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Thoughts on running economy

21 December, 2009

I’ve been sharing thoughts this month on gait and performance. I should say that I’m no expert on these matters, these are merely my reflections on what I read on the research that finds its way to being published, as well as trends more generally in running. In a former life I studied physics up to BSc level, and I still have the type of brain that very often wants to know how. I try to incorporate the results of various studies into my own running life, where possible. But this does not make me an expert, by any means!

A recent German study looked at the effects on running economy of internal versus external focus. That’s to say, does the body while running at a certain pace use oxygen more efficiently when the runner concentrates on running (either breathing or movement), or when the runner concentrates on the surroundings? The study found that running economy is better, i.e. oxygen is used more efficiently, in the latter case. Now, this is all well and good, and even with only a very hazy understanding of biology, not counterintuitive. For a basic motor skill such as running, why should conscious involvement with running itself improve performance?

But I think the study raises further questions. Isn’t is possible, for example, that a runner who chooses to start thinking about running in a different way, and proceeds to run in a different way could ultimately become more efficient? I can certainly accept that at any given point in time they way we run without thinking about the running itself is going to be the most economical way. But if we can teach ourselves to run in a more efficient way, even it is a less economic use of oxygen to start with, isn’t it quite possible that once the new motor skills are acquired at a sub-conscious level this will lead to an improvement over and above the ‘miles in the bank’ effect? Would a longitudinal study furnish the answer to this question?

My legs are somewhat stiff today, and my knee made a cracking sound when I started to run for the bus this morning (not a part of my training, I just don’t like waiting at the bus stop), so I’m calling it a rest day, which is due anyway. Apart from that, I’m in the middle of trying to reset the caffeine counter, so it’s a good time for stillness and reflection. This is what I do with coffee — I like it so much that there will never be enough, and yet there can easily be too much. So once I get to four cups a day or so, then I have to cut-back to nothing, or nearly nothing. Today and yesterday: just one cup of green tea in the morning. Perhaps I’ll do some walking later to help the muscles recover. I’m so glad that it’s the shortest day of the year, though, things are looking up!

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