For endurance athletes, most of the talk about better performance revolves around VO2max and lactate threshold. Despite their popularity these two factors they are more important for relatively short, middle distance events, like a 5K, than for marathons, triathlons or ultra events. The trendy measurements can be misleading. VO2max does not predict longer performance outcomes, which most people race around 85 to 88 percent of the VO2max—not much above the max aerobic heart rate. During most endurance races, lactate production is closer to resting levels than a hard interval workout, for example.
Getting faster is most easily accomplished with better movement economy. Often related to oxygen utilization, improving economy simply means training to run, bike, or swim faster at the same heart rate. When training with a sub-max heart rate, I recommend the 180 formula.
As training progresses, the goal is to go faster at the same heart rate, which demonstrates improved economy. Here are ten of the most practical and useful ways to accomplish it.
1. The Aerobic System
Slower training improves fat burning and develops the function of the slow twitch, red, aerobic muscle fibers. These muscles are directly related to better economy. This is the essence of building a great aerobic base, which usually starts with slower movements that gradually quicken.
2. Increased Fat Burning
Fat is the fuel for the aerobic muscle fibers, and a key for endurance racing. The more you make available, the faster your aerobic system will allow you to go, and the more you will slim down if body fat is too high. Even in a very lean athlete, fat stores can provide sufficient energy to many hours of training or racing—if the aerobic system is working well.
For decades, endurance athletes have sought altitude training as a way to get faster. But this is misleading. Living at higher elevations, such as 7-8,000 feet, can help develop the aerobic system and improve running economy. The ideal situation is as follows:
-Living at higher altitude, 7-8,000 feet.
-Training at lower elevations, 4,000 feet or lower.
-Racing at lower altitude can improve race times.
But just going to altitude does not guarantee results. That’s because the process requires a healthy body. A poor diet, for example, may not supply all the nutritional needs, such as iron, folic acid or protein, necessary for altitude living to increase quality red blood cells and better aerobic function.
As we know, the energy to train and race from comes from both sugar (glucose) and fat. But through a unique energy return system in our feet (and lower legs), we have the ability to harness the gravitational impact forces from hitting the ground, turning it into additional energy. This extra energy can be significant. But it won’t work well in feet that are dysfunctional. Muscle imbalance, overstretched tendons, inflexibility and other problems render many feet unable to obtain this extra energy.
By spending more time barefoot, even just walking around your home or office, could be the start of an important rehabilitation process that allows better foot function. If you are already doing this, venture out more, performing some barefoot runs and walks. The result can be improved running economy.
The main cause of poor foot function is bad shoes, especially when running. These are the ones that are not a near-perfect fit. In addition, those that are too heavy, over-supported, thick soled, with a higher heel can impair foot function too—this means most training shoes and racing flats.
Wearing any shoe for training and racing will reduce running economy. The goal, if you must wear shoes, in addition to improving foot function, is to minimize the problem by finding the ideal shoe for your foot.
Even a slight irregularity in one’s gait can reduce running economy. Muscle imbalance is usually the cause of gait problems. It may be associated with an injury or overtraining, both of which impair normal muscle balance. Correcting the cause of this problem, which may be due to footwear, diet, training, stress or other factors—and often combinations—will allow you to get faster at the same sub-max heart rate.
Pain itself can disturb muscle balance. Whether due to poor joint movement, inflammation or other reasons, pain usually means you’re doing, or have done, something wrong in training. Finding and fixing the cause of pain should be a priority.
A surprising number of endurance athletes have poor muscle strength. This can become more of a problem in those past age 30.
Traditional weight lifting routines can often impair aerobic function, increase muscle fatigue, and reduce endurance. If your standing jump test is not higher than 12 or more inches, please read my strength training articles. This can allow your body to become more economical.
The sweet spot of training means enough volume but not too much, and going fast but not too fast. This point is called overreaching, beyond where working out maintains fitness, but before the onset of overtraining.
My training formula for this is the most appropriate: Training = Workout + Rest
The foods we eat can directly affect running economy by improving fat burning, balancing muscles, increasing circulation, controlling free radicals and helping to build a better aerobic body.
The most serious insult to fat burning and endurance potential is refined carbohydrates—avoid them if you want to improve running economy.
I’ve saved the best for last. The brain is the most misunderstood and most neglected part of an athlete. Yet, it’s the most important by far as all the above factors are regulated by the brain.
It’s the brain that improves the body’s movement economy when the roadblocks that prevent it are removed.
The brain takes your slower workouts and is able to make you faster. This has to do with practice performance, allowing your body to go through the proper motions at a slower pace allowing the brain to do it faster with more economy.
Enhancing all these factors, even by modest amounts, can significantly improve body movements such as swimming, biking and running economy. The result will be training and racing faster at the same heart rate.
See “1:59,” the article that discusses running economy in more depth.