Optimise your running performance

In this blog we will try to summarise some key aspects around optimising your running performance. VO2max is the highest capacity an athlete has to use oxygen whilst exercising. Improved running performance is seen with individuals having a higher VO2max. Running economy (RE) may, however, be a better indication of running performance as it indicates oxygen consumption independent of the runners VO2max. RE refers to the sub-maximal metabolic cost of running, i.e. how efficiently is oxygen used in a steady state effort that is below maximal. RE is trainable, and can be manipulated using various methods. These include spatiotemporal, kinematics, kinetics, and neuromuscular methods. Let us have a look at each of these briefly.

Spatiotemporal:

This refers to the gait cycle patterns of running. Shorter, more frequent stride lengths, and reduced vertical oscillation may improve RE. These methods may lead to reduced metabolic (energy) cost of running through reducing peak braking and propulsive impulses in the stance phase of the running cycle. A running cadence of 175-180 steps per minute would be more beneficial.

Kinematics:

This refers to movement patterns selected for running. Key kinematic variables that can improve RE are reported to be a less extended leg at toe off. This is due to reductions in the metabolic cost of extension patterns in stance and flexor patterns in swing phases of running.  These likely occur because of optimal force angles occurring in the ankle, thigh, and hip when there is reduced extension moments during stance. Foot strike pattern (rearfoot or forefoot) has not empirically shown to impact RE. Self-selected foot strike pattern is therefore encouraged, unless being treated for injuries. This is because forefoot striking has the potential to load the achilles tendon more, thus changing to a rearfoot strike may assist in recovering from an achilles injury. Rearfoot striking has been shown to load knee structures more.

Kinetics:

Forces on the stance leg during running seem to have a role in RE. Lower horizontal braking forces (as reported with reducing stride length and increased step frequency) probably contribute most to RE. A higher horizontal propulsive force (moving the body forward), and a lower vertical impact force (supporting the body), also have contributions to improved RE, although the evidence is equivocal. Potentially, the leg may act like a spring during running, where the ground reaction forces increase with vertical displacement. Stiffness in the leg (the entire leg as a whole) may therefore result in improved RE. Stiffness here refers to the entire leg rather than a single structure. Stiffness in the leg can be increased with reducing ground contact time rather than merely changing step frequency. This is modifiable through neuromuscular activation (see below for practical examples on this). A forward trunk lean may contribute to increasing peak extension forces and thus improving RE.

So how do we modify our biomechanics for improving RE? We start with the propulsion phase, as this has shown to have the most positive impact on RE. We have previously written about the forces going through the joints during stance phase of running (up to 8 times BW in the ankle, for example). It is clear that we need an element of neuromuscular strength. But what does this practically look like? And what about running technique to improve RE and thus improve running performance? Here are some key factors to implement in your running program.

1. Improving neuromuscular force

Peak extension impulses at the ankle, knee, and hip will evidently improve RE. This can be done using the principles of overload, where we need to build up to 1.5-2x BW for each extension pattern. We suggest the following exercises to achieve this goal.

  1. Single leg calf raise (ankle plantarflexion)
  2. Bent knee calf raise (ankle plantarflexion)
  3. Bulgarian split lunge (knee extension dominant)
  4. Front/goblet squat (knee extension dominant)
  5. Back squat/hip thrusters (hip extension dominant)

2. Improving leg stiffness

Stiffness of the entire limb will allow for a reduced vertical load on impact as the body supports the weight during the stance phase of running i.e. creating a spring effect. This also refers to high velocity movements, which are all trainable. Here are some examples to implement in your training schedule to improve some fundamentals for improved stiffness during the stance phase:

  1. Single leg box jumps (vertical forces)
  2. Forward single leg triple jumps (horizontal forces)
  3. Rebound jumps
  4. Pogo jumps
  5. Skipping
  6. Squat/lunge jumps

3. Improving running technique

Goals for changing the running technique should be done with caution. Evidence does suggest that self-selected running technique may be beneficial for RE. For example, changing a stride length by more than 3%, may actually reduce RE. Nevertheless, let us give some ideas for how running technique training can be implemented to improve the propulsive phase of running.

  1. Cadence tracking (aim for 175-180 steps per minute)
  2. A- and B-skips (high knee skips)
  3. Heel-to-butt skips
  4. Bounding (extension effect)
  5. Ankling (footstrike under body effect)
  6. Straight leg bound (footstrike under body effect)
  7. Fast leg (muscle fibre recruitment and co-ordination)
  8. Striding

To conclude, we will confidently state that running is very much a technique based exercise. Improving technique and optimising muscle/joint forces during key phases of the gait cycle have the potential to improve RE. Keep up to date with us for more practical info on implementing these key exercises into your run training.

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