We all know that, to get better at running, you’ve got to run.
Getting enough practice is already half the battle, and the rest of the fight boils down to making sure you’re practicing the right way to achieve the pinnacle of your performance.
And that’s where a lot of people tend to drop off in the learning curve; while most athletes still strive for constant improvement, they often don’t have a thorough grasp on all the “how’s” and “why’s” of optimizing their running form and efficiency.
Understanding what and why you’re improving yourself is necessary for proper performance enhancement. For example, breathing is an obvious consideration in physical activity, but most people don’t get just how important it is (beyond the usual reasons for survival and basic cardio), meaning they’re missing out on another opportunity for improved performance.
Your oxygen consumption is much more complex than how well you can breathe while running. If you didn’t know already, oxygen plays a vital role in how much energy you have and expend during exercise, and it has a big impact on efficient, proper running. Understanding your capacity for consuming and utilizing oxygen efficiently builds a more complete picture of you as a runner — and your training.
Primarily, oxygen consumption and efficiency boils down to VO2 max and running economy: two imperative (yet often overlooked) aspects of running that can provide a surprising boost for your aerobic capacity and running performance.
If either term sounds foreign or ill-defined, worry not — this is just the blog for you.
What Is VO2 Max?
By definition, your VO2 max represents how many milliliters of oxygen your body can use per kilogram of body weight in one minute (ml/kg/min). But let’s be real, most people can’t wrap their heads around what that actually means, so here’s the digestible version:
Your VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use to create energy during intense exercise. Having a high VO2 max indicates that your body is capable of efficiently producing energy to meet the demands of your maximum exercise capacity.
The efficiency of your VO2 max is affected by a number of variables occurring throughout the process of oxygen consumption. For example, the size and health of your lungs will determine how much oxygen can enter your bloodstream with every breath. Then, your heart’s pumping capacity will determine how much of that oxygen is available for your muscles to use as energy; this will vary depending on the quantity of blood pumped by the heart as well as the amount of energy required for the heart to pump it. And once the oxygen finally reaches your muscles, your VO2 max can be greatly affected by your muscles’ ability to efficiently use that oxygen as a source of energy for exercise.
Obviously, that’s a complex and nuanced process, but understanding how it applies to running is a little more straightforward — we’ll get to that a bit later. For now, let’s examine how you determine your VO2 Max.
How to Measure VO2 Max
Since your oxygen utilization involves physiological systems, it isn’t always the easiest performance aspect to measure on your own.
In fact, your VO2 max is most accurately determined in laboratories — the process requires lots of technology, most of which isn’t readily accessible for recreational runners. Because this method involves data specific to the individual, it’s considered the golden standard for accurate VO2 measurement.
That being said, it’s certainly not the only method of measurement.
More accessible technology, like certain websites and smartwatches, can provide a fairly accurate estimation of your VO2 max with a few pieces of data. Typically, websites will use a combination of your age and resting heart rate, whereas a smartwatch will measure your resting heart rate, heart rate max, and some general demographic information (like age or BMI).
How VO2 Max Impacts Running Performance
Okay, so here’s the part you’ve been wondering: why exactly does this matter for performance?
The basic idea is that runners with a greater ability to consume oxygen are more efficient with producing and utilizing energy, thus allowing them to maximize their energy for faster or longer running.
And that’s not based on any arbitrary theory — this is purely backed by science.
Since running is an endurance sport, it’s categorized as a form of aerobic exercise, which refers to any physical activity that primarily relies on oxygen to generate energy. (So you can guess why maximum oxygen use might be important.)
To dig a bit deeper into the actual science, aerobic exercise is actually the process by which glucose is “burned” to create energy. In order for this to happen, your body requires oxygen to break down the glucose to produce molecules of energy called adenosine triphosphate (better known as ATP). So, the more capable you are of consuming and utilizing oxygen, the more energy your body can produce during exercise.
As a result, runners with a higher VO2 max have more energy available to use while running — meaning they’re more capable of running faster, longer, or further compared to those with limited oxygen intake and consumption.
But don’t jump to conclusions just yet — there’s another aspect of running efficiency to cover.
What is Running Economy?
Now, don’t panic if you aren’t as familiar with this one; a lot of runners haven’t been properly introduced to running economy (RE), since it’s still a somewhat new and nebulous concept. But, despite people’s unfamiliarity with it, researchers theorize that your RE is a vital component of optimizing running efficiency — and may be a better predictor of performance than VO2 max.
Let’s think of running economy relative to its counterparts, VO2 max and lactate threshold:
As you know, your VO2 max measures the maximal levels of oxygen consumption at high intensity; your lactate threshold, on the other hand, measures the aerobic capacity you can sustain for longer periods of time.
Your RE, however, measures the amount of oxygen that’s used to carry you forward while running at submaximal levels. In other words, it’s like measuring your submaximal oxygen consumption (or how much fuel you need to run at a certain, non-maximal speed).
Your RE measures how physiologically efficient your body is, focusing on how well your body parts function in order to leverage oxygen most effectively. This implies that your RE involves much more than the oxygen consumption alone — it also involves aspects like your metabolism, biomechanics, and neuromuscular characteristics (on top of your heart and lung capacity).
So, there’s clearly a lot to take into account. But that’s why we’re here to break it down for you.
How to Measure Running Economy
As you can imagine, measuring your RE can end up being quite complex when you account for all the moving pieces.
Similar to your VO2 max, assessing your RE is typically done in a laboratory setting where you have access to specific technology. You’ll typically start out by running at a steady-state pace on a treadmill (which is a continuous, easy-medium running pace). At this pace, experts and technology can determine the energy demand in your body by examining different variables relating to your running efficiency.
The efficiency of your metabolism, heart, and lungs is determined through evaluations of your heart rate, thermoregulation, mitochondrial efficiency, and minute ventilation (how much air you breathe per minute). These components relate to your oxygen intake levels and how well your body can carry oxygen to your muscles during exercise.
Your biomechanical efficiency, on the other hand, is determined by your running gait pattern, kinematic factors, and your anthropometric dimensions (i.e., your height, weight, BMI, and body circumferences). These factors can affect how well your muscles function for optimal oxygen utilization.
Granted, these aren’t the only factors that researchers take into account. There are still numerous variables that can influence your RE enough to yield inaccurate measurements. For example, something as simple as being inexperienced with treadmill running or running in a new environment can certainly sway your running efficiency. It can also be impacted by other external factors, like your footwear, the time of day, your nutritional status, exposure to different climate conditions, etc.
But enough about the complexity of it all — let’s get into why it really matters for your running.
How Running Economy Impacts Performance
We’ve mentioned the efficiency of your oxygen consumption quite a bit so far, so it feels appropriate to give it some more weight in the context of improving your RE.
Think about it this way: efficiency is the ratio that compares the amount of work you do to the amount of energy you expend. In this case, an ideal RE would indicate that your running is efficient enough so you’re doing the bare minimum amount of work to achieve the maximum amount of energy for your given activity or goal.
Pretty good deal, right?
Now, here’s the thing about running and oxygen efficiency: even if you share a similar VO2 max with another runner, you can both have completely different RE’s. This means that a high rate of oxygen intake won’t guarantee the efficiency of consumption, ultimately impairing your chances at obtaining optimal performance.
In the long run, those who have a better RE will ultimately prevail because they require less oxygen, thus expending less unnecessary energy than someone with a lower RE.
This then begs the question: which is more valuable for performance enhancement, your VO2 max, or your RE?
Which Is More Important: VO2 Max or Running Economy?
If you’re really looking to enhance your performance in all capacities, you can’t really skimp out on either — both your VO2 max and RE are intrinsic to optimal running, so claiming that one is more important than the other is sort of comparing apples to oranges.
That being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t prioritize improving one over the other.
In the grand scheme of things, your RE is more multifaceted than your VO2 max, so you’ll more likely yield tangible performance outcomes by focusing on the big picture. Changing the biomechanics of your overall running form can result in tremendous improvements. In order for runners to reach their full potential, it’s imperative that they practice with sufficient mileage and optimal running form.
Don’t get us wrong — your VO2 max is important, too. It’s just somewhat restricted both in how much you can actually change it, and how much it enhances your performance. RE contains many more variables that are more easily manipulated, whereas VO2 max is a little more predetermined.
You can think of it in this way: imagine you’re a car, and your VO2 max is a car engine. Yes, the engine is an undoubtedly important consideration for assessing peak performance, but it’s not the only aspect that requires attention. If you’re preparing for a long drive, it’d be detrimental to overlook other factors like the external driving conditions, the quality of the tires, the type of fuel, and so on. With such a broad range of important considerations, focusing on your RE may provide a more accurate representation of your current and predicted running performance.
But no one said you had to choose just one, right? Even if you do focus on one over the other, it never hurts to know how to improve them both.
How to Improve VO2 Max
The most effective way to increase your VO2 max is pretty simple: in order to get better at it, you have to practice it. A lot.
Your body’s ability to consume and utilize oxygen is a physiological adaptation, meaning it can adapt to the demands of your exercise through gradual, strategic training. In this case, it’s best to perform near or at your current VO2 max pace so your body becomes more familiar with the exercise intensity and its oxygen needs.
In order to determine your current max pace, all you have to do is run, bike, or row at the highest intensity of exercise that you can maintain for 8 minutes straight.
Not everyone is keen on running at full intensity for every workout though (nor should they), so another method for improving VO2 max is to run at 85% of your max pace for 20+ minutes. Although this isn’t quite as effective as running near or at your VO2 max pace, it’ll still get your body working hard enough to demand more efficient oxygen use (just on a less frequent basis).
Alternatively, athletes can also turn to interval training to help increase the frequency of working at their VO2 max pace, but this time, in short bursts. This kind of interval training will typically involve the individual to perform 1 minute of activity at 100% VO2 max pace, followed by 2 minutes of the same activity at a recovery pace.
Pretty handy, right? You’ve got a decent handful of different techniques to help boost that VO2 max (and little excuse not to consider it for better performance).
How to Improve Running Economy
And here’s some more good news — improving your RE isn’t all that difficult, and you’ve got even more options to choose from. Since your RE comprises so many different variables of efficiency, it’s sort of the dealer’s choice on how you want to start improving it.
One seemingly simple technique is to increase your running cadence (which is important for running performance in more than one way). When you increase your cadence, it’s not just for the sake of bumping up your step count — there’s actually some solid science behind how it can boost your neuromuscular efficiency. Taking more steps per minute can reduce vertical oscillation (or the motion of “bouncing” up and down as you run), meaning your muscles don’t have to waste as much energy on vertical movement. Instead, it can focus on expending energy on that forward, horizontal motion of running.
You can also improve your RE via targeted strength training. The key is to strengthen your core and trunk muscles, as this will provide extra stability in your torso. This added strength will reduce the workload of other stabilizing muscles, like some of the muscles in your lower back. (If you’ve ever had low back pain after running, a weakened core just might be the culprit.) Plus, having a strong core means that your pelvic and leg muscles have a more solid foundation to work off of as they move and contract, which translates to an increased opportunity for power generation.
Additionally, it’s just as important to understand how to properly activate and utilize those good ol’ glute muscles as you run. Many runners have underdeveloped or underutilized glute muscles, meaning other muscles have to overcompensate (often leading to wasted energy and, even worse, higher injury risk).
Stretching and mobility drills are invaluable as well, as they allow your muscles and joints to operate at full functionality. Without proper stretching and mobility, your joints are restricted in their range of motion, ultimately inhibiting your biomechanical efficiency.
On top of enhancing your training, you can also alter other external factors including nutrition choices, the duration or intensity of your running, or ventilation and breathing strategies.
As you might guess from the number of suggestions we just went through, improving RE could be its own blog post, but that’s great news! It means there’s a wide array of performance-enhancing techniques right at your fingertips. If improving your oxygen use wasn’t a top priority for you, you’ve got plenty of methods to ensure that your body gets on track of optimal performance.
There you have it — why and how to improve VO2 max and RE.
Ultimately, your oxygen consumption and utilization is an non-negotiable facet of enhancing running performance. Whether you choose to enhance your maximum aerobic capacity or your overall form and energy use is entirely up to you.
Either way, you’re likely to benefit greatly from trying to improve the physiological workings of your running form. As you learn to master your oxygen intake and efficiency, your body will learn how to function with more ease and productivity.
After all, if practice is half the battle, the knowledge to power it is bound to pay off immensely.
Dana Lindberg, DPT, CSCS
As a sprinter and long-jumper turned doctor of physical therapy, Dr. Lindberg knows full well the importance of the mental component in competition, and looks forward to assisting athletes in achieving their absolute best. In his time with the Samuel Merritt University’s Doctor of Physical Therapy Program, he conducted biomechanics research alongside faculty members to investigate the influences of different footwear on running force transmission.