Trail Running

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What is running economy?

For distance runners, running economy is the Holy Grail. It was long held to be the most important aspect of long distance performance. But, this is no longer true. There is no correlation between VO2 max and running ability in a homogeneous sample of runners. It transpires that the functioning economy is more important.

The Kenyans and East Africans have long dominated middle distance occurrences. They’re long believed to have better aerobic capacity. Most of their capacity is because of their height training and genes. Their VO2 max numbers were on par with those of elite endurance runners from around the globe in other sports. Surprisingly, several East Africans with average aerobic capacity could run remarkable paces.

What is VO2 max?

VO2 max is the maximum oxygen the body can give muscles each minute. The basic fuels for running are fat and carbs, and each of these fuels needs oxygen (O2) broken down.

Running at a certain speed correlates to consuming a certain amount of oxygen per unit of time (or VO2). It is often determined during a treadmill test. You are to measure the oxygen levels of air inhaled and exhaled. VO2 is usually expressed as ml/kg/min. Bigger runners need more O2 than smaller ones.

What is lactate threshold?

The lactate threshold is that moment when the body can no longer eliminate the lactate generated by the muscles as quickly as they created it. It is the point during a workout when your muscles hurt, and you are on the verge of passing out from exhaustion. You can reach your lactate threshold through intense exercises like hill training.

How do you calculate running economy?

Running economy, expressed simply, is the correlation between oxygen intake and running rate. Running economy (RE) measures how effectively you use the oxygen you consume to go ahead if VO2 max is your maximum rate of oxygen intake and lactate threshold is the highest rate of oxygen consumption you can maintain for an extended period. The less energy and oxygen you consume at any particular pace, the better.

Ultrarunning
Source: Unsplash.com / Brian Metzler

What factors influence running economy?

Muscle fibre composition

Slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fiber types I and II are thought to be genetically predetermined. They do not change much with training, even if the intensity increases significantly. Cyclists with a higher percentage of slow-twitch fibers tend to consume less oxygen. They also start maintaining certain power output. The statistics for running are less conclusive due to the more complicated biomechanics. It’s plausible to assume that RE likewise reflects one’s muscle-fiber composition.

Joint flexibility

People who are less flexible among relatively active joggers and walkers appear to be more cost-effective. Stiff joints require less muscular force (and consequently less energy) to stabilize. Stiff muscle-tendon units enable more efficient elastic energy and storage return to the push-off from the footstrike. It may explain this unexpected tendency. Extremely low flexibility raises the risk of injury because of the restricted range of motion. Too high or low excessive flexibility may not be the best option for long-distance runners.

Body shape

While your VO2 value correlates with your body mass, lighter runners require proportionately less oxygen. Additionally, the mechanics of spinning limbs indicate that mass near the leg’s bottom needs more energy to move than mass near the trunk. There is a hypothesis that the exceptional East African runner’s tiny total size and narrow lower legs contribute to their exceptional economy.

Resistance on the run

Similar to how driving conditions affect your car’s fuel efficiency, running situations affect your RE. An incline or unfavorable terrain makes it harder to maintain a particular pace. Some unfavorable terrains include mud, sand, or tall grass. It increases the energy requirements. 

Fighting air resistance is similar in that respect. For instance, running into a rigid headwind needs more energy). British research from the early 1970s demonstrates that air resistance features little impact on RE at slow speeds in calm air. A runner who clocks 5:20 miles per hour will use around 2% of their energy to overcome air resistance.

Can you improve your running economy?

It will feel easier to run, particularly at faster speeds. It is among the main advantages of improving your running economy. Who wouldn’t want that, too?

You definitely have little control over the genetic structure of your muscle fibers. You might think that your running economy is very well fixed, but there are techniques to improve it. 

Marathon Run
Source: Unsplash.com / Sopan Shewale

Raise your stride rate

Your stride rate is how many times a minute your feet touch the ground. A runner’s stride rate can range from 160 to 180, depending on their level of training and competition. Striding faster while maintaining the same speed results in less friction. Hence, you will get a better return on effort (RE). It is the reason why improving your stride rate while maintaining a similar pace is good.

Become more balanced

Running is essentially just hopping from one leg to the other repeatedly. It stands to reason that practicing your stability and support in a single-leg stance will increase your running efficiency and, thus, your RE. Increase the amount of single-leg exercises you perform during strength training. Some strength training exercises are single-leg squats.

Include plyometrics

Explosive activities, or plyometric work, assist in increasing muscle power, which is fantastic for your RE. The category includes a variety of plyometric exercises performed while standing on one leg. Some of the exercises are tuck leaps, split lunges, and burpees. Ensure that you warm up well before beginning any plyometric training. Consult with a trainer or physical therapist if you have a history of injury. Plyometrics can be taxing on the joints.

Conclusion

Are you planning to improve your running speed? You should add weekly exercises that target increasing your running economy and VO2 max. People consider genetics as the only factor limiting VO2 max. It is contrary to what research suggests for a running economy. Because of this, some experts advise runners to concentrate on increasing their running economy.

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