Improve your running economy and go stronger and longer at any pace.
JUN 2, 2009
What makes a runner fast? Conventional wisdom says it’s high aerobic capacity, or VO2 max. But check out the 10 fastest runners at any race, and the winner won’t necessarily have the highest VO2 max. So what’s the secret? It’s running economy.
According to a new book, The Runner’s Body (Rodale, May 2009), the role of VO2 max has been way overrated. If you want to run faster and farther, the authors say, you’ve got to improve your running economy, or how efficiently your body uses oxygen. Like the fuel economy of a car, the less oxygen and energy you need to run at a certain pace, the longer you can go without ending up, well, gassed.
“Running economy is what’s going to help you run faster longer and cost you less than people around you,” says co-author Jonathan Dugas, Ph.D., an exercise physiologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “VO2 max just doesn’t predict performance beyond a certain point.”
That’s good news because there’s more room to improve economy than VO2 max, which is largely limited by genetics. Here’s how to do it.
GET GOOD FORM
Sure, Paula Radcliffe set the world marathon record with her distinct loping gait. But for mere mortals, floppy form means wasted energy. Research has shown that through practice you can become more economical. “The more you rehearse, the more efficient you’ll become,” says running coach Matt Fitzgerald, who co-wrote the book with Dugas and Ross Tucker, Ph.D. You don’t have to analyze your stride; the learning occurs naturally as you gain experience.
Make It Happen: Practice running with good form at a pace that feels comfortable from start to finish. You shouldn’t be huffing and puffing, or moving so slowly that it feels unnatural. Over time, your gait will become more efficient. If you’re a beginner, just focus on logging miles. If you’re more experienced, add speedwork.
Increasing the force in your stride will make your running feel easier. The more powerfully you can push off the ground, the less effort each stride will take, and ultimately it will be easier to run faster. “You’ll feel like you have more strength in reserve,” says Fitzgerald.
Make It Happen: Try plyometrics—explosive bounding movements that help you push off the ground. These exercises (see “Jump Up to Speed,” below) mimic parts of the running stride and help give you more push-off power on the road.
Build up your all-around body strength, and it will be easier to stay on pace when you’re fatigued. “It’s about being equally strong everywhere, not just having your legs go fast,” says Dugas. Any weaknesses can throw off your biomechanics and cost you more energy.
Make it happen: Core, back, and shoulder work will help you stay upright. Choose specific exercises that fit into your routine and do them consistently, Dugas says. “It’s most important that you’re just doing something,” he says.
Jump up to Speed
Exercises to make your running more efficient.
Matt Fitzgerald, a coach and co-author of The Runner’s Body, suggests these three plyometric moves to improve bounding power. Try each of these once a week for four weeks. Do them after a run, or on a nonrunning day with 15 minutes of jogging to warm up.
Stand to the left of a box or a platform that’s about 12 to 16 inches high. Bend your knees slightly and leap up and over the box so that you land on the floor on the opposite side on the opposite foot. Continue leaping over the box in both directions for 30 seconds.
Single-Leg Box Jump
Stand on your right foot facing a platform 12 to 18 inches high. Bend your right leg and swing your arms back, then forward, and leap onto the box. Don’t let your left foot touch down. Immediately jump down, landing on the same foot you jumped up with. Keep jumping for 30 seconds, then switch legs.
Split Squat Leap
Stand with one foot ahead of the other with knees slightly bent. Squat, then thrust straight up. In the air, move the forward foot back and the rear foot forward. Land on both feet and immediately bend your knees to begin the next leap. Start with 16 reps.