Science / How to Improve Running Economy and Running Speed

How to Improve Running Economy and Running Speed

by Patrick McKeown

Why Running Economy is a Game-Changer and How to Get More Efficient

Want to improve your running? The first thing that springs to mind is probably your run time. Your speed and endurance. But there is another dimension that impacts how fast you run, and how much ground you can cover. Let’s look at running economy.

Increase Running Economy and Running Speed

What Is Running Economy?

Running economy is essential if you want to run faster, further and more freely.

It represents:

  • The energy demand of running at any given submaximal speed.
  • The metabolic “cost” of running.
  • Your steady-state oxygen consumption at a given speed.

It’s especially relevant over distance. The less oxygen your body uses, the better your running economy.

Running economy varies between individuals. Just like other performance stats: VO2 max, anaerobic threshold and speed at VO2 max. One study found a 30% difference between trained runners with similar VO2 max.

If your running economy is already good, it can always be better. If you’re a novice runner, exercise economy can give you a new focus for your training.

How to Increase Running Economy

For a 4:30:00 marathon runner, even a 1% improvement in running economy means a 1.17% faster run time. This cuts 3 minutes and 7 seconds off the finish time. Which for an endurance runner is significant.

Running experts suggest everything from diet to active muscle volume. From stride rate, elastic energy and strength training to carbon-fiber-soled shoes. Even the flexibility or stiffness of your ankle joints might play a role.

We’ve already looked at hematocrit, lactic acid and EPO levels in our Science series. Common tips include increasing your mileage and reducing body mass.

Muscle composition is important too. The proportion of “slow twitch” and “fast twitch” skeletal muscle fibers. Slow twitch muscles are fatigue-resistant and aerobic in nature. They support endurance activities. Fast twitch muscles are used for quick, powerful activities. Like weightlifting and sprinting.

But most athletes miss an obvious technique. Breathing exercises to simulate high altitude can boost running and swimming economy. It’s about getting oxygen to the muscles. 

How Can I Increase My Running Speed and Stamina?

During exercise, muscles need more oxygen for energy. You can think of this as your “oxygen cost.” At the same time, a moving body produces more carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide causes the hemoglobin in red blood cells to release oxygen to the muscles.

As carbon dioxide builds up, you breathe harder and faster. Your breathing muscles become tired. Blood is diverted from the legs to support respiration. You have to slow down and stop. This is one reason running economy is a better predictor of distance running performance than VO2 max.

If you breathe more efficiently and correct breathing pattern disorder, your respiratory muscles don’t need to work so hard. Circulation is better. Your body gets a steady supply of oxygen.

You can boost running economy by improving your aerobic capacity. This means you increase your body’s oxygen-carrying capacity. We already explored the role red blood cells play. In an interview for Runners’ World Dr. John Dickson, Head of the Respiratory Clinic at the University of Kent says:

“One way to shock the body into producing more red blood cells is by training at altitude… but research shows this can take two to three weeks to take effect. That’s fine for elite athletes who ship out to high-altitude training camps for months on end, but not so practical for the rest of us.”

How Can I Increase My Oxygen Level While Running?

You can do this the hard way or the easy way.

The hard way:

Run more miles every week. Elite runners cover a massive mileage. But to boost running economy by running more, most of your run must be easy. You already have to be pretty fit for this to work. 

This is also a challenge because of injury and over training. If you have a naturally competitive nature, it can be hard to know when to stop. And if you need to scale it back for a week or two, your aerobic capacity will drop. 


The easy way:

Scientists have reported better running economy in athletes who practice reduced breathing. This included breath holds to replicate intermittent hypoxic/hypercapnic training (IHHT).

Benefits of strong breath holds to simulate training at high altitude:

  • Breathe light during running
  • Breathe slower
  • Stronger breathing muscles
  • Better gas exchange
  • Greater mitochondrial density in your muscles
  • Better blood flow back to the heart
  • Maintain condition during rest periods or injury
  • Prevent overtraining

Dr. Dickson is right. High altitude training has benefits for running economy.

But you can produce the same effect with Oxygen Advantage® IHHT exercises. Used long term they will increase sprint running economy as well as distance running. Giving you a reliable, practical program for running economy training. 

What the Scientists Say about Running Economy

Eighteen swimmers, comprising ten men and eight women, were assigned to two groups. The first group was required to take only two breaths per length and the second group seven breaths.

Researchers found that running economy improved by 6% in the group that performed reduced breathing during swimming.

See: Lavin, K. M.; Guenette, J. A.; Smoliga, J. M.; Zavorsky, G. S. Controlled-frequency breath swimming improves swimming performance and running economy. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports 2013 Oct 24

Breath holding was practiced over six weeks by 15 middle distance runners (600-3000m). Runners participated in official athletics competition before and after.

First group: Normal breathing. +0.03% improvement to time.

Second group: 15 to 20 minutes of breath holding on the exhalation once per week. +1.27% improvement to time.

Third group: 15 to 20 minutes of breath holding on the exhalation twice per week. +1.33% improvement to time.

The results showed that all the runners who trained with breath holding on the exhalation twice a week improved their performance over distances ranging from 1200 meters to 3000 meters. The velocity improvement was 1.33% on average.

See: Fortier E, Nadeau. Peterborough, Canada. (Cited in the book: Hypoventilation Training by Xavier Woorons from Paris 13 University)

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