What It Means to Have an ‘Economical Running Technique’

by | Jun 8, 2018 | Running Program |

There’s a lot of advice out there for runners – what shoes to wear, how to design a training program, what to eat and drink, race mistakes to avoid, and on and on. Running form and technique advice is in a category of its own with often conflicting and ever-changing advice. When that happens, at Body Gears we like to consult the evidence!

If we want to talk about having an ‘economical running technique’ we first need to answer, ‘what is running economy?’ Running economy refers to how much energy it takes YOU to run at a specific speed.

If you have a good running economy, you will need less energy to run at the same steady pace than someone with a poor running economy. Running economy measures energy expenditure by comparing your oxygen consumption with your carbon dioxide output (respiratory exchange ratio). Using less oxygen indicates you’re using less energy, which means less effort and more energy to run further.

If two elite runners have a similar VO2max, the winner will have the better running economy.

Now you’re probably raring to go, thinking ‘Just tell me what I have to do to improve my running economy!’ but researchers have stopped to ask whether it’s even possible to influence your running economy with your running technique.

An article from Sports Medicine titled, Is there an Economical Running Technique? explored this question by reviewing several research studies to evaluate which factors most strongly impact running economy. They categorized their findings into intrinsic and extrinsic factors.

Intrinsic factors refer to your running technique. The phase of running that can be modified the most is the ground contact phase during propulsion, which they found has the most effect on running economy. There is a mathematical way to calculate your optimal stride frequency and length, and experienced runners will generally be within 3% of that number. However, if your stride length is 6% greater than that optimal number, it will be detrimental to your running economy.

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Another major intrinsic factor is vertical oscillation (how much you bounce up and down). Performing less work against gravity will improve your running economy. Consult with a physical therapist if you think this is an issue for you or you want to have this running component analyzed.

The technique with the strongest evidence for improving running economy is to extend your back legless as your toes leave the ground. You can achieve this by not pointing your toes as much or not extending your knee as much as you push off the ground. There are a variety of reasons for this but primarily it puts the muscles on the back of your leg in a stronger position and uses less energy to flex your leg during swing phase to prevent your toes clipping the ground.

Last of the intrinsic factors is the ever-debated foot strike. To rearfoot, midfoot, or forefoot strike? This largely depends on your level of experience. Referring solely to running economy, experienced runners will be unaffected by whatever foot strike they chose. However, novice runners will see a decline in running economy when switching from rearfoot to forefoot striking. This is largely due to the method by which most people will attempt to transition their foot strike pattern. If you do want to change your foot strike pattern, then enlisting the guidance of an experienced running coach or physical therapist to prevent any detrimental effects to your body or running program.

Finally, extrinsic factors refer to your shoes and running surface. If your shoe weighs a pound or more, the weight of your shoes can negatively affect your running economy. The surface you run on should be firm with a small amount of give for the greatest economic benefit. Too much cushioning (like sand) puts an increased demand on your body, while no cushioning (like concrete) doesn’t give you any mechanical benefit. The best surface (like grass or a track) will have some elastic recoil to it and return more energy to your body when you run, which will improve your running economy.

Remember that running economy is only one aspect of running and there are even more factors that can affect your running economy, like genetics and medical conditions. The physical therapists at Body Gears can assist you with not only implementing the intrinsic and extrinsic factors listed above, but also address any mechanical, neuromuscular, or motor control barriers that may be impacting your run.

We’re here to help!

As always, none of this information replaces the expertise of a Licensed Physical Therapist. Most states allow direct access to physical therapy, so if you are experiencing an injury, it is best to seek evaluation so that you can properly prepare based off of your specific needs.

Give us a call at (877) 709-1090 for more information or fill out the contact us form and we will contact you.

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