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Why Running Economy Beats VO2Max for Distance Runner

In the world of distance running, two terms that often arise in discussions about performance are VO2Max and Running Economy. Understanding these two concepts is essential for both amateur and professional runners, and here, we will explore the differences between them and why Running Economy often trumps VO2Max for distance runners.

VO2Max Explained

VO2Max, or maximal oxygen uptake, is the measure of how much oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise. It’s a critical metric in gauging cardiovascular fitness, especially in shorter distance races like 5Ks. However, its importance might be overemphasized in the context of ultra running.

Running Economy Explained

Running Economy (RE), on the other hand, refers to how efficiently a runner uses oxygen at a given pace. It’s an intricate concept influenced by numerous factors, including:

  1. Biomechanics: How well the body moves can directly impact how efficiently energy is used.
  2. Muscle Fiber Composition: The type and mixture of muscle fibers play a role in how energy is utilized during running.
  3. Energy Utilization: How well the body converts energy into movement is at the core of RE.
  4. Strength and Flexibility: Both muscular strength and flexibility contribute to better RE.
  5. Body Weight: Weight can affect how hard the body must work to move.
  6. Equipment and Environment: Shoes, terrain, and other external factors can impact RE.

Why Running Economy Trumps VO2Max in Ultra Running

While VO2Max measures the peak oxygen consumption, Running Economy considers how efficiently that oxygen is used at different paces. For distance and ultra runners, efficiency often becomes more critical than peak performance. Running itself often leads to an improvement in RE, embodying the principle of “run a lot, sometimes run fast.”

Improving Running Economy Through Training

A strategic approach to enhancing Running Economy might include:

  1. Mindful High Mileage: It’s not just about running more; it’s about running mindfully. Movement repetition leads to movement improvement when it’s done with awareness and intention, allowing the body to find optimal ways to move. By focusing on form, rhythm, and sensation during extended runs, you teach your body to move more efficiently.
  2. Strength Training: Incorporating exercises to build strength can improve muscle efficiency.
  3. Hill Work: Running on hills develops strength and efficiency.
  4. Plyometric Exercises: These can enhance the muscles’ ability to contract more quickly.
  5. Technical Drills: Working on running form and technique.
  6. Choosing the Right Equipment: Selecting the appropriate shoes and gear.
  7. Flexible Training Approach: Adapting to what the body needs, responding to feedback, and adjusting as needed.

Understanding VO2Max and Running Economy, and recognizing the significance of each in different running contexts, can lead to a more tailored and effective training approach. While VO2Max provides a snapshot of cardiovascular fitness, Running Economy offers a more nuanced view of long-term performance, particularly for distance runners.

It’s worth noting that a drop in VO2Max is not necessarily a cause for concern, and it may even be something to expect during periods of ultra training, especially as race day approaches. The focus on efficiency and running economy, rather than peak oxygen uptake, aligns more closely with the demands of distance running.

Emphasizing Running Economy in training, combined with a mindful approach to mileage and form, is the key to unlocking improved efficiency and success in the sport. The journey towards becoming a more resilient and effective runner is filled with lessons, and understanding these metrics is a valuable step in that direction.

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