Factors Affecting Running Economy in Trained Distance Runners

Abstract

Running economy (RE) is typically defined as the energy demand for a given velocity of submaximal running, and is determined by measuring the steady-state consumption of oxygen (V̇O2) and the respiratory exchange ratio. Taking body mass (BM) into consideration, runners with good RE use less energy and therefore less oxygen than runners with poor RE at the same velocity. There is a strong association between RE and distance running performance, with RE being a better predictor of performance than maximal oxygen uptake (V̇O2max) in elite runners who have a similar V̇O2max.

RE is traditionally measured by running on a treadmill in standard laboratory conditions, and, although this is not the same as overground running, it gives a good indication of how economical a runner is and how RE changes over time. In order to determine whether changes in RE are real or not, careful standardisation of footwear, time of test and nutritional status are required to limit typical error of measurement. Under controlled conditions, RE is a stable test capable of detecting relatively small changes elicited by training or other interventions. When tracking RE between or within groups it is important to account for BM. As V̇O2 during submaximal exercise does not, in general, increase linearly with BM, reporting RE with respect to the 0.75 power of BM has been recommended.

A number of physiological and biomechanical factors appear to influence RE in highly trained or elite runners. These include metabolic adaptations within the muscle such as increased mitochondria and oxidative enzymes, the ability of the muscles to store and release elastic energy by increasing the stiffness of the muscles, and more efficient mechanics leading to less energy wasted on braking forces and excessive vertical oscillation.

Interventions to improve RE are constantly sought after by athletes, coaches and sport scientists. Two interventions that have received recent widespread attention are strength training and altitude training. Strength training allows the muscles to utilise more elastic energy and reduce the amount of energy wasted in braking forces. Altitude exposure enhances discrete metabolic aspects of skeletal muscle, which facilitate more efficient use of oxygen.

The importance of RE to successful distance running is well established, and future research should focus on identifying methods to improve RE. Interventions that are easily incorporated into an athlete’s training are desirable.

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Saunders, P.U., Pyne, D.B., Telford, R.D. et al. Factors Affecting Running Economy in Trained Distance Runners. Sports Med 34, 465–485 (2004). https://doi.org/10.2165/00007256-200434070-00005

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Keywords

  • Ground Reaction Force
  • Stride Length
  • Distance Runner
  • Altitude Training
  • Plyometric Training