Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Simple Methods to Improve Your Running Economy

Running economy.  Nearly everyone has heard this term at some point in their athletic careers.  But what exactly is running economy?  It's something exercise physiologists have been trying to quantify for decades.  Running economy consists of many physiological and biomechanical factors that influence the ease at which a person can maintain a given running speed.  So for example, all things being equal, the person weighing least will have better running economy as it takes less energy for them to move forward at any given speed.  The same can be said for someone with a more efficient running gait or a healthy body in general.  Essentially we are looking at any factor which can increase our speed or allow us to maintain a speed with less effort.

There was a time in the running world when VO2 max was all the rage.  VO2 max is basically a measurement of how much oxygen you can use during exercise.  In my college days we would line up in the exercise physiology lab to have our VO2 max tested on a treadmill using the Bryce protocol.  At that time it was believed by many that the ability to utilize more oxygen while running meant that your aerobic system "had more power" or was "more robust."  Many of us oversimplified running as simply 'cardio' and therefore whomever could move the most oxygen through their body had the ultimate advantage.  Certainly with the use of blood doping and erythropoietin in endurance sport (to increase red blood cells and oxygen transport), there is a bit of truth to that statement.  Oxygen transport and utilization does play an important role in endurance events.  That said, studies have demonstrated that running economy can predict performance better than VO2 max in trained runners with the same values. In layman's terms, VO2 max alone cannot tell you who will ultimately win the race.

VO2-Max testing is so much fun said no one ever.

While the literature on running economy is quite vast, we can break down a few of the concepts here and offer some practical advice on how to go about improving your own running economy.  The benefits of improving running economy are vast because when you work on economy you are basically reducing wear and tear which may allow you to train longer and faster today while still improving for years to come.
Please note that these points are in no particular order....

1) The amount of vertical motion during running.  Motion analysis varying speeds from 6-12 mph demonstrate that marathoners show better running economy (via less vertical motion) than middle-distance runners and sprinters (Kenney, W 1994).  It is not clear why but I would venture to say that the nature of running greater distances may lend people to adopt a strategy of saving more energy.  Since we are trying to run forward, not up, it makes intuitive sense that excessive vertical motion is a waste of perfectly good energy.  Said in another way, you want to keep your center of gravity relatively low when you are running.  I've watched many athletes make this technical error and it costs them a great deal of energy.  If this is a problem for you, there are relatively easy methods for correction.  If you are a visual person, use a mirror or video feedback to observe your current technique.  Practice running smoother and check your progress.  Most people can make progress this way.  If you would like instant, tactile feedback, try running with a necklace that has a pendant on the end and minimize its bouncing.

2) The ability of muscles to store and release energy.  This one is a particularly hot topic for me considering the decades' climate of more shoe is better.  The reader's digest version of the story is quite simple.  First you must understand that the human foot and ankle are well-equipped to walk and run without support (it may need protection but that's very different than cushioning or support).  Droves of research demonstrate the elastic properties of our tissues to store and release energy when we use our ancient equipment properly (Mcdonald, 2016).

Let's briefly cover what happens with this energy as you run.  When your foot makes contact with the ground, you naturally pronate and your arch stores some of this energy.  Your achille's tendon is also put on stretch and stores much more energy as your body comes over the top of your foot.  If anything blocks this storage of energy (such as shoes blocking the natural pronation of the foot or a cushioned shoe attenuating the shock), you essentially lose a certain percentage of free energy (ballpark in the research is at least 35% but I believe it is likely more).  This means that your muscles have to actively make up for any energy you didn't store and release.  Running then becomes entirely an active muscle activity instead of one that uses elasticity and spring.

So take every shoe manufacturer advertisement in magazines where they talk about spring, or return of energy, or smooth ride, or whatever it is they're saying this week...and do the world a favor, rip it out of the magazine and dispose of it promptly.

I can't even...

I agree with your headline statement but not with the rest of the article.
I especially love when they use scientific graphs to mislead the public.

This is quite ironic as this is exactly what your body can do naturally.

Can you tell me what shoe you can buy on the market that is self-healing, connects to your brain, provides real-time feedback, adjusts the degree of pronation, stride length, foot strike, shock absorption, and spring perfectly to your body with each step?  The truth is, our own body is well-equipped with its own arsenal of elastic mechanisms which are perfectly designed to help you run as efficiently as possible.  You just have to learn how to operate the machinery.

Look at almost any great runner and you'll see their movements are fluid and springy.  Unfortunately most runners have lost this spring mechanism because of disuse (namely poor footwear and minimal time spent barefoot).  And frankly if this has happened to you I can't blame you for getting the situation quite confused, we just looked at the misleading advertising.  The truth is, you can retrain your spring with time and attention.  Following a progressive plan and listening to your body can ultimately allow you to ween yourself from over-protection and back into a springy gait.  Use the tips below and give your body plenty of time to gradually strengthen and learn better movement patterns.
- Spend more time barefoot.  Go on short walks (hard, clean surfaces like a sidewalk) and carry your shoes.  When your feet get tired, put your shoes back on and walk home.  Do this every other day and try to walk a little further each time.  If your feet are too sensitive for this, start with walking in sand (Home Depot and Lowes sell play sand for about $3 a bag) and progress to the sidewalk when able.
 - Transition to minimalist shoes in your daily life (for work and leisure).
- Use these self mobilization methods on yourself to improve your ankle and foot flexibility.  If you've worn over-supportive footwear for any period of time, you likely have stiffness in your feet and ankles that needs to be corrected.  If you don't pay any attention to this, injury may come knocking and you'll tell everyone that barefoot movement causes injuries.  Don't do that.
- Slowly transition your workouts and running to barefoot/minimal shoes.  As a general rule of thumb, you can stay out of trouble by never running two days in a row barefoot or in your minimal shoes.  Wear your traditional shoes on the opposite days and try to maintain good running technique or rest completely from running.  If you're like me and you started from scratch, start day one by jogging 100-meters slowly.  Add 100-meters or so each time you run (every other day), but only if your feet aren't too sore.  You can stay at a given distance as long as you want to ensure your body is adapting safely.  Don't run back-to-back days barefoot for at least 3 months.  Patience grasshopper.
- Running drills/plyometrics (performed intelligently) will improve the natural spring mechanism.
- Practice your optimal cadence.  This doesn't need to be a specific number such as the commonly touted 180-steps per minute.  The bottom line is if you're stepping too slowly you will actually dissipate the stored energy...thus you will get little to no spring in return.  You can technically practice stepping a little quicker wearing any shoe, but I have found that barefoot gives you the most feedback and helps you fine-tune your style more quickly.  Furthermore, a traditional shoe will modify your ability to load the spring and therefore you will not get the full benefit.  If you want to learn the technique quickly, you can't beat short distances practicing barefoot (always on a hard surface).
One final point I would like to make about using barefoot running and barefoot drills to improve the spring.  I equate the barefoot training process to learning a new language.  If you've never heard the sounds of the language and you don't know the alphabet, I wouldn't go out tomorrow and try to take the AP exam or speak it fluently.  Many people who transition do not appreciate this and try to change too quickly.  First learn the sounds, then the alphabet, then words, phrases...slowly over time you will begin to speak the language fluently.  Where's the fire?

Give your brain and body some time to learn a new movement langauge.

3) Fitness level and current training.  Being fit doesn't guarantee that you'll have excellent running economy but it can still be considered a general asset.  This is due to things like time to muscle fatigue, connective tissue strength, and the speed at which your body realizes you need to break a sweat.  A lot of people look at fitness through the lens of specific workouts performed at a specific location (such as a gym or running track) and we have the fitness industry to thank for this mental image.  But to be clear, when I talk about fitness I really mean your overall movement health.  How well do you move?  Can you squat, touch your toes, stand on one leg, climb, throw, kick, change directions, hop, and jump without a problem?  Even if you are just interested in "being a good runner" you would be smart to attend to your movement health.  Good movement health equates to more training with less injury, which in the end is what will make you good at your sport.  You have to run to maximize your running potential...but if you're always injured you'll never run enough to get there.

Many runners fall into the trap of just running.  I've been guilty of this in the past, until eventually my body broke down from the lack of attention (to form, to recovery, to strengthening neglected areas, to nutrition, etc).  While training should be intelligently performed, it doesn't have to be complicated.  Consider some of these tips when you are constructing a program for yourself.
- Mind your mobility.  Try a yoga class or simply set aside a little time each day to stretch or use a form of self-massage.  Work on your stiff areas (don't forget your spine and shoulders either).
- Core strength can be worked in a variety of ways and is essential to consider.  Go ahead and try a variety of techniques, just use common sense and always maintain good form and complete control during your exercises.  Never lose control.
- Don't neglect your upper body.  Weight training your upper extremity doesn't have to be complicated.  In general functional movements trump isolation exercises, 10 minutes with a kettle bell, free weights, a sandbag, or a barbell, 2-3 days a week, can do wonders for your running form and economy.
- Play as much as you can.  Seriously.  A game of frisbee, a little slack lining, rock climbing, or any other activity that will challenge your coordination and agility will keep your reflexes working and your body more balanced.  Play on your active recovery days and try to do it outdoors.
- Build a robust aerobic system.  This point could be a book in and of itself (it basically is), but suffice to say there is a time and place for speed workouts and that time and place is after you've earned it.  When you build a larger base of aerobic workouts where you improve fat-burning and practice your running efficiency (i.e. skills and drills), you set the stage for your body to do the much more difficult work later in the game.  I like to use a heart-rate monitor from time to time.  Simply use the formula (180-your age) to calculate your maximum heart rate for aerobic training.  Stay at or below that number on most of your runs and you will be mostly in fat-burning.  Another method that is just as effective (and completely free) is to practice nasal breathing.  If you can't inhale and exhale through the nose you are likely going too fast for pure aerobic training.  Again, there is a time to add other workouts, just remember that when you're aerobically efficient, it will be easier on your body and you'll likely perform better when you
do go hard.
- Clean up your diet.  Eliminate sugar and processed food, especially addictive processed carbohydrates.  There is absolutely no science demonstrating they improve health or performance but there is indisputable evidence these foodstuffs will damage your health and performance in the long run.  Poor nutrition will negatively affect your adaptation to your programming today, so no matter how hard you work, your body will not have what it needs to recover and grow stronger.  Never run for the purpose of eating bad foods.  Do not abuse yourself that way. 

The training pyramid for runners.  Note that you can work short sprints and
drills year round to continually improve your coordination and springy step.

4) Other form factors.
- Arm carriage should be relaxed with the hands pumping back and forth from your chest to the top of your hips.  Arms should generally stay in close to the body and the shoulder movement is similar to chopping wood.
- Hip range of motion is essential for an efficient running gait.  Many people today lack proper hip extension and internal rotation ranges of motion.  Watch this video for methods of improving hip range of motion.
As mentioned when we discussed improving or regaining your spring, ankle range of motion and foot range of motion are important in order to maintain reasonable alignment and minimize compensations.  Review the ankle and foot mobility video again for methods to improve this.
Posture should be upright with the head facing forward.  An un-engaged core will leak energy as you run.  Also note that shoes with an elevated heel can sometimes cause people to lose normal spinal alignment as their brain finds a new normal posture.  This can happen with both running shoes and your normal every-day shoes.  To correct this, progress yourself to wearing flat shoes all of the time and look to maintain a tall, confident posture.

5) There are other factors which likely affect your running economy...except these aren't modifiable.  Age, gender, anatomy, and environmental conditions can make you a more or less economical runner depending on your circumstance.  Simply understand that these are factors and adjust your training and goals based on your current situation.

Now that I've covered each point, let's review some of the techniques and strategies to improve your running economy.

Increase mileage.  Just remember this will only help you up to a point.
Retrain your spring with running drills and by progressively going barefoot or minimalist in all of your activities.  Practice your most efficient cadence for varied terrain like uphill versus downhill and technique trails versus road running.
* Improve running form, the skill of running.  Minimize excess vertical motion.  Consider your posture and arm carriage.  Avoid over-striding.  Learning to run short distances barefoot can help you practice not over-striding (i.e. it hurts!).
* Keep most of your runs truly aerobic.  Try breathing solely through your nose.  By going easy you can practice the skill of running, retrain your spring, and improve your aerobic base.  Faster paced running is also much harder on your feet and they need time to adapt if you're transitioning to minimalism.
* Change your diet.  Seriously, it's no mystery why developed countries have so many chronic-progressive health problems.  Don't try to work your body hard as an athlete unless you're prepared to feed and restore it with natural whole foods.  Drop the sugar and processed carbs.

Running economy is highly individual and adaptable.  As long as you realize what variables exist, you can then begin to change habits and add new value to your running.  It can literally be as simple as taking a few, progressive barefoot walks each week and warming up with drills and skills.  Whatever you do, I hope you find the journey worthwhile.

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