For a long time, the holy grail of sports performance has been the VO2 max, or the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can consume and process during a specific period of time. Obviously, this is a very important metric that can measured and tested repeatedly and consistently throughout an athlete’s career. A higher V02 max = better health and performance. However, there has been a trend to devalue the absolute benefit of VO2 max for distance runners¹ in favor of a different metric: running economy.
Simply put, running economy equals running efficiency. VO2 max is a universal metric; elite cyclists, swimmers, Crossfit athletes, they all have high VO2 max. However, have them go run and their VO2 max will only get them so far because they simply aren’t economical (efficient) at running. Sprinters and middle-distance runners, have very high VO2 max values. However, at paces slower than their race pace, they simply aren’t very efficient in both their mechanics and consumption of oxygen, as opposed to long-distance runners, who are very economical at slower paces² . Studies have shown³ that differences between runners with similar VO2 max values are largely determined by running economy¹¹, and can actually better predict success than an absolute VO2 max value.²²
If running economy is so important, how can you improve it? The answer is quite simple: Run more. Run often. Run faster. Run slower. Run uphill. Run downhill. Stretch, but not too much. Strength train, but not too much.³³ These all mean different things for different people, but the takeaway is that, to an extent, running faster may actually be a lot simpler and less scientific than people make it out to be. That being said, a good training plan that incorporates and balances these elements along with recovery and nutrition is incredibly invaluable to any athlete. These studies were performed primarily on athletes who had already maximized their VO2max potential; VO2max cannot be ignored as an important factor of athlete development and reaching that point.
¹Magness, “The Fallacy of Vo2max and %VO2max”
²Daniels+Daniels, “Running economy of elite male and elite female runners”
³Morgan, Martin, Krahenbuhl, “Factors affecting running economy”
¹¹Conley, Krahenbuhl, “Running economy and distance running performance of highly trained athletes”
²²Saunders, Pyne, Telford, Hawley, “Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners”
³³Barnes, Kilding, “Strategies to improve running economy”