The Myth of Running Economy

Published on 02. Mar, 2010 by in Run, Triathlon

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Outrunning the Tide
Creative Commons License photo credit: TomRaven

A recent post by triathlon coach Joe Friel (http://www.trainingbible.com/joesblog/2010/02/specificity-of-training.html) has kindled a great conversation about the nature of running economy and how it relates to training inside the Endurance Nation forums. I think Joe’s article captures one of the biggest misconceptions around training in the running space…and it has to be stopped! If you want to read a more coherent review, check out Chris Whyte’s full take on this topic on his blog here: http://chris-lakerfan.blogspot.com/2010/02/running-economy-myth.html

The heart of the matter is what Joe refers to as economy, stating that if you want to get good, or more efficient, at running a certain pace then you need to spend time training at that pace. By “good” he is referring to being more economical — using less energy to achieve that pace.

In order to use less energy from a running perspective, an athlete needs to become a more efficient, technically proficient, as well as stronger/fitter runner from a muscular, cardiovascular and neurological sense. In order to achieve these gains, the athlete must be challenged in their training — the actual pace and training must create a training stress.

“If your goal is to run a 7-minute pace you need to do a lot of 7-minute-paced running. Not 8 minutes and not 6 minutes. There is this thing called “economy” which relates to the principle of specificity. If you spend a lot of time running 6- or 8-minute pace you will not be as economical at 7 minutes as you could have otherwise been. Economy has to do with how much energy you use (or waste) at a given pace.”

As Chris points out, we use the Progressive Overload Principle in our training to it needs to create the conditions for adaptation to happen. As we gradually apply more stress, our bodies adapt and become more efficient (Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_overload). Sitting at a static pace, or 7-minute miles in Joe’s example, will not in and of itself lead to improved overall economy, nor will it lead to improved economy at that specific pace.

It’s important to remember that your body will only adapt, or in this case get more economical, when it’s suitably challenged. It’s insanely lazy. Actually choosing a specific pace and sticking to it will not lead to changes in economy at all, but quite the contrary: it will lead to stagnation, decreased training stress, and less economy.

Let’s quickly examine some of the confusing elements of Joe’s suggestion for training. While the science of Progressive Overload is proven, many in the run community firmly believe that raining at a specific pace, goal race pace, is an important component of any race build up.

Race Pace is Psychologically Important
Because runner’s focus on finish times, it’s only natural that they will calculate a per-mile pace split from any distance. This pace becomes the holy grail, a goal for race day and also a daily measuring stick for all workouts. If my goal is to run 7-minute miles on race day, then I review every run to see my average pace; the more 7-min/mile runs I see the happier I am…especially with the longer runs. Again, very arbitrary and not a real indicator of fitness.

Some runners confuse economy with the concept of “comfort”, or being able to just settle into a goal race pace. The assumption is that more time spent running at 7-minute miles will make running at 7-minute miles that much “easier” on race day, physically, mentally, nutritionally, etc. While it’s important to know what a given pace feels like after 1, 2, or 3 hours, we have GPS and pace devices that tell us what pace we are running at and don’t need our bodies to do the thinking and the driving. Just the driving.

Improper Pace Selection
One of the biggest confounding factors around this issue is actually how athletes determine a goal race pace. Most will pick an arbitrary finishing time out of the hat, then do the math on the splits and train backwards from there. For example, you ran a 3:30 marathon last year and this year want to go 3:15. Now you need to train at 7:30 miles instead of 8:00 miles, so just run 7:30s instead of 8:00s in training and you’ll be fast enough on race day, right?

Truth is, it’s not that simple. Sure running 7:30s is harder than running 8:00s, and there will be some adaptation from making that switch. But more importantly is your body ready for that leap, or are you picking a point too far out on the Progressive Overload curve that you won’t be able to get that fit in time for the race?

Since the goal pace chosen is typically hard for the individual athlete (few choose to get “less fit” from year to year), the challenging nature of the workouts seems right. Even if the pace is do-able, running at that same pace over your training cycle will not yield adaptations that make you fitter or more economical at that pace. You’ll see a quick stimulation, then a fade as your body simply is not longer challenged by that stimulus.

Volume, Mileage, Stress and Economy
For the majority of athletes, the pace they can sustain for 26.2 miles is relatively pedestrian. It gets hard after 18 or 20 miles, but until that point does little to create the stress required for force adaptations (and improve fitness and economy). So running 10 miles at your goal marathon pace during your training plan is really doing very little to stress your system to make it more economical.

Sounds good on paper, but in training we apply more miles each week. That increased mileage then adds more stress to our program, and will lead to adaptation, right? Last week I ran 10 miles on Sunday, and 30 miles overall; this week I will run 12 miles on Sunday and 34 miles overall. More work = more stress = more adaptation. This is where a volume oriented approach makes sense, and clouds the issue.

The short answer is yes, adding more time at the same pace/effort is going to create increased stress and generate a return on that training. But that said, the return will be short lived. And, to be clear, fixing your pace to a specific effort (7-minute miles) and increasing only the volume to create conditions for stress is a very inefficient program. There will be some gains in fitness and economy, but nothing near what you are capable of doing.

Training Stress = Frequency X Intensity X Duration
By fixing the intensity at a given pace, the only other options for constantly manipulating stress become frequency (# of times in a week) and duration (adding more time/miles). Your life will dictate the frequency, for the most part, which leaves increasing the duration of your specific runs. This works until you max out your available time or workouts begin impinging upon one another.

Instead of looking at duration as the sole variable, inside Endurance Nation we manipulate intensity to create stress and conditions for Progressive Overload that won’t overwhelm your life. So instead of sitting on 7-minute/mile pace, you might run intervals at 6-minute pace, do tempo at 6:30-minute pace, and do long slow runs at 7:15 pace. All of this work, organized properly will challenge your body, forcing it to adapt and become more economical…and allow you to run 7:00 miles quite well. Better, I would argue, than just running 7:00-minute miles would.

Appropriate Usage of Race Pace
The closer you get to your chosen endurance event, the more valuable race pace running becomes. Partly because up until this time, if you have been following the advice above, you have actually been running harder than your goal race pace. So race pace running allows you to dial in what it feels like to run your desired race day pace; this is markedly more important for novice athletes. It doesn’t make you any more economical or efficient, but it does prepare you run that pace on race day.

For Ironman and 70.3 triathletes, this dialing in of pace can happen over the last 6-8 weeks of training depending on your time to train and your experience level. For marathon runners, really only your longest “race simulation” runs need to be at exactly what your pace will be like on race day.

Good luck!

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  • Multiple ways to go

    Unfortunately, there is no one “right” answer as much as EN likes to think they have them all. It's this type of “my way or the high way” articles that gives triathlon coaching a bad name.

  • chris

    Thanks Patrick, great post.

  • http://www.10hoursaweek.com Patrick McCrann

    I welcome all sorts of feedback to my writing, even stuff like this. Happy
    to have a debate or a discussion if you'd like to bring up some issues with
    the science of what I have said. I believe that coaching is part art, part
    science, but I am not a fan when the art starts to deny the science it also
    employs. The original article I replied to did just that. Thanks.

  • Wes1030m

    Sounds like somebody is a bit jealous of EN… I've done Ironman using the traditional approach. This year, I will do Ironman following the EN approach. Pick your poison. Be happy…

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/XBLZKLLJFVCTAZOZGFUDEG55XI Scott T

    Improper Pace Selection……………If your goal is to run a 7-minute pace you need to do a lot of 7-minute-paced running…if its a goal do you do much 7 minute mile running??
    Progressive Overload Principle in our training to it needs to create the conditions for adaptation to happen…………….

    i dont know how much of that is true.

    i was alternating a 4 mile mostly flat course at around 7:20 miles and struggling to improve. i said f__k it and began running a treadmill on 11percent incline for 3.1 miles at a 12 min per mile pace for a month or so and when i went back to the 4 mile course i went right down to a 6:54

    now doing 6 miles on the flat course at around 7:10 miles i began to integrate 4 miles at 11 percent incline on tread mill and i can already feel the hills getting easier on the 6 mile course (three 6 milers then one 4 mile uphill treadmill).

    sometimes i think working out differently will lead to improvements on a regular workout by enhancing other excercise factors.

  • http://www.10hoursaweek.com Patrick McCrann

    Scott, thanks for the comment. I think any training program is only as good as the person who uses it. The better you know yourself, the better you training will be. I could use the same brushes as Michelangelo but I won't make a Sistene Chapel anytime soon. In your case it's hard to say what all of the extenuating factors there were that were limiting your ability to break the 7:20 mark, but it's great to see you found a way around it through variety and recovery. I think if you keep your cycle up you'll be flying in no time.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_HDFU7YHSFAMREHWBDVYKIG66Y4 JohnC

    You got faster on the flat course because the 11 percent incline, even at a slower pace, was more intense than your usual running. It’s not running a faster pace per se that makes you faster. Running a slower pace but on a sharp incline is equivalent to running faster on a flat surface. It’s still progressive overload either way. Running while pulling a tire or something behind you, even at a slower pace, would also fit that mold.

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