You’ve gathered pretty good evidence that running a lot, running hard, and running in groups leads to more economical running. Do you know of any evidence that conscious manipulation of the stride — I’m thinking of technique systems like Chi Running and the POSE Method — leads to more economical running?
No hard evidence. I won’t pick on anyone in particular, but there are a lot of running approaches where a person will espouse a particular form or technique for running and will say that running is improved and economy is improved, but there’s really no hard evidence that a conscious, technical approach, or a conscious change in form, can improve economy.
I think it’s a mistake to fall into the trap of saying, “So-and-so runs really fast, run like him.” For any successful exemplar of a particular form you can find a counterexample. The complexity of running leads to any number of different solutions to the problem of running.
The traditional view is that long-term improvement in running is primarily the result of changes in fitness. Are you not finding evidence in your work that long-term improvements in running performance are equally the result of improvements in running technique?
In a homogeneous population of highly trained runners, the skill of running, which imparts the running economy, is probably equal in importance to fitness. The skill of running becomes increasingly important as you get up into the range of people who have a fairly high VO2 max. A substantial deficit in VO2 max can be made up with skill.
Who are the most economical runners and why?
There’s a well established trend in exercise physiology studies that running economy is inversely proportional to VO2 max. So if you have a high VO2 max, running economy will be poor, and if you have a low VO2 max, running economy will be good. One of the questions I’ve always asked is, why? A VO2 max is largely given through genetic inheritance. Why would it be that someone who has been given a big engine would also be given a poor economy, if economy is also a physiological thing that you are given?
What I think happens is that if you run a lot against other people, and you have a small engine, you have to make up the deficit you have with respect to the people who have bigger engines. So if you’re going to compete with them, you’ve got to figure out a way to run fast, and the only way to do that is to learn to run more skillfully, thus more economically.
Then if you look at the other side of the equation, an individual with a VO2 max of 80 doesn’t really have to learn to run very skillfully. They’re winning a lot of races by virtue of their fitness, at least until they get to a higher level. So what happens when you have areas of concentrated running talent like in Africa or some of the running groups here in America, you get this selective pressure. So in these groups people who have big engines to begin with are forced to learn through competition to learn to run more skillfully.
You can maybe see it in the recent case of [Chris] Solinsky breaking the American 10K record. He’s running with a group of high-caliber runners who may be pushing him to run fast, faster than he might without the group to push him. He needs a fast group, though, not just any group; otherwise, he’s not being pushed.
Based on your research, what else can you advise runners to do to improve their running technique?
I would encourage people who choose to follow a particular running approach not to follow it blindly. I was speaking to a person the other day and he was telling me how he had tried this one running approach and had become more economical and he’s become a better runner as a result. I said, “Well, how do you know?” He really didn’t have an answer. His running times hadn’t gotten appreciably faster. His results on a performance basis were similar to what they were before he had learned this approach.
You need to have objective measures to base your results on if you choose to go down this path, otherwise it may lead you nowhere. Again, running is a very complex thing and there really is no approach that works for everybody.
The other thing you can do is try running faster. How much faster is the question. You want to avoid running too fast too much. But adding in faster running with caution will probably challenge your body to learn to run more skillfully. Running faster is a good way to run faster.