Running Economy

Updated: Apr 23, 2020

A Strength Perspective

Introduction

Training philosophies differ significantly between individuals, from elite level coaches and athletes to those at grass roots or simply recreational runners. One thing most have in common is a desire to run faster and faster for longer and not to sustain an injury.


I have a special interest in athletics having been an athlete for many years, as a sports physio looking after a multitude of athletes and as a coach. I have experienced the highs and lows of the sport and one thing I have learnt in this time is that there is no 'quick fix' just hard work, grit, and consistency.


Given the current 'lock-down' the usual training nights, group sessions, park runs are just not possible. Frustrating as this may seem, this time alone may be an opportunity to change something that may help you run faster once you return.


To this end I wanted to discuss some of the research on strength training principles and how this may affect your running speed, economy, and susceptibility to injury. Hopefully this may assist in optimising your running whilst making you robust in order to train smarter and harder!

Theory

Representation of how Strength training can improve running economy

The figure above provides an overview of how strength training can trigger physiological adaptations that help you run faster for longer. I will aim to decipher the technical jargon, breaking down each physiological adaptation and provide guidance on what exercises to use to improve each specific area.

Rate Of Force Development (RFD)

RFD reflects the neural systems ability to generate muscular force very quickly (fractions of a second). If we can generate more force in a shorter period of time we will accelerate quicker and increase our stride length. Simply put we will cover more ground in less time.


Maximum Strength and Force Production

Maximum strength represents the maximum force that can be produced for a single contraction. We usually call this a 'one rep max' or '1RM'. By improving strength in this way we are able to increase the velocity of running speed, stride length and improve robustness (less susceptible to muscular injury).


Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC)

Running utilises the SSC by storing elastic energy in both the tendon and the series elastic component of the muscle during the stretch before rapidly shortening to return the stored energy (example: Achilles and calves). Specific types of training such as 'Plyometrics' have been shown to improve the tissue stiffness, lowering the time between the stretch and the recoil phase (Amortisation) to provide higher velocity and power output. This provides increased stride frequency and economy of running.

By introducing a few key exercises that stimulate these three mechanism you can minimise breaking forces when your foot contacts the ground, maintain what we term mid-stance stiffness, whilst enabling a high swing phase recovery leg and lowering vertical displacement. In real terms this means because you can generate more force and more force faster, you increase your stride length. Your tissue stiffness also increases so you store more elastic energy which increases velocity, improves efficiency and allows increased stride frequency. You therefore get from A to B faster with less energy cost.


(Baechle & Earle 2008; Cardinale & Nosaka 2011; Joyce & Lewindon 2014; Fleck & Kraemer 2004; Zatsiorsky & Kraemer 2006)

Evidence

Balsalobre-Fernandez et al 2016 completed a systematic review and meta analysis of controlled trials to determine the effect of strength training programmes on running economy in high level middle and long distance runners. Of the 699 studies analysed only 5 studies were able to meet the inclusion criterion in order to provide a strong evidence base.

The authors suggested that strength training programmes including both low and high intensity resistance exercise and plyometric exercise performed 2-3 times per week for 8-12 weeks was an appropriate strategy to improve running economy. The authors also highlighted that moderate training intensities of 40-70% 1RM, also showed a large beneficial effect on running economy.


A concern of concurrent strength and endurance training is the 'interference phenomenon' whereby developing strength capabilities interferes with development of endurance ability. therefore finding a balance between these training paradigms is essential. Reviewing the research the authors suggest that strength based training can account for 30% of the total training sessions without compromising endurance capacities.


Despite the body of evidence that favours strength training with endurance based athletes it does seem to be largely overlooked by athletes and coaches alike. Hopefully if you are reading this you may remain open to change and explore the possibility of running faster and faster for longer.

(Balsalobre-Fernandez et al 2016)


Example Exercises

Bearing in mind the current 'lockdown' not everyone will have access to gym equipment, however this should not put you off at all. If we take a look at the literature we can get improvements with around 40% of our 1RM so as a starting point we have the option of body weight exercises and plyometrics.


To create perspective, whilst running your body can average up to 6 times body weight per stride and peak forces can reach up to 12 times body weight. For a 70 kg male this equates to between 420 - 840 kg per stride and over a 10k run this can accumulate to over 1.5 Million KG's of load per leg.

(Dorn et al 2012)


If you have no equipment I have detailed a few key exercises and progressions that would be useful in the early stages of developing the aforementioned qualities and have included videos to highlight technique. For those who do have access to weights please also see 'conditioning for high performance'.




References

Baechle & Earle (2008). Essentials of Strength Training & Conditioning. NSCA. Human Kinetics.


Balsalobre-Fernandez et al (2016). The effects of strength training on running economy in highly trained runners: A systematic review with meta-analysis of controlled trials. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning. 30(8):2361-8


Cardinale & Nosaka (2011). Strength & Conditioning, Biological Principles & Practical Applications. Wiley-Blackwell.


Dorn et al (2012). Muscular strategy shift in human running: dependence of running speed on hip and ankle muscle performance. The Journal of Experimental Biology. 215(11):1944-56.


Fleck & Kraemer (2004). Designing Resistance Training Programs. Human Kinetics.


Joyce & Lewindon (2014). High-Performance Training for Sports. Human Kinetics.


Zatsiorsky & Kraemer (2006). Science & Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.


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