New Running Science: Which Exercise Type Improves Running Economy Most


  • Combining strength training methods may be the best way for all runners to improve their running economy, says a new study in Sports Medicine.
  • Runners who train at 8:00/mile pace or faster may see more improvement in running economy with high-load strength training.
  • Runners who train slower than 8:00/mile may see more improvement in running economy with plyometric training.
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Improving Your Running Economy

Improving your running economy – becoming a more efficient runner via metabolic, biomechanic, cardiorespiratory, and neuromuscular adaptations – is just good math.

A better running economy is the idea that you’re doing more with less.  Faster running speeds, further distances, with less energy to get there.

Of course, consistently training on runs certainly improves your running economy. If you track your VO2 Max, you’ve likely seen that number get better over time.

But strength training is another very reliable – and, according to a new study, very effective – way to boost your running efficiency, because it improves muscular coordination and biomechanical efficiency. 

But there are many ways to build strength. Which is the best for runners? 

A recent systematic review published in Sports Medicine asked just that: Researchers from the Physical Performance Sports Research Center (PSRC) in Spain looked at how different strength training methods affected the running economy of runners training at various paces. 

Specifically, the researchers looked at high load training, submaximal load training, isometric training, plyometric training, and combined methods. 

They ultimately found combining two or more strength training methods improved running economy the most, for most running pace groups.

They also found that lifting heavy weights was most beneficial for those who train at faster paces, while plyometrics was most beneficial for people training at slower paces

Related: What the American Heart Association Recommends for Weight Training

How the Study Was Conducted 

This study was a meta-analysis, which means that the researchers looked at a collection of existing research to examine the data and shed light on it in context as a whole. The researchers chose to eliminate studies that included any participants under the age of 16, participants that were injured, or studies that included a strength training method that they weren’t searching for (e.g., bodyweight training). 

The analysis ultimately included 31 studies involving more than 650 middle- and long-distance runners, running between 5:21 and 13:47 pace. 

Fit people doing deadlift exercise in gym. Horizontal indoors shot

What Researchers Found

The results for each type of strength training are as follows:

High Load Training is a method that involves lifting heavier weights for fewer repetitions (say, 3-5 per set). Looking at runners who ran anywhere from 5:25 – 11:11 pace, the researchers found that high load training did have a small effect on running economy

Submaximal Load Training refers to lifting weights at 65 – 85% of your maximum limit, usually at a higher rep count compared to high load training (say, 5-15 per set). In the meta-analysis, researchers did not find that submaximal load training had a significant effect on running economy – but they also noted that there were fewer studies in this category to compare. 

Plyometric Training, which you know all about if you ever went down the Tony Horton P90X rabbit hole in the early- to mid-aughts, involves short bursts of intense movements like squat jumps, skater hops, and burpees. The meta-analysis revealed that plyometric training was most beneficial for runners training at 8:00/mile pace or slower. It was also beneficial in combination with other methods. 

Isometric Training involves more static training in which the muscles contract and hold the body in position (e.g., wall sits, planks, squat holds). Like with submaximal load training, the researchers found no significant change in running economy with this method. Similarly, there were also fewer studies in this pool to compare. 

Combined Methods of training, which some studies looked at, had a moderate effect on running economy for runners in a 6:40 – 9:39 pace range. It’s worth noting that combined methods (like submaximal with plyometrics or high load with plyometrics) were more beneficial in improving running economy than any of the methods on their own. 

What Else Runners Should Know

The range of paces that this study covered was wide and can be hard to interpret. 

If you are someone who trains on either side of 8:00/mile pace, you might really benefit from mixing up your strength training, depending on your training goals.

For example, leaning into heavy weights if you’re training for a 5K or 10K and then focusing more on plyometrics while training for a half marathon or full marathon is most likely to boost your running economy.

The biggest takeaway for all runners, though, is the benefit of combining strength training methods.

Maybe that looks like a gym day dedicated to heavy lifting while also doing a few jump squats before or after a track workout. Or, it could look like a gym day of submaximal lifting followed by planks and wall sits. 

Find what works for you and what you enjoy doing. 

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