Running Economy

One of my biggest pet peeves is the phrase “proper running form.” I can’t stand it. Why? Because it implies that there’s only one correct way to run, and nothing could be further from the truth. Even worse, it implies that good running form is defined by how the stride looks, which further implies that the most effective way to improve the running stride is to consciously endeavor to make it look a certain way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.

Studies have shown repeatedly that when runners are asked to consciously alter their natural stride to make it look more “textbook,” they become less, no more, efficient. The well-known POSE Method is all about trying to make the stride look a certain way. A 2005 study led by George Dallam of Colorado State University-Pueblo found that 12 weeks of supervised training in the POSE Method left a group of eight experienced triathletes with less efficient strides.

The issue is that good running form is determined not by how the stride looks but by how hard a runner’s brain has to work to generate and sustain a given running velocity. This might sound weird, but it’s actually how skill in any motor activity, from archery to drumming, is defined. The more skilled you are in a given activity, the quieter your brain is when you do it. Conscious efforts to make the stride look a certain way are counterproductive because they unnecessarily increase the amount of brain activity required to run.

Okay, so where does this leave us? If the monkey-see-monkey-do approach to running more efficiently doesn’t work, what does?

Practice is the number-one factor. How do you get better at juggling? You juggle. It’s the same with running. Throughout every run you do, your brain is in constant communication with proprioceptive nerves in every part of your body, looking for ways to trim waste from the motor program it uses for running. This process is unconscious, automatic, and highly effective. In a 2012 study, Sharon Dixon of the University of Exeter in England measured changes in a number of stride features as well as changes in running economy in a group of 10 beginner female runners. These women trained for 10 weeks without any technique instruction. They just ran. During that period their running economy improved by 8.4 percent.

There is evidence that, although this process does slow down, it never stops. Indeed, ongoing, practice-based improvements in stride efficiency are probably the main driver of performance gains in runners who have already maxed out their aerobic capacity and other major fitness components. A 2011 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire compared various fitness measurements and also running economy in runners representing three different age ranges: 18 to 39, 40 to 59, and over 60. Unsurprisingly, they found that VO2max, maximal heart rate, maximal speed, strength, and power all declined with age. But guess what? Running economy did not. And because factors such as muscle strength contribute to running economy, these findings suggest that, on a neural level, the oldest runners were actually more efficient than the younger ones.

In short, efficient running comes from experience, and experience takes time. There are certain ways to accelerate the process of becoming a more efficient runner, however. One such method is uphill interval training. A 2013 study led by Kyle Barnes of the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand found that six weeks of high-intensity uphill interval training improved running economy by an average of 2.4 percent in a group of well-trained runners. It has been speculated that uphill interval training serves as a kind of movement-specific strength training that enhances the springiness of the legs.

Springiness? Yes, the human body operates as a spring during running, and just as a pogo stick with a stiff spring will bounce higher than a pogo stick with a loose spring, a runner with greater leg stiffness is able to capture more of the “free energy” that rebounds from the ground into the foot after impact and use it to propel forward motion. Certain forms of strength training (particularly high-load weightlifting involving the legs) have been shown to improve running economy specifically by increasing leg stiffness on impact. Plyometrics training (i.e., jumping exercises) are also effective in this regard. A 1999 study by Leena Paavolainen and colleagues that reported significant improvements in 5K race times and in running economy after nine weeks of plyometric training also found a significant reduction in ground contact time, lending support to the spring theory. 

Core strength training has been shown to enhance running economy in a slightly different way. Efficient running depends partly on efficient transfer of forces between the upper body and lower body. (This is one reason it’s essential to move your arms in opposition to the legs when you run). Core strength training aids this transfer and may also mitigate the negative effect of trunk muscle fatigue on running economy. A 2019 study appearing in the journal PLoS One reported that eight weeks of core strength training reduced oxygen consumption at a moderate running velocity by 4.6 percent in a group of college athletes.

Related to plyometrics are form drills—high knees, butt kicks, and so forth—which isolate and intensify certain elements of the stride. There is no scientific proof that doing form drills regularly has any beneficial impact, but the fact that they are almost universally practiced by elite runners says something. What you will discover if you do practice form drills regularly is that you aren’t very good at them initially but you get better over time. This improvement almost has to translate back to your running. And even if you can’t measure the effect, you can certainly feel it. Runners who make the effort to master form drills often report feeling more athletic.

Another proven way to improve running economy is barefoot running. When you run without shoes, you run differently. And if you do enough barefoot running, some of those differences transfer back to shod running. A small 2013 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire found that a 10-week barefoot run training program improved running economy by 4 percent.

Barefoot running has drawbacks, however. It’s impractical and even dangerous in many environments and requires a long period of adaptation that can be highly disruptive to the flow of training. An alternative to barefoot running that may offer the same benefits without the disadvantages is a clever little product called ShoeCue. ShoeCue is a unique, textured insole that fits inside any running shoe and works by enhancing proprioceptive feedback from your feet to your brain during running. Essentially, ShoeCue tells your brain when you’re landing too hard, allowing you to adjust your stride automatically as you go. 

One final method of accelerating the process of becoming a more skillful runner is cadence manipulation. Each runner has a natural stride rate that tends to gradually increase with fitness and experience. As a general rule, it’s best not to interfere with this process, particularly if the interference involves forcing yourself to consciously think about your step rate. But there is a way to get a little practice at a slightly higher step rate that may soon be natural for you without turning your attentional focus inward, and that’s by running with a metronome set at 110 percent of your natural stride rate and matching your steps to the beat.

It’s best to do these “cadence runs” on a treadmill, as there is a natural tendency to speed up when trying to achieve a higher stride rate. Step one is to download a metronome app onto your smartphone. Next, hop onto a treadmill, start running at your normal easy pace, and adjust the tempo of the metronome to match your step rate. Now increase the metronome tempo by 10 percent, adjust your step rate to match it, and complete the run at this higher cadence. Do this one a week or so.

As you see, there are ways to become a more skillful runner, they just don’t include trying to look like Genzebe Dibaba when you run.

Basketball players shoot free throws more accurately when they focus on the back rim rather than on the action of their wrist. Weightlifters squat more weight when they think about pushing the floor away with their feet than when they concentrate on contracting their muscles. And runners run more economically when they focus on the road ahead than when they try to run with a high cadence or land on the forefoot or even simply think about their movements without trying to change them.

No matter how you ask your body to perform, your body will perform better if you don’t think about your body. The underlying reason for this seems to be that efficient movement requires a certain degree of receptivity to the environment in which movement occurs. To shoot a basketball well or lift weights well or run well, an athlete’s brain must “listen” to the world as much as it “talks” to the muscles. In the case of running, thinking too much about moving “correctly” makes the body less responsive to the ground, hence more rigid and less efficient in its action.

Many runners find this counterintuitive, but it is a well-demonstrated fact. A recent study by German researchers, for example, reported that recreational runners were more efficient when running while watching a video (external focus of attention) than they were when running at the same pace while thinking about either their movements or their effort level (internal focus of attention).

You can’t run completely unconsciously, however, nor would you want to. There is a minimal degree to which you have to think about your running while you’re running, and at very high levels of fatigue one really seems to have no choice in the matter—or rather, the choice is no longer between thinking and not thinking about your movements but of how you think about them.

As a runner myself, I have developed a few basic personal rules concerning when and how I think about my running while I’m running. In easy runs, which should account for the bulk of any runner’s training, I let my mind wander far away from my body for the most part, but I do periodically “check in” with my body as I go. On days when I’m feeling good, these check-in’s are largely a matter of actively enjoying the act of running—the rhythmic and counterbalanced swinging of my limbs, the sense of floating. On days when I don’t feel great, my check-in’s become more a matter of using my mind to try to increase my comfort level. I do this not by actively changing my form but by trying to find the enjoyment that is being masked by my discomfort and by giving myself little form reminders. More on these in a moment.

When I’m running hard in races and workouts and I (seem to) have no choice but to give more attention to my movements, I employ the very same reminders, but with greater urgency. There are three of them. One is a simple reminder to relax. I find that by telling my body to relax in moments of straining I am often able to reduce my perceived effort level very slightly without consciously altering anything about how I’m running. Perhaps I really am altering something that only sensitive instruments could measure; perhaps it’s entirely mental. But in either case, I think it works.

The second reminder I give myself is to grip the ground and thrust it behind me with my feet instead of passively landing, stabilizing, and pushing off. I think this form cue is more helpful than most because it focuses attention on the point of most direct interaction between body and environment rather than on the body itself. Meeting the ground actively (grip-thrust) versus passively (land-stabilize-push off) tends to minimize ground contact time, which is a strong predictor of running performance and an equally strong indicator of fatigue.

One other reminder that I use both when running easy and when running hard, albeit less frequently, is to run symmetrically. I have some body imbalances that cause me to run with my torso rotated slightly to the left, which causes my arms to do some strange winging as a knock-on effect. Trying to straighten myself out as I run is not something that will help me complete the grueling final miles of a marathon any faster, but there is a place for trying to contain asymmetries and other idiosyncrasies of form that may contribute to injuries, of which I’ve had my share. Unlike the aforementioned reminders to relax and to meet the ground actively, which are universally applicable, this way of thinking about running while running must be tailored to the individual runner. The idea is to think about and correct your particular injury-causing stride “flaws,” not anyone else’s.

There are lots of running-related techniques and methods that are widely known to be effective but that achieve their effects in different ways than most runners believe or assume. For example, drinking water and consuming carbohydrate during endurance exercise are known to enhance performance and are believed to achieve this effect by limiting dehydration and supplying energy to the muscles, respectively, but in fact drinking water enhances endurance performance by reducing the sensation of thirst and consuming carbohydrate does so by acting directly on the brain in a manner that reduces perceived effort. Actually, I lied: these two measures enhance endurance performance in all of the above ways, water by limiting dehydration and reducing thirst and carbohydrate by supplying energy and reducing perceived effort, but you get my point.

Here are three more interesting examples of techniques and methods that don’t work entirely the way most runners think they do.

3 interesting running techniques

High Intensity

Science has supplied iron-clad proof that high-intensity exercise is an essential ingredient of any program intended to optimize endurance running performance. Although high-intensity work should account for only a small fraction of a runner’s total training time, it is impossible to achieve the same level of competitive performance without it.

Why? Most runners believe or assume that high-intensity exercise complements low-intensity exercise via purely physical mechanisms, such as increasing aerobic capacity and lactate tolerance. And it does. But research suggests that the most important difference between high intensity and low intensity may be psychological.

In a 2017 study, British scientists divided 20 healthy volunteers into two groups. For six weeks, one group engaged in an exercise program consisting entirely of high-intensity interval workouts (HIIT) while the other group did an equal volume of exercise exclusively at low intensity. Testing performed both before and after this six-week intervention revealed that although the two exercise programs resulted in roughly equal changes in aerobic fitness markers, members of the high-intensity group exhibited significantly greater improvement in a time-to-exhaustion test and, separately, in a test of pain tolerance.

The researchers concluded, “The repeated exposure to a high-intensity training stimulus increases muscle pain tolerance, which is independent of the improvements in aerobic fitness induced by endurance training, and may contribute to the increase in high-intensity exercise tolerance following HIIT.”

Depletion Workouts

A depletion workout is a workout undertaken without any carbohydrate intake either before or during. For example, you might run 16 miles first thing in the morning on no breakfast and consuming only water as you go. Most runners who are familiar with this practice believe its intent is to enhance the fat-burning capacity of the muscles.

Again, this is true but not the whole story. Although studies have shown that depletion workouts enhance the fat-burning capacity of the muscles, this effect has not been linked to any performance benefit. But other research has demonstrated that the specific stress imposed by training in a low-glycogen state upregulates certain genes involved in mitochondrial biogenesis, and this adaptation does increase endurance performance. In plan English, depletion workouts add horsepower to the body’s aerobic engine. That’s why high-intensity interval sessions, in which glycogen and glucose supply almost all of working muscles’ energy—even when they are done in a carb-restricted state—work just as well as long endurance sessions as depletion workouts.


Plyometrics is a form of training that consists of various jumping exercises such as hopping up into a box on one foot. It tests an athlete’s ability to produce power, or rapid application of force, and for this reason it is widely believed that the purpose of doing plyometrics as a runner is to increase stride power.

This is true for sprinters but not so much for long-distance runners. In distance runners, plyometrics training has been shown to enhance stride stiffness and thereby increase running economy. The type of stiffness I am referring to is the type that physicists talk about in relation to springs. The human body functions as a sort of spring during running, and just as a pogo stick with a stiff spring will bounce higher than a pogo stick with a loose spring, a runner with greater leg stiffness is able to capture more of the “free energy” that rebounds from the ground into the foot after impact and use it to propel forward motion.

Certain plyometrics exercises, including the drop jump, which entails stepping off a box and landing on the floor below, increase legs stiffness without increasing leg power. The fact that they, too, enhance running economy shows that, for distance runners, plyometrics really is about enhancing stiffness, not power.

Recently one of the athletes I coach (we’ll call him Scott) came to me with some concerns about the results of his latest DEXA scan and weigh-in. Although he had lost both overall weight and body fat, he had also lost some muscle mass, and the body-fat percentage in his arms had increased slightly. Scott wanted to know if he should add biceps curls and triceps dips to his strength workouts to correct these last two items. I told him absolutely not, and here’s why.

First off, it probably goes without saying that, although biceps curls and triceps dips are effective exercises for improving body composition in the arms, they achieve this effect by increasing muscle mass, and muscle mass—particularly in the arms— is dead weight for the long-distance runner. It can only slow you down.

I speak from experience. Last summer, when I trained with the Northern Arizona Elite team in Flagstaff, under the guidance of strength and conditioning coaches AJ and Wes Gregg I reduced my strength training frequency from three sessions per week to two and removed upper-body movements such as push-ups from my strength workouts. The resulting loss of upper body mass made a small but vital contribution, I believe, to my setting a marathon PR at age 46. (I promise to stop bringing this up after the one-year anniversary passes.)

Hardly shocking. But what may surprise you is that muscle mass in the legs is also dead weight for the long-distance runner. In 2004, exercise scientists at Ball State University examined the contractile properties of individual calf muscle fibers in college cross country runners over the course of a full cross country season. They found that the cross-sectional area of the runners’ muscle fibers decreased during this 12-week period, meaning their calf muscles shrank. That sounds bad, but the ratio of force-generating capacity to cross-sectional area of the muscle fibers increased during this same period, meaning that, pound for pound, their muscles got stronger.

The human body is not stupid. When you subject it to a specific type of training in preparation for a specific type of competition, it adapts in appropriate ways, even if certain adaptations seem negative at first glance.

Muscle tightness is another example. It is not uncommon for runners to go from being able to touch their toes when they start training to being unable to touch their toes after a few weeks or months of progressive running. An individual runner who experiences this change might think, “Oh, no! I’m losing flexibility!” But, like the decrease in muscle mass we just discussed, this tightening of particular muscles is also a beneficial adaptation to training.

It’s not tightness per se that you want as a runner but stiffness, which comes with tightness. The legs function as springs during running. Half of the energy that propels a runner forward comes from the ground as an equal and opposite reaction to the impact force delivered from the foot to the ground with each landing. A stiffer spring/leg is able to capture and reuse more of this free energy than a looser leg, improving running economy. A new study by researchers at the University of Calgary reported that greater Achilles tendon stiffness was associated with better running economy in a group of 46 elite runners, and prior research has shown that elite runners are generally less flexible than nonelite runners.


The bottom line is that if you are a runner seeking better race performance, you need to keep your eyes on the prize. Stay focused on the overarching goal—increasing the speed you are capable of sustaining over a given distance—and don’t get distracted by secondary goals such as maintaining muscle mass and flexibility. This is not to say that strength training and stretching should be avoided entirely, but these practices should be incorporated in targeted ways that contribute to the only thing that really does matter.

If you ask the average running coach what good running form is, he or she will probably answer with phrases like “midfoot strike,” “high stride rate,” and “low vertical oscillation.” It is true that these and other form characteristics are common in top runners and less common in slower runners. But there are exceptions. Meb Keflezighi won the 2009 New York City Marathon as a heel striker, Ryan Hall set an American record of 59:43 in the half marathon with an unusually bouncy stride, and Mo Farah won 10 Olympic and World Championships gold medals with an exceptionally low stride rate.

The Basis of a Good Running Form

On the basis of the fact that no two champion runners run the same way, I would argue that no specific movement pattern defines good running form. What, then, is the true essence of good running form? One possibility is efficiency. This idea has a lot going for it. After all, what is it that you really want your running form to do as distance runner? Not maximize power–that’s for sprinters. Rather, you want your running form to minimize the energy cost of running so you can go faster and farther before you become exhausted. It doesn’t matter how you minimize the energy cost of running, biomechanically, but only that you minimize the energy cost of running. Obviously, some movement patterns are generally more efficient than others, which is why most of the best runners are midfoot strikers. Nevertheless, each body is unique, so we shouldn’t expect every runner to minimize energy cost in the same way.

As sensible as it seems to define good running form as that which maximizes movement economy in an individual runner, however, I think this definition misses the mark as well. The true definition of good running form, I believe, is the particular way of running that feels easiest to an individual runner. I can’t claim to have come up with this theory. I got it from Samuele Marcora, father of the psychobiological model of endurance performance. Here’s an excerpt from an email message Marcora wrote to me about his perception-based theory of biomechanics:

“Many specialists in this area. . . still think that the [central nervous system] controls locomotion to optimise energy. They envisage an optimal solution in which the CNS senses energy expenditure and adjusts locomotion parameters (e.g., step frequency) to minimise energy expenditure. There are some basic neurophysiological problems with this proposal. However, the biggest problem is that there are several instances in which the CNS chooses locomotion parameters that optimise perception of effort at the expenses of energy expenditure (e.g., walking to running transition). When energy seems ‘optimised’ this coincides with the optimal perception of effort as well. So perception is always optimised but energy expenditure is often not. The. . . conclusion is that the CNS optimises perception of effort rather than energy expenditure.”

Energy expenditure and perceived effort are closely linked. For the most part, movement patterns that reduce energy expenditure also make running feel easier. It is very likely that the evolutionary reason individual runners adopt the particular way of running they do is to minimize energy expenditure. But it is perceived effort that actually controls this process. In other words, running in the way that minimizes perceived effort is the means by which runners achieve the end of minimizing energy expenditure.

Consider what happens when you’re running along and you turn into a strong headwind. You hunch forward, don’t you? This natural adjustment reduces the surface area of your body and minimizes the energy cost of running into the wind. But the choice to hunch is made consciously, and what you are really doing as a living organism is trying to make running feel as easy as possible despite the headwind. What Marcora and I are suggesting is that this is what runners are doing all the time, although mostly in subtler ways not involving headwinds.

Perception of effort is tied to brain activity. In crude terms, the harder you have to think about your movements, the harder those movements feel. So your goal as a runner is to run as thoughtlessly and unconsciously as possible. This is why consciously changing the way you run is such a bad idea. No matter what you change, you will have to think more about what you’re doing because what you’re doing is unnatural, and this will make running feel harder.

This does not mean you are stuck with your current stride forever. Every runner’s stride evolves gradually over time as the CNS learns through repetitive practice how to move in ways that feel easier (and that usually also reduce energy cost). Consider something like running with a higher stride rate. If you force yourself to run with a higher stride rate right now, running will feel harder (if only very slightly) and you will probably also be less efficient because you have to think about what you’re doing. But guess what? If you just leave your stride alone and keep training, it is probable that your stride rate will increase somewhat over time, and this natural evolution will be associated with reduced perception of effort and likely also with increased efficiency. You have to earn your stride changes.

Evidence that thinking about your running is bad for your running comes from studies in which researchers look at the effects of attentional focus on running economy. A series of experiments conducted by European researchers has shown that runners become less efficient when they focus their attention internally versus externally, even if their internal attentional focus does not involve any effort to alter their running form. Let that sink in for a minute.

I only wish these researchers had measured the effect of attentional focus on perceived effort as well, because it is perception of effort, not physiology, that directly limits endurance performance. Becoming more economical doesn’t do a runner any good if this benefit comes at the cost of increased perception of effort, as no runner can run faster than he feels he can run. And based on his understanding of what good running form really is, Marcora believes it would be a mistake for runners to try to increase their economy through interventions requiring conscious form changes (i.e., internal attentional focus, i.e., thinking), even if these interventions actually worked. “What happens to perception of effort if we make people run in the way that gets the lowest energy expenditure?” he asked in our email exchange. “I bet it would go up considerably.” And when perceived effort goes up, performance goes down, because the definition of good running form is the particular way of running that feels easiest to an individual runner.

There are two rationales for changing the way you run. One is to improve performance by reducing the energy cost of running at any given pace. The other is to reduce injury risk. Scientific research going back decades has consistently shown that when runners intentionally alter their natural running form, they do not become more economical. In fact, they often become less efficient. But a separate thread of research has demonstrated that certain changes in running form do reduce the risk of particular injuries.

A new study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine is the first experiment I know of that has investigated the effects of altered running form on both efficiency and injury risk in the same group of subjects. Sixteen runners, all of them heel strikers and all suffering from patellofemoral pain (a.k.a. runner’s knee), participated. Half of them were trained to switch from heel to forefoot striking while the others served as a control group. All of the runners were subjected to tests of running economy and were asked to subjectively rate the level of pain in their knees during running. Switching from heel to forefoot striking was found to have no effect on running economy either immediately following gait retraining or after one month of practice, but it did reduce knee pain.

These findings affirm the advice I’ve been giving runners for years: Don’t change the way you run for the sake of improving your running economy and performance. It won’t work. Instead, alter your running form only if you have suffered an injury that was caused by a correctible “flaw” (scare quotes used because it’s only a flaw if it causes an injury) in your running mechanics, the heel striking-runner’s knee link being one example.

Now, every time I make this argument, at least one skeptic counters that a month (or six weeks, or however long it is) is not long enough for the energy-saving effects of a form change to manifest. Runners, they say, need more time to adapt to their new running style. There are two problems with this objection. The first is that there is simply no evidence to support it. Studies lasting as long as 12 weeks have shown that the loss of efficiency resulting from modified running form persist despite continued practice. How long is enough? Six months? A year? What is the basis for the faith that switching to a forefoot striking pattern or reducing stride length or reducing vertical oscillation will eventually pay often when it has never been found to do so?

The other problem with the common objection to my advice on running form is that running form tends to improve over time in all runners. Coaches who do teach “proper” form have told me that in their own long-term testing they have observed improvements in running economy in runners whose form they’ve modified. But what these coaches don’t realize is that these runners would have become more efficient anyway, and in fact it they probably would have improved more if their form had been left alone to evolve naturally.

This is precisely why no runner should change his or her running style for the sake of performance. The human running stride is a self-optimizing system that advances automatically toward maximum efficiency through simple repetition. You can’t make it happen any faster through conscious manipulation. Like growing a beard, you have to just let it happen.

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