Running Economy: backwards ahead!

Backwards ahead?! New ways to improve your running economy

What’s the secret to fast running?

For a long time, they key to faster running was regarded to be your maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max). In other words, the higher your VO2max, the faster are you across the finish line. Theoretically! Having a closer look at prestige endurance events, you will find that the winners do not necessarily hold the highest VO2max in the starter field. Now, why do they win anyway? Because they are fast! They run the same distance as you, only quicker. It might be due to them having a higher VO2max. Equally important might be that they run more efficient. Hence, they have a better running economy.

Running economy

Running economy describes the utilization of the available energy and oxygen. In particular, how much energy and oxygen is demanded to sustain a given (sub-maximal) velocity? To clarify, the goal is to reduce this demand, resulting in being able to maintain this velocity for a longer time/distance. Today, running economy is often regarded as a better race performance predictor than VO2max.

Running economy is closely connected to your running style/technique. Consequently, your lower extremities are highly involved. Numerous scientific studies name stride frequency, ground contact time, and leg spring stiffness as important elements for a good running technique. Commonly it’s said that a faster stride frequency, shorter ground contact time, and higher leg spring stiffness harvest a better running economy. Research widely supports this statement. However, this recommendation is no law by all means! Evidently a runners height or the nature of the underground can influence for example stride length.

How do you run more economical?

Now we come back to the title of this blog: backwards ahead! Has anyone ever had the idea to reach the finish faster by running backwards? Probably not too many, if so.

Nevertheless, this seems to be a not to far-off thought according to the authors of a 2016 study. The article published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Ordway, Laubach et al. investigates the effect of a backwards-running regimen on regular running performance. To do so, eight highly trained runners (VO2max > 70ml/min/kg) replaced their weekly running training in a 1:1 ration with backwards-running. After the 10-week intervention, all athletes underwent the same performance test as at the beginning of the study. As a result, the researchers found a slight, however statistically significant, improvement in running economy. Of course, for running forwards! It seems as a specific backwards-running training indeed is a somewhat unorthodox way to enhance your performance. The authors attribute this effect mainly to the fact that backwards running comes with a greater metabolic demand, higher energy expenditure and cardiorespiratory response than forward running.

Of course, there are other ways to improve your running economy besides backwards running. Hence, more traditional training forms like high-intensity intervals, running technique training, specific strength training, plyometric exercises, or even high-altitude training have been linked to enhance your running economy.

In conclusion, it is proven that running performance can be trained in various ways. As running economy is a major predictor for performance you should definitely investigate the different concepts of how to improve it.