top of page

Running Economy vs. V̇O2 Max

To get better at running, you often need to run more or run faster. But what are we actually improving when we do all this training?

Welcome V̇O2max and running economy – two principles that have been shown to be very important determinants of running performance. It was once thought that V̇O2max was the be all and end all of distance running performance, but more recently the importance of running economy has come to the fore.

What is V̇O2max and how is it measured?

V̇O2max is the maximum amount of oxygen the body can take in and utilise for physiological functioning in one minute. Therefore V̇O2max represents how many millilitres of oxygen the body can use per kilogram of body weight when working at a maximal intensity (ml/kg/min). In simpler terms, V̇O2max is the greatest amount of oxygen your body can take in and use for respiration (the creation of energy) in one minute.

V̇O2max can be influenced by a number of factors through the process of oxygen consumption. For example, the size and functioning capabilities of the lungs determines how much oxygen can enter the blood. The pumping capacity of the heart and the volume of blood then determine how much oxygen can be transported to muscles. Once the oxygenated blood reaches the muscles, a number of factors will determine how effective the muscles are at extracting the oxygen such as the number of mitochondria or the activity of oxidative enzymes.

A typical V̇O2max value for an elite distance runner would be in the region of 75+ for males and 65+ for females whilst a fairly fit male would have a V̇O2max of 50-60 and a fairly fit female’s V̇O2max may be 40-50.

The gold standard of V̇O2max measurement is in a laboratory setting with participants usually running between 8-12 minutes and a number of physiological variables measured such as gas analysis. However, with improvements in technology, many smart watches are able to give a fairly accurate estimation from a couple of factors such as resting heart rate, age and training level.

How does V̇O2max influence running performance?

So why is it important to have a greater V̇O2max?

Middle and long distance running relies on having enough oxygen available for aerobic respiration or put more simply, enough energy to produce energy.

The ability to consume more oxygen means that we have more oxygen available in order to breakdown molecules of glucose and fatty acids to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and therefore allow muscles to contract producing movement.

In theory a greater V̇O2max means you can produce more energy and therefore run faster, right? Well, that may not be the whole story, especially for the longer distance events. That brings us to something called running economy.

What is running economy and how is it measured?

Not quite as many runners may have heard of running economy in comparison to V̇O2max, however research has shown that it may be more important for running performance. Running economy is the amount of oxygen that the body requires to run at a given sub-maximal velocity or speed. So you can have two different runners, running at exactly the same speed but one requires more oxygen at that pace.

Running economy is a multifaceted concept that relies on more than just oxygen consumption (hence why it may be a better predictor of performance). Running economy measures the body’s physiological efficiency and considers factors such as neuromuscular efficiency, biomechanics and even core body temperature.

How does running economy influence running performance?

We can only sustain V̇O2max for approximately 8 minutes therefore in many running events (especially 3000-5000m and up) runners will not use this maximum amount as it’s a sub-maximal effort.

Our running economy or efficiency can be looked at as a ratio that compares the amount of energy required to complete a given amount of work. Therefore optimum running economy is using as little energy as possible to complete a maximum amount of work. It’s therefore possible to have a similar V̇O2max but completely different running economy. Often somebody with a V̇O2max of 75 ml/min/kg will beat someone with a V̇O2max of 85 ml/min/kg so there is clearly other factors influencing performance.

Research has now been released regarding the laboratory tests from the initial 16 athletes that were involved with the Nike Breaking 2 project in 2017, which included Eliud Kipchoge. This research showed that less than half the athletes were able to sustain a steady state V̇O2 at 2-hour marathon pace despite all having similar V̇O2max results. So which is really more important for successful performance?

Which is more important? V̇O2max or running economy?

Well both matter and typically the fitter and more training you complete the better your V̇O2max and running economy become. It therefore can be argued that having a high V̇O2max and running economy is a consequence of training and not a cause of performance. Running economy is likely to more important than V̇O2max to determine running performance because it indicates the percentage of V̇O2max required to sustain a given speed.

Running economy may be the difference between success and failure especially between athletes that have similar V̇O2max results. This is highlighted in a recent study as it shows two athletes running at the same V̇O2max but at over 1 kilometre per hour speed differential.

We are also restricted to how much we can improve our V̇O2max. It can only be improved by 20-25% whilst the rest is genetic. Whereas, because running economy is multifaceted; there is a greater ability to improve this metric.

How to improve V̇O2max?

Generally in order to get better at something we need to do that thing. If you want to improve your V̇O2max then the best way to do this is to run at your V̇O2max pace (typically the speed in which you can sustain for 8 minutes). Research has shown that V̇O2max paced intervals such as 400m repeats at V̇O2max pace are more beneficial to improve V̇O2max in comparison to all-out speed work, tempo, threshold or easy runs.

Not sure what your current V̇O2max pace is? Check out Tinman’s calculator by entering a recent race time to find out.

How to improve running economy?

As running economy is multifaceted in nature, an all round effective training programme is likely to improve your economy. The training programme must contain quality workouts as just steady state jogging is unlikely to improve your running economy. These quality workouts could be V̇O2max paced intervals, long intervals, threshold runs or tempo workouts. Research has shown that thresholds and long intervals (4 minutes followed by 2 minutes of recovery) improved running economy but high intensity sprints with a short recovery (15 seconds hard followed by 15 seconds recovery) did not. Higher running mileage typically improves economy, with the caveat of maintaining quality workouts.

But there are also other ways to improve running economy. Most notably, strength training focusing on maintaining a stable core or plyometric training (drills such as A -skips) which improves the ability of the body to recruit muscle fibres more efficiently.

69 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
Post: Blog2 Post
bottom of page