: ‘Most of your efficiency comes from adding more easy-effort miles,’ says exercise physiologist and coach Patti Finke. That’s because repetition trains your brain to fire your muscles in the most economical sequence.
2/ Play with pace
‘When you add fast running, your body has to work out how to take on this new challenge with less effort,’ says McMillan. He recommends that runners adjust their pace by feel rather than by their watches, because numbers aren’t as helpful for teaching us effort-to-fatigue ratio. ‘This pays dividends over time,’ he says, ‘because if the weather is bad or you just feel ‘off’ one day, you can rely on feel to still get in a positive workout.’ Eight to 10 times in every run you log, pick up the pace for 30 seconds to a minute, ‘just to the point that you notice you’re breathing faster’, says McMillan, then slow down and recover. Later, experiment with a race pace: if you’re aiming for a 5K, add short bursts (30 seconds to several minutes) of your goal pace to your runs, to a total of up to 20 minutes per week. Experienced marathoners should do longer, continuous sessions (such as parts of their weekly long runs) at race pace, totalling one or two hours per week.
3/ Build power
‘There’s a lot of research showing that high-intensity strength training can improve running economy,’ says Whiton. Recent studies have shown that using small dumbbells or big barbells, or doing body-weight exercises, can produce similar gains as long as you lift to the point at which you can’t complete another rep with perfect form. To optimise running economy, focus on lower-body exercises that recruit large amounts of muscle all at once, such as weighted lunges and squats. Or do explosive plyometric exercises such as two-legged and one-legged jumps, progressing to drop jumps, which involve stepping off a low box or step and then jumping as high as you can as soon as you land. Do at least one strength session per week, scheduling it several days before your major running workouts (or immediately afterwards, on the same day).
If you haven’t been lifting weights, take a six-week block to build to lifting to failure. You don’t have to lift hard all year round. Studies have found that a six-week block of focused strength training during a race build-up can boost performance. It’s a good idea to keep up a strength-maintenance programme throughout the year, but you can reserve lifting to failure to coincide with preparing for goal races. Scale back your strength work two weeks before race day, and don’t lift at all in the last week.
Make sure you’re getting enough protein to help your muscles repair – not just right after the workouts, but through the day. Aim for four to five doses of about 20 grams of protein (e.g., two eggs and 240ml milk), including one just before bed.
4/ Add hills
Hills recruit more muscle fibres than flat terrain does, so making them part of your regime is a surefire way to build running economy. You can do reps on one hill (charging uphill and jogging back down) or work hills into your regular runs. ‘During the base-building phase, run hills at a slow pace every other week,’ says Finke. Once you’ve achieved base fitness, up the ante with McMillan’s economy booster: do one hill-focused run every week for six weeks (see below for examples). ‘Your strategy doesn’t have to be precise,’ he says. ‘The steeper the hill and the more energy you throw at it, the better.’ Recover for 24-48 hours before your next hard run.
READ: Hill running Q&A
Do one of these workouts once a week to build strength.
Hill fartlek: Pick a three- to six-mile loop with a few hills, and run up each as strong as you can. Sprinting isn’t vital: maintaining your flats pace is a good starting point.
Hill repeats: Climb a moderate slope at 5K effort, progressing to all-out effort over the course of 45-60 seconds. Do six to eight repeats. Jog downhill to recover.
Hill circuits: Find a steep hill near a moderate one. Sprint up the steep hill for 10 seconds, recover, run at 5K effort up the other for 45-60 seconds, and recover. Do three or four reps.