The faster you are the smaller the difference improvements to running economy have, according to new research forthcoming.

In a paper that has been provisionally approved for publication in the Frontiers of Physiology Journal, three academics studied the link between improvements in running economy and the subsequent effect this had on running velocity.

Shalaya Kipp, Rodger Kram and Wouter Hoogkamer knew that “training, footwear, nutrition, and racing strategies (i.e. drafting) have all been shown to reduce the metabolic cost of distance running (i.e. improve running economy)”. But the academics wanted to know what this meant to the runner on the ground.

What does this mean for your PBs?

There isn’t an established idea of how improvements to running economy translate into performance. Kipp, Kram and Hoogkamer, working from the US and Canada, took it upon themselves to “quantify how metabolic savings translate into faster running performance”. If you’re using less energy to run a certain speed, how much faster does that actually mean you can go?

The findings were very interesting. The faster the athlete, the less benefit there is from their improving running economy. Not that the benefits aren’t still there but the faster you are, the lower the effect for any given percentage.

If you’re going slower than three metres per second (<10.8kph) then the benefit is greater than the improvement in running economy. If you improve running economy by two percent then you’re going to go slightly over two percent quicker. Wonderful.

Running quicker lessens the gains

If you’re running quicker than three metres per second (>10.8kph) then the improvements will be slightly less. The example given in the abstract for the paper might not relate to many runners at five and a half metres per second (19.8kph). At this pace, you’re looking at getting two thirds of your running economy improvement from the actual increase in speed.

So it’s not like for like, but you’re still getting a hefty improvement. For example “at 2:04 marathon pace, a 3% improvement in running economy translates to a 1.97% faster velocity or 2:01:36, almost exactly equal to the recently set world record.” The gains might be smaller but the differences are still worthwhile.

So what about the fancy Nike shoes that promote a 4% improvement in running economy? Well how much they help apparently depends on just how quick you are in the first place. Some might know my opinion of Nike isn’t the best. I also feel there were some interesting conflicts of interest within that 4% study, but the results are there. I’m sure Adidas runner who painted over a pair of Nike shoes for the Dubai Marathon felt that it was worth the gamble.

So should I improve my running economy?

Most certainly. Reducing the metabolic cost of running, i.e. reducing how hard it is to run a set pace, is always going to have benefits. The longer you race the more important it might become. Marathoners and ultra runners have to take into account the fuel stores being depleted too.

So keep an eye out for the full paper coming soon. All the fancy numbers around don’t always directly equal the improvement you might get. But hopefully this research will give an insight into the improvements one will see in the marathon.

What must also be considered is the potential psychological benefits. If you believe something is going to make you run faster then chances are it might do just that. It could all be down to your own perception of effort too. If you think that your shoes/fancy watch/super food will make life easier in a race, then your own perception of effort may decrease too.

And remember to train intelligently too. All the fancy gimmicks in the world don’t make up for hard work and consistency.

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