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Running Economy may not be as well known to runners as VO2 max (aerobic capacity), but it's a very important piece of the performance puzzle. In fact some researchers feel that Running Economy is a key predictor of performance among athletes with similar VO2 max values.

Running Economy is simply defined as the amount of oxygen consumed relative to the athlete's body weight and the speed at which the athlete is running. For example if an athlete runs at a 7:00 per mile pace and consumes 45 ml of oxygen per kg of body weight and another athlete runs that same pace and consumes 50 ml of oxygen per kg of body weight, the first athlete is more economical. If that more economical runner increases their effort to a level at which they are consuming 50 ml of oxygen per kg body weight, they'll be running a good bit faster than the other athlete.

Strength is one of the trainable factors affecting running economy. Italian researchers Maria Francessca Piancentini and her colleagues at the Department of Human Movement and Sport Sciences at the University of Rome "Foro Italico" published a study in the August 2013 issue of Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showing that even master endurance runners can improve running economy through specific strength training. 

Previous studies on strength training and running economy have been done primarily on young and elite endurance athletes. This study was focused instead on a group of regularly training master marathon runners (age > 35). The sixteen participants were randomly assigned to a maximal strength training program, a resistance training program and a control group. Several measurements were made before and after the intervention to determine changes in several strength parameters as well as running economy at marathon race pace.

An increase in strength can contribute to improvements in running economy in part through enhancing mechanical efficiency and motor unit recruitment patterns. However the researchers noted "it is not known if this older athletic population will respond in a similar manner as elite or younger athletes or if including extra training days will induce them to nonfunctional overreaching". The researchers hypothesized that the addition of maximal strength training or resistance training to the athlete's usual endurance training would lead to different types of neuromuscular adaptations and therefore have different effects on running economy.

A six-week training regimen was chosen as the intervention. The control group did only their usual endurance training and the two experimental groups added either a maximal strength training routine or a resistance training routine twice a week to their usual endurance training. The two routines differed in that the maximal strength training program consisted of 4 sets of 3-4 repetitions of exercises for the lower and upper body at 85-90% of one-repetition maximum whereas the resistance training group performed 3 sets of 10 repetitions at 70% of one-repetition maximum.
Running economy at marathon race pace improved for only the maximal strength training group. The improvement was a statistically significant 6.17%. This improvement came about in the absence of any increases in muscle size (hypertrophy) or body weight - which is of course advantageous for marathon runners. This 6% increase in running economy is similar to what is observed for younger individuals with a similar training intervention.
The authors conclude with a little note of caution, stating that "one of the major concerns in adding strength to endurance training especially in a population that needs to train between already busy schedules, is the possible decrease in compliance to training and the risk of non functional overreaching". Using a shorter program such as the one these scientists used (a 6 week intervention) seems to make sense from a coaching and life balance stand point.
If you're a master marathoner, or perhaps you coach one - you might consider including a 6-week maximal strength training phase in the preparation phase of a competition training plan. You may find that the payoff in improved running economy at race pace is well worth the time invested.

If you'd like to read the abstract or article - here's the link:
Concurrent strength and endurance training effects on running economy in master endurance runners. Piancentini MF, et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Vol 23 # 8, 2295-2303, August 2013.

To your athletes ongoing success!

Coach Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS