Paula Radcliffe (British long-distance runner, three-time winner of the London Marathon, three-time New York Marathon champion and so much more) was tested frequently in the beginning of her career for improvements in VO2max and running economy. After five years of testing, her VO2max had reduced and her running economy had improved – resulting in a 46 second reduction off her 3000m record!
There’s a common misconception that a high VO2max reading is the key to running to being a better runner, but that is not always the case, as Paula Radcliffe’s results show. Below I will mention a few aspects that you can start working on to improve your running economy.
Cadence is simply how many times your foot hits the ground in one minute (when running). In other words, it’s how many steps you take per minute. In one word, it’s your cadence.
There is a magical number that is thrown around when we’re talking about cadence. Most articles seem to suggest ‘180 steps per minute’ as the golden rule, as this is the cadence at which a lot of elite/high level athletes run at. However, I would argue than simply increasing your cadence by 10 steps per minute will always be beneficial.
A lower cadence means you’re taking less steps per minute. This also means you’re spending more time on the ground. Ultimately, this will lead to greater fatigue. Spending more time on the ground (which is the same as happing a lower cadence) is also linked to heel striking.
Heel striking is a common issue between novice runners, which causes them to extend their leg in front of the body, slowing them down and causing a whole plethora of issues (I have discussed this at length in this article).
If you’d like to increase your cadence, you will need some kind of metronome to guide you (I use my smartphone). After you’ve downloaded a metronome app (iOS / Android) you can go ahead and set the metronome to whatever beats (steps) per minute you want to run at. If you want to set it to 180, that’s a good start.
This will feel awkward at first and you will feel like you need to run super-fast to achieve this cadence, but it’s perfectly possible to achieve a high cadence at a low speed.
I have to be careful with my wording here. Studies show resistance training is beneficial for runners, especially heavy resistance training. Now, I am not suggesting that you go out and attempt to lift crazy weights – but you should definitely challenge yourself.
A runner’s gym workout is different than a bodybuilders workout in the sense that a bodybuilder wants to pack on as much mass as possible but we, as runners, should avoid this!
It’s not beneficial for endurance runners to gain lots of muscle because that just means we’ll be carrying more weight when we’re running – possibly slowing us down! This is usually not a problem though, as it’s very hard to gain serious amounts of muscle while running long distances.
Anyway, runners should strive to lift challenging weights in the gym and they should focus on compound movements (the squats, lunges, deadlifts, etc). As always, good technique is crucial and should be the primary focus, weight progression being the secondary target. I’ve prepared a gym workout for the runners looking to join a gym – click here to read it.
Strength training should now be added onto your current schedule! You should replace one of your current training sessions with a strength session. This is especially true for novice runners!
Strength training will undoubtedly increase and improve your running economy!
Running drills are exercises used to strengthen the responsiveness of the muscle-tendon complex. Running drills and plyometrics are usually different things – plyometrics usually includes a lot of ballistic, maximal jumping efforts, while running drills focuses on repeating movement patterns (usually jumps) in a much more controlled and repetitive manner. Performing these drills will have a great carry-over effect to running.
Running drills are sometimes referred to as ABC drills and should be done before running (could be used as a warm-up at low intensities). Watch the video below to understand which running drills you should attempt.
These are the basic pillars for improving running economy. There are many more areas to improve in our running (leg angles, push off forces, vertical oscillation and more) but if you focus on the three aspects mentioned above you will surely be well on your way to improving your running.
One last tip: don't think about running economy as 'something to be achieved'. You probably will never have perfect running form and there isn't a single runner out there with PERFECT running economy. Improving your running economy is a lifetime's work, there is always something to improve, there is always something to work on and make a little bit better, so get out there and enjoy the journey.
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