Runners are always asking questions about how to be better:
How to run faster. How to run with more power. How to run to beat your next PR. How to constantly improve, even when there’s no definitive end point for how well you can run.
The thing about these goals, though, is that you can put in all the time and effort in the world to become a faster, stronger runner — but, you may not be maximizing your time if you don’t deliberately focus on an essential training component…
Your running efficiency defines how much energy you use per step. And, in a basic breakdown of how it works, the better your running efficiency, the less energy you use with every step. The less you use per step, the more you have on reserve for running longer distances and for running at higher speeds.
Plus, boosting your running efficiency requires a combination of improved running form and supplemental training, so you’re also reducing impact forces and contributing to long-term injury prevention.
What runner doesn’t want that?
Is Running Efficiency the Same as Running Speed?
Now, before we dive into the “how-to’s” of becoming a more efficient runner, we wanted to clear the air on an important distinction…
Running efficiency is NOT the same as running speed.
Countless resources refer to these concepts interchangeably, but they’re two separate terms!
Where your running efficiency focuses on your energy utilization per step, your running speed simply measures how fast you’re going. (It’s like the difference between your car’s miles per gallon versus its miles per hour.)
People often treat these terms as one and the same because they often come hand-in-hand. Running efficiency is almost always a component to running faster, but increasing your speed doesn’t guarantee more efficient running if you don’t approach it the right way.
In other words: the faster you run, the more energy your body needs to operate.
And if you don’t train for efficiency, your body won’t be able to match those energy demands. This could present as insufficient muscular activation or strength, or it could be that you don’t yet have the necessary level of endurance.
In these cases, your energy utilization will spike, because your body has to frantically recruit mass amounts of energy in an attempt to keep you going through long durations of activity.
However, on the flip side, if you have trained — particularly with deliberate, running-specific techniques — your body will have a much easier time maximizing its energy. Even when you increase your running speed, your energy utilization will still remain steady throughout your workout.
So, What Impacts Your Running Efficiency?
There are a LOT of elements that can affect how efficiently you run, but there are two main categories that runners typically need to work on:
Proper form and sport-specific training.
Within each of these categories, there are several distinct factors that have a direct impact on your efficiency. (If you find that you present any of the following form errors or lack the necessary training, follow the associated links to learn how to fix them!)
Keep in mind: when specifically training to improve your running efficiency, you can’t just address one or two problems as a “quick fix” or “spot treatment.”
You’ll find the most success from practicing everything in combination.
Training for efficiency requires a systemic approach. All of the pieces have to come together in order to create masterful running.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into what might be inhibiting your efficiency.
Running Form Errors that Limit Efficiency
One of the biggest aspects of running efficiency is achieving — and maintaining — optimal form.
You can find a whole host of resources that talk about the best tips for running form, but they tend to gloss over an important disclaimer…
When you’re adapting your form, it isn’t going to feel efficient at first. Changing your biomechanics is going to take some getting used to.
So, if these changes don’t feel like they’re working right out the gate, don’t give up: it’s going to feel awkward before it feels correct. Your body will adapt to the improvements over time.
Here are the four most common causes of inefficient running…
If you haven’t already been made aware of over-stride, it’s one of the most notorious running form errors out there (for good reason).
The name is pretty self-explanatory: over-stride describes when your leading leg extends too far out in front of you upon landing your step.
And if you’re wondering what “too far” means, it effectively refers to any point in front of your body’s main center of gravity. Here are a couple of examples, for visual reference:
When you over-stride, your leading leg has to deal with much harder impact when it makes contact with the ground. These increased braking and impact forces push back against you when you land, limiting your forward propulsion.
As a result, your body undergoes increased muscular demand to fight against those forces. While you may be physically capable of pushing through, your body is physiologically expending MUCH more energy just to keep you moving forward and is prone to fatiguing at a much faster rate.
So, eliminating over-stride is essential! Focus on running retraining drills that will bring your leading foot closer to your center of gravity to help reduce the amount of forces you have to combat. This will improve your muscular functionality and shock absorption, ultimately allowing you to use less energy to keep moving forward.
#2. Running with Low Cadence
Your cadence is simply a measure of how many steps you take in a minute (SPM). In most cases, the ideal cadence ranges between 170-180 SPM — and that’s no arbitrary number!
Research has found that this range encourages better running form. Taking more steps per minute means that your feet turn over at a faster rate, which will naturally prompt you to land with your steps beneath your body’s center of gravity. This will both prevent over-stride and position your body for improved hip and knee flexion.
Unfortunately, most people tend to run at a lower cadence. With fewer SPM, you have to make up for lost distance by extending your strides, which ultimately means that your muscles have to work harder to propel you forward, making them fatigue at a much faster rate.
Not only does this mean that you’re expending more energy than is ideal with each push-off, but the increased workload also causes your muscles to grow physically warmer. As your body temperature increases, your muscles exude more muscular thermal energy than normal, further “draining” your body of valuable energy.
Plus, low cadence means that you’re spending more time in the air, which is known as “bouncy running” or “vertical oscillation.” When this happens, you’re running with excessive up and down movement that eats up energy that should otherwise be spent on forward propulsion. The more time and effort your body spends on that vertical movement, the more resistance you’re working against to run fast.
And why lose out on all that precious energy when you can simply increase your cadence and run more efficiently?? Through cadence manipulation and running retraining, you can gradually increase your SPM to utilize (and preserve) your energy much more effectively.
#3. Not Leaning Forward at the Trunk
Another common form error you may have heard about involves your trunk lean — specifically, when there’s too little (or too much) of it.
Trunk lean refers to how far forward your torso is angled forward as you run. Ideally, this should only bring your torso slightly forward, as specific as only 8-10 degrees of lean.
While this seems like a ridiculously nitpicky range, this particular posture makes the world of a difference for your running. The slight lean plays a part in proper muscle activation, shock absorption, and injury risk.
If you run with an upright trunk instead, you’re restricting your hip’s range of motion. Not only does this disengage your glute muscles (which already inhibits your power and efficiency), but it can also lead to the two other issues we just reviewed: over-stride and low cadence.
It’s wild how something as small as trunk lean can make that much of a difference, right?
However, the good news is that it’s not incredibly difficult to correct or implement trunk lean. Part of it involves training to strengthen and stabilize your trunk, and the other part involves simply learning how to lean forward the right way (and the right amount!).
#4. Lacking Coordinated Movement
In addition to preventing specific form errors, there’s another vital aspect of your overall form: coordinated movement.
As you know, running is a high-impact, high-load sport, so the points at which your body is absorbing forces and bearing load MUST have sufficient biomechanics to tolerate all of those external forces properly…
And that requires sufficient and coordinated hip and knee flexion.
When these two joints bend to a certain degree of flexion in one fluid, coordinated motion, you’re better able to achieve optimal muscle activation and contraction.
This is what allows your body to safely take in the forces of your running and more evenly distribute them across your pliable muscle tissue. That “energy diversification” helps protect your passive tissue structures (like your bones, ligaments, or cartilage) from taking on impact forces they weren’t built to handle, ultimately protecting you from injury.
If your body isn’t able to coordinate this joint flexion, the energy you’re taking in will predominantly affect a particular area of the body, rather than being spread evenly across multiple tissues.
Not only does this increase risk of injury, but it also increases your chances of overworking or overloading any one particular group of tissues. All of this together will cause excessive fatigue in the muscles and inhibit the efficiency of your running.
Necessary Training to Improve Efficiency
Lo and behold, your form is not the only aspect that affects your efficiency: your supplemental training also has a powerful hold over how well your body utilizes energy.
Now, you might find that the next couple of sections review types of training that you already have planned into your calendar — and that’s a fantastic start.
But, the biggest difference is making sure that the training you are doing is deliberate and specific enough to your running. Focus on exercises that target the main muscle groups needed for powerful running, and stick to drills that recreate similar mechanics, too.
Let’s dive into the details…
#5. Strength Training
If you’ve been paying close attention, you may have noticed that all of the form errors mentioned above have something in common…
They all occur because of some kind of muscular deficiency. And, more often than not, most biomechanical errors boil down to insufficient muscle activation or strength.
Which can thankfully be combated by — you guessed it — running-specific strength training!
With running, you’re moving at a fast rate, on one leg, and actively pushing yourself forward. For all of that to happen, your muscles have to be strong enough to handle that kind of loading. And, they have to be highly efficient at absorbing and repurposing energy to maintain dynamic movement while under load.
Effective running strength work will target key muscle groups (like your glutes, quads, calves, and hamstrings). And, it won’t just target these muscles in isolation, either: runners benefit most from practicing compound and contralateral strength exercises.
Compound workouts recruit multiple joints at a time, like lunges, deadlifts, or Bulgarian split squats. These exercises allow runners to practice the simultaneous joint flexion and extension needed while running, which then promotes similar neuromuscular functionality to improve muscle activation and contraction.
Contralateral workouts, on the other hand, are excellent for developing strength in tandem with single-leg stability. These are exercises where you’ll train on one leg while simultaneously moving your opposite arm, like Romanian deadlifts. When you’re moving opposite limbs at the same time, you’re adding extra challenge to your core strength and managing the torque of left and right movement patterns. (You may not realize it, but this is a skill used in a majority of sports, running included!)
And keep in mind: for running, you don’t have to perform an exorbitant amount of strength training. You typically don’t need more than 2 days a week to get the results you need — as long as you’re making the most of that time with running-specific drills!
#6. Practicing Plyometrics
Alongside your strength training, you’ll want to train for running power, also referred to as plyometrics or plyos.
Plyometric exercises are specifically designed to increase the power your muscles can generate and use towards your forward running propulsion. Most often, plyos will involve some kind of jump training to familiarize your body with the joint flexion and muscle contraction necessary to generate enough power and get you off the ground.
But, the key isn’t just in the jumps — it’s about how QUICKLY you execute them.
Think about it this way: muscular power is created by multiplying strength x speed.
Strength training will build your muscles’ strength and force output, and plyometric training will recruit that force as quickly and accurately as possible to create dynamic motion.
With enough training, your muscles and joints will adapt to the nature of rapid, plyometric movement, and they’ll become more efficient at generating, absorbing, and utilizing forces for a more powerful push-off.
Once again, this will contribute to injury prevention while also optimizing your muscles’ ability to safely manage the impacts and loading of your running and repurposing that energy into your movement.
And the better your body gets at managing force, the more effectively it will propel you forward.
#7. Being Intent with Your Speed
Alright, this final one is straightforward.
When you’re running for a certain type of speed, really focus on staying true to it!
That is: if you’re running a long slow distance run, make sure you run slow and STAY running slow the whole time (even if it feels too easy!). And, if you’re running a faster pace or getting in your speedwork, be intent on going fast.
It might seem obvious — and perhaps it sounds way too rudimentary as a tip to run more efficiently — but it’s an important point to hit home.
Intentionally running slow is what helps build your aerobic base. When you train for longer, slower running, your muscles are able to produce more mitochondria, which then allows your cells to produce and break down energy at a slower but more sustainable rate. This increases your oxygen-carrying capacity and boosts your overall muscular endurance.
But, a lot of runners hit a common pitfall where they start out slow, feel good through their run, and have the urge to push themselves harder to beat their metrics.
And while the ambition is admirable, breaking that intentional slowness takes away from the benefit of your aerobic workouts.
The same logic applies to your faster running: when you run fast, like 80-100% maximum effort fast, you can gradually increase your VO2 max. But, you won’t see the results you’re striving for if you don’t go hard for the full duration of your workout.
Deliberately pushing yourself (within set training parameters) can improve the rate at which your body produces and utilizes oxygen — which is arguably the most important aspect of running efficiency.
So, when we say that every aspect of your running training HAS to be deliberate, we’re not fooling around! Maintain the speed your runs were meant for, and that can contribute a lot to the big picture of your efficiency.
Get to Training!
Clearly, there are a LOT of components that go into running efficiency, and each aspect requires deliberate focus and intent.
While you can certainly start out with just one or two techniques, you won’t see true, long-lasting results by taking shortcuts. To legitimately improve the efficiency of both your physical AND physiological systems, you have to work on all of these training facets in conjunction.
This will build you into a sound runner with masterful form and a strong training foundation that supports muscular strength, power, and endurance.
And that’s where all of these pieces will fall into place to create the image of efficiency.