Friday, 20 July 2012

Get your Economics up to speed...

How focusing on speed, power and technique can super-charge your running...

Hello all,

It's been a really busy few months with PBs tumbling at races all over the country and peeps achieving their fat loss and flexibility goals.

Many of you are now getting stuck into plans for Autumn running and late season triathlon races so this first mailout is unashamedly running focused and in these austere times is topically focused on economy.

Whilst I am sure we could talk for hours about the best value running, cycling and gym gear, for now that is not what I am getting at, no instead this is 'running economy'. There is a fair bit of detail below, I make no apologies for this – I am putting together these emails to help you with your training and to give you a deeper understanding of you body – embrace the detail guys, alternatively there are thousands of other blogs out there repeating the basic eat more protein, lift weights as well as run mantra that most of you know already….

In this article I explain what I am referring to when I talk about ‘running economy’, offer you a few things to think about in order for you to improve yours and leave you with a plyometric routine to help develop speed and power in your running. Feel free to check out my website and contact me directly to find out how to incorpate this into your training -

So, running economy – I’ve never heard of it…how can it help me?

Running economy basically refers to how efficiently you use oxygen at a giving running speed (or for that matter cycling, swimming or other endurance sport) and is still one of the least understood and poorly recognised aspects of the sport but is in fact crucial to your ultimate performance.

So in developing our running economy we are looking to ensure than we are running at our optimum speed with as small an energy expenditure as possible. Tucker et al (2009) draw an analogy to cruising efficiency in a car - think of it as you trying to develop an ‘eco-engine’ burning as little fuel as possible at the speeds you race at the most….simple!

Aren’t you just talking about VO2 Max? Or Lactate Threshold?

Well no not really, although they are linked. VO2 max refers to the maximum about of oxygen you take up and use whilst training at maximum effort and whilst this can be developed it is largely governed by genetics. VO2 max is widely considered to be a key predictor of your potential performance in sport and physical activity, though increasingly this assumption is being called into question (a debate for another mailout I think).

Lactate Threshold or Anaerobic Threshold is different again in that it refers to the point at which during intense activity the level of lactate in your blood is building up faster than it can be absorbed and thus inhibits muscle performance. This can be trained and developed significantly.

Running economy is different in that it relates to oxygen consumption at submaximal speed and I am going to argue here is as important as lactate threshold development and probably even more important than your VO2 max in your training.

Are you going to tell me what I need to do about it?

That’s what you want to know I guess? How can I become the most economical runner I can? Well there are quite a few aspects to this. Some of these I’ll just touch on below, some I’ll cover in more depth;

 Improve your Ground Contact Time and Rhythm 
Why is it some runners seem to float over the ground, barely touching – running like a deer I call it, whereas some runners appear to ‘plod’ (sometimes very fast!)? Much of this is down to running technique and whilst I could write many articles on running technique, for the purposes of today's post on economy we are going to focus on ground contact time. Whilst only a matter of milliseconds, every moment your foot sits on the ground you are losing a little momentum. Trying to increase the speed at which your foot strikes and returns from the ground is crucial to increasing running economy. As Chapman points out ‘at any common speed, elite runners spend less time in contact with the ground and take longer strides compared to average runners or untrained individuals.’

Next time you head out for a run consider the following;

·   Tread lightly – consciously try to limit the sound of your foot strike on the ground

·   Imagine the road or trail as super heated, anything longer than a fraction of a second and your foot is going to burn!

·   Take care on cadence (that is to say your stride rate). Count how many times your left foot strikes the ground in a minute. Work towards an optimum of 90 but be aware this does not necessarily require you to take shorter strides as many coaches will suggest, it is quickness of transition that counts, unless of course you know you over-stride. A low stride rate can lead to increase vertical movement in your running action (believe it or not those runners you see bouncing high off the ground are not running efficiently).

·   Check your rhythm – Try to consciously coordinate your breathing with your stride pattern. Karp (2006) highlights that oxygen isn’t just used by the muscles in your legs and arms as you run but also by your diaphragm and intercostal muscles as you breath – coordinating the two has been shown to improve running economy.

Train at Race Pace - Runners tend to be more economical at speeds at which they train the most. If you are racing 5km regularly I am not suggesting you go out and run the majority of your week at this pace, clearly, but you must ensure that you are including race pace running in your weekly plan. It is also important you do so when your legs are starting to get fatigued (towards the end of a run for example). Talk to me about this if you are unsure. If you have a key race coming up, whilst there is a big role of play in running interval sessions faster than your goal pace, do not neglect the importance of getting your body adapted and economical at the pace you intend on running. Think about that as you run your 5km-paced session at 3km pace.

Bio-mechanics and Technique - Running bio-mechanics centres on a concept called the ‘stretch-shortening’ cycle whereby the muscles and tendons act like a spring – your foot strikes the ground and your muscles lengthen, as you transition off into your next stride, your muscles contract. I could write for hours on good running technique but for the purposes of running economy focus on the following basics;

·       Core Engagement and Hip Position – Create a strong and stable base for economic movement by thinking about bringing your sit bones together, bring them in and up. Activating your deeper core muscles such as the Transverse Abdominus. If you are not sure what I mean here have a look at some pilates classes – they will really help. Your nice strong, high hip position creates a block like a railway sleeper of strength – your arms and legs simply move off this base
·       Ankle Lean – A gentle lean forwards from your ankles, with your weight on the balls of your feet will automatically create momentum in your running. Note this is a lean from your ankles, NOT your hips
·       Foot Strike and Position – practice some of the drills below to encourage a foot strike below your hips and centre of gravity with each stride – not landing in front of you breaking your momentum
·       Keep everything moving forward! – Check your arms which should be moving freely and smoothly from the shoulder in a straight line backwards and forwards – NOT rotating across your body

 (Nicholas Romanov - The guy who devised the POSE method of running, demonstrating ankle lean)

The key to understanding how to further enhance your technique is to realise that your running ‘foot strike’ actually occurs before your foot hits the ground – when neurons fire muscle groups to pre-emptively prepare your body for the impact of the for strike. So speed is also about your brain – a neuromuscular process – check out the plyometric drills below…

Strength and Power Training
Yes the words that put the fear of god into most endurance athletes. I firmly believe though that they have a crucial role to play in your training whether you are a runner, cyclist, triathlete or distance swimmer. This is not about getting ripped and adding masses of unnecessary muscle. Strength and power training in the RIGHT way will increase the muscle fibres you recruit (you have many that sit latent when you run, even in your legs) – think of it like someone swapping in a new pair of legs for the last 6 miles of your marathon! It is also about the SPEED at which these muscles contract and exact force in your running.

There are many benefits to weight training and depending on the approach your take, weights you use and numbers of repetitions you do you will achieve different results. For the purposes of running economy though as a distance runner or triathlete you might need to break your comfort zone as Karp (2006) suggests heavy weights (85% of your 1 rep max), with 5-6 repetitions only over 3-4 sets of each exercise at a fast speed, controlled, explosive movements with good technique.

PLEASE though look to an experienced conditioning expert to help you with these types of exercises – they are not the conventional approach of lower weight, higher repetitions used by most endurance athletes (where they do strength training at all!) and require good technique. Please be aware that they are as tough for your body as a very tough track session and therefore need to be kept clear within your running schedule.

Look to develop a programme including the following exercises in addition to regular core strengthening routines;

Front and Back Sqauts
Lunges both forward and backward
Plyometric and Scapular Pushups
Single leg deadlifts

Plyometric exercises involve maximum application of force in the minimum possible time. They develop speed and power and are crucial to developing and improving running economy and include a range of hopping, bounding and jumping movements designed to improve your muscles ‘energy storage and return’ capacity – think back to the spring we mentioned earlier.

If you are serious about your training and unsure about what to do to take your next big step forward, introducing plyometric exercises could be a great solution. To emphasise this further, in training for her world record marathon performance of 2003 Paula Radcliffe included a range of plyometric training, increasing her vertical jump from 26cm in 1996 to 38cm in 2006 (Hartmann, G) which many have seen as vital to her subsequent performance – still nearly 3 minutes faster than any other woman has run.

OK give me something to focus on….

OK so in addition to general advice I want to leave you with a few things to try. I specifically haven’t gone into detail on strength training – make contact with me or another conditioning expert to look at this before you start. Instead I will outline some of the key plyometric exercises that will get you zipping over the ground with quick feet in no time.

Please be aware that plyometric exercises are by their nature intense and require good technique to remain effective and reduce any likelihood of injury – again get in touch with me or another sports conditioning expert to explore how they can be incorporated effective for you.

If you have any questions at all drop me an email – Keep an eye on my blog where I will post more information, training advice and tips!

Key General Rules
·       Plyometric training should be about quality not quantity – even experienced athletes will only complete a total of 150 jumping movements in a session, a beginner or less experienced athlete far fewer (40-60).
·       Use a softer surface such as a track or grass
·       Every plyometric workout should only be undertaken after a good warm up, as you would do for a track session, and should only be carried out once a week.
·       Speed is the key – spend as little time in contact with the ground has possible – quick, powerful movements are required

Below I have summarized an 8 week plan for a beginner/intermediate, based on one session a week.

High Knees
Squat Jumps
Tuck Jumps
Single Leg Hops
Box Jumps
Jumping Split Lunge
Hill Sprints
3 x 20m
2 x 10
1 x 10

2 x 20m
2 x 10
2 x 10

2 x 20m
2 x 12
2 x 10
4 x 10

3 x 80m

1 x 15
2 x 10
2 x 10
2 x 10
2 x 20m


2 x 12
2 x 10
3 x 10
2 x 20m
1 x 12


2 x 10
2 x 12
2 x 12
2 x 20m
1 x 14


2 x 10
2 x 14
2 x 14
2 x 20m
1 x 16


2 x 14
2 x 25m
2 x 10
6 x 80m


Squat Jumps - In a squat position pop your hands on your hips or behind your head; jump straight up as high as you can. Upon landing, lower back into a squat position in one smooth motion, and immediately jump up again. Crucial to this will landing softly – anticipate the ground contact and cushion with your knees - 

High Knees – Good old high knees. Over the course of about 20m run forward driving your knees up as fast as you feel you can, ensuring your upper body is not leaning backward – focus on the speed of your legs not how faster you are moving forward –

Hill Sprints – Many of you will have done these with me before. Covering about 70-100m find a hill with a gradient of about 7-10%, drive up the hill with light springy movements, driving your knees high in front of you, walk down for recovery and complete 5-8 repetitions. As you’ll know this also doubles as a running session.

Tuck Jumps – Similar to a squat jump but this time you are going to jump and pick your knees up in front of you, really focusing here on speed more than height. I certainly wouldn’t expect you to jump as high as the guy in this video!

More Experienced

Single Leg Hops – Over 20m hop forward on one leg, driving your knee up has you hop forward, balancing yourself with your arms aiming to be as light and fast as you can be. Repeat twice on each leg.

Box Jumps – Find a box or a step between 40 and 60cm high, squat down and jump up landing with your full foot on the box with very soft knees, creating a soft landing. The key is to move as quickly as you can from the squat into the jump. Complete 10-15 repetitions twice with 2 minutes recovery;

Bounding – Again over 20-25m run forward with big strides, driving your knees high with very light and quick feet – remember it is running economy and ‘quickness’ we are developing here. Powerful movements are important complete this exercise. Repeat 4 times in total.

Jumping Split Lunge – This is a great exercise for developing fast, explosive power in your legs and developing your neuromuscular system. Come into a lunge position and jump up, switching legs in the air to come down into a lunge of your opposite leg and keep repeating. Complete 12-16 repetitions in total and repeat twice.


Chapman, R. Measurement of Ground Contact Time in Elite Distance Runners, Human Performance Laboratory, University of Indiana
Karp, J. 2006, The 3 Players of Distance Running, Track Coach Article
Tucker et al. 2009, The Runners Body, Rodale

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As an althetics coach, personal trainer and sports conditioning expert my job is to help everyone achieve their goals. This is a collection of my thoughts on training and the world of sport and health and fitness.