The Science Behind How To Run More Efficiently

There is a tendency for distance runners to neglect their running form.

Running efficiency, also sometimes referred to as “running economy,” is the sum of several biomechanical, cardiorespiratory, metabolic, and neuromuscular characteristics, as mentioned by a top study in the Journal of Sports Medicine. 

In layman’s terms, a runner with good running efficiency wastes less energy to run the same distances at the same speeds than a runner with poor running efficiency.

Energy can be lost through poor running form. Many different adaptations can be considered “poor running form” – think, foot strike location, improper arm drive, too slow a cadence (the total number of steps you take per minute), or even a lack of strength in areas like your core.

As a runner, you should look to improve your running efficiency to get the most out of your running while reducing the risk of injury.

Even though running form is individual, improving your running economy means how to run a faster half marathon with less effort and a reduced likelihood of becoming injured — a must-do if you’re looking to train and improve your time come race day.

If these sound like something you’re interested in, here’s a guide on how to run more efficiently. 

What Efficient Running Looks Like

Before you continue reading, we recommend both of these videos from Coach James Dunne.

The first, is James’ evaluation of what perfect running form should look at a 10:00 per mile pace.

The second, is James’ evaluation of Eliud Kipchoge’s running form.

Now, you’re ready.

Practice Proper Running Form

One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between an experienced runner and a beginner, aside from their running pace, is their running form.

A more experienced runner looks as if they’re floating through the air. There is an effortlessness to their running whether they’re running a sub-5-minute mile or a long distance run at a more steady slower pace of 7-8 minutes/mile.

For most beginners, this is not the way their running looks.

A beginner’s running form might include heel striking, overstriding (reaching out too far with each step), and a low cadence (how many steps you take per minute).

Though it takes a lot of practice, improving your running form is worthwhile for a lifelong running career.

Your running form is made up of the following:

  • The correct running posture
  • Your foot strike
  • Arm position
  • Running cadence

We’ll break down each of these components in more detail below to help improve your running form and ultimately, to help you run more efficiently.

How to Run More Efficiently: With A Forward Lean

Proper running posture will lessen running’s impact on your joints.

Proper running posture is obtained by holding:

  • Eyes looking forward – Eyes up! Not at your feet.
  • A straight back – Avoid slouching or hunching!
  • Squared, leveled shoulders – When tired, shoulders have a tendency to cave in.
  • A slight forward lean – Running is the act of falling forward. Forward lean uses gravity to support forward motion.

The further and faster you run, the more your posture will begin to break down.

You’ll notice your shoulders begin to round, your arms start to become tired, and your feet may feel heavy and as if they’re slapping the ground vs. bouncing.

Over the longer runs of half and full marathon running, it’s essential to focus on set cues to reinforce proper running posture.

Popular running tips from running coaches on form include:

  • Run with a long neck
  • Run with a forward lean, and
  • Let your arms drive you forward.

Posture is the first component you should focus on. Why? Because good posture makes it easier to improve your foot strike and is one of the most noticeable tweaks that results in better running efficiency.

How to Run More Efficiently: A Foot Underneath Your Knee

Foot strike is how and where your foot makes contact with the ground.

Improving your foot strike means reducing the impact running has on your feet and joints.

The perfect foot strike should land between the forefoot and the midfoot.

What about heel striking? Heel striking is not inherently bad. Research suggests that up to 25-33% of heel striking runners don’t experience more significant impact than a midfoot striking.

However, with heel striking, the concern is that it’s correlated with overstriding – which does have negative impacts on an efficient running form.

Similarly, avoid running on your toes as it places excessive pressure on your calf muscles.

If you’re struggling with foot placement, consider getting a HOKA running shoe. Many HOKAs are designed with a “rocker” which supports a rolling transition from one step to another.

Elite Runner Form Foot Striking and Strides

You may have also noticed that elite runners often kick their heels high when they run. This is a result of a lengthen to lengthen their stride while maintaining an almost sprint-like pace.

It’s an elastic slingshot-like effect that kicks the heel up during a stride.

Although this is a natural product of fast running, you can make an effort not to drag your feet when you run.

Use moderation. Trying to pick up your heels will cause hamstring strain and may cause unnecessary muscle fatigue.

How to Run More Efficiently: Relaxed Arm Position

Your arm position when running may not be on the top of your mind.

When your head is filled with thoughts of your foot strike, posture, and other aspects of your running form, arms feel like a low priority. But, arm position should be anything but an afterthought.

The proper running arm posture should be loose — not tense — and driving forward and back, not up and down.

Relax your shoulders and think of propelling yourself forward.

This video below offers more advice on the perfect arm position while running.

How to Run More Efficiently: Your Running Cadence

Running cadence is how many times your feet make contact with the ground every 60 seconds.

To calculate your cadence, count how many times your left or right foot hits the ground and multiply it by two (for both feet).

Elite runners typically have quicker cadences than amateur runners, clocking upwards of 180 SPM (steps per minute). Partly, the higher running cadence is a result of running at higher speeds. But also, a higher running cadence will:

  • Reduce the risk of landing on your heels which applies a breaking motion to your running.
  • Ensure the foot falls underneath your center of gravity.
  • Reduce the ground contact time. The less time each foot spends on the ground, lessens the amount of time your tissues absorb and create the forces for propelling to the next step.
  • Reduce vertical oscillation – which is the amount of up-and-down motion in your running.
  • And, increase glute activation which will increase single-leg stability and reduce knee injury.

As you can see, simply improving your cadence provides many running efficiency benefits. With less wasted energy, you set yourself up for success.

If you’re looking to improve your cadence, we suggest the following:

  1. Run strides
  2. Run to a target BPM or metronome
  3. Focus on other aspects of your running form

For more info on running cadence, you can check out our Running Cadence 101 blog post.

How to run more efficiently with a runner against foliage.

How to improve your running efficiency

Above, we’ve detailed what proper running form looks like with a few tips and cues to help improve your running efficiency. However, the best way to improve efficiency is to perform running drills and bouts of faster running to enforce proper running form.

Deciding to run fast won’t magically turn you into Eliud Kipchoge — but fast running teaches your body how to run fast… the proper arm drive, foot positioning, and cadence, for example. You’ll still need to consciously implement changes to your running form but by performing the following drills, you’ll be well on your way to improving your running efficiency for your upcoming half marathon training.

Interval training 

Fast running helps you run fast. It sounds simple, right?

Interval training mixes bouts of high-intensity running with rest periods.

You can run a mix of interval sessions, whether mile repeats, 800m sessions, or even 200m or 400m repeats. You can also add less structured speed work, such as fartlek runs (Swedish for speed play), to your training schedule.

Running at quicker paces helps reinforce proper running form and efficiency. You’ll practice a higher cadence, proper leg drive, and proper technique. You need to run fast to run fast!

Interval training will help you get used to running faster while helping you improve your running efficiency. Try to run at a 6-minute mile with a cadence of 165 — it will prove just as challenging as running a 10-minute mile at 180 SPM.

When practicing interval training, implement the following:

  • Always warm up before interval training 
  • Implement a minimum of a 1:1 running-to-rest ratio
  • Run on softer ground where possible 
  • Always cool down after interval training
  • Don’t perform interval sessions on consecutive days
A weightlifting person when how to run more efficiently is to lift weights.

Strength training for runners

You can tell a runner the importance of strength training until the cows come home, and they still won’t listen to you. That is, until they become injured and are prescribed strength exercises or other cross-training activities to rehab their injury or for injury prevention.

I know this because I’m speaking from personal experience, like a lot of runners!

For whatever reason, most runners hate strength training. The idea of going to the gym is almost as insane as not uploading a run to their Strava profile.

But consistent strength training for as little as 1-2 times per week will not only reduce your risk of injury but strong muscles improve your posture and overall running efficiency. You work the smaller muscles (which are often neglected) but it’s these muscles that make all the difference.

So how do you start strength training? We suggest:

  1. Picking a handful of exercises and sticking to it for several weeks
  2. Doing no more than 1-2 strength sessions per week
  3. Not running intervals, tempos, or other more intense runs the day after strength training

Strength training helps ensure all the muscles are firing correctly — this is one of the best ways to improve your running efficiency. For example, runners often have weak hips and glutes. They can become tired and do not fire correctly, causing the quads, calves, and other (smaller) muscles to overcompensate. But the glutes are the biggest muscle in the human body — if they’re not firing correctly, you’re leaving a lot of running efficiency on the table. And, you guessed it, the muscles that overcompensate are at greater risk of becoming injured.

Below, we’ve provided several exercises you can try to get started, focusing on the core and the legs, hips, and glutes.

Related: The newest science behind how strength training impacts running economy

Core strength

A strong core can improve static balance, core endurance, and running economy, according to one study.

The core is the stability powerhouse and helps you maintain an efficient trunk position when running. It also stabilizes your spine and, when trained correctly, provides a solid platform and foundation for running.

But what exercises should you do? All of these exercises are body weight exercises that any level of runner can perform:

We’ve included supermans because they train the posterior chain, specifically the lower back and hip extensors — these are also key muscles of the trunk, which are often neglected with traditional core exercises. 

Legs, Hips and Glutes

You have a lot of variation when training your legs, hips, and glutes. Personally, I like unilateral exercises (using one leg at a time) — this is because when you run, you run with one leg in front of the other. If you ran with both legs, then you’d be jumping, not running. 

Plyometric exercises are also very popular as these involve explosive movements — that’s your box jumps, lunges, and other intense and athletic movements.

Exercises you can try include:

  • Squats (pistol squats are an excellent single-leg variation)
  • Single leg deadlifts
  • Walking lunges
  • Step-ups or box jumps
  • Crab walks (with a resistance band above the knee)

Other exercises you may choose to add to your routine include leg raises, leg extensions, and reverse lunges.

Don’t forget to train your hamstrings too!

Don’t forget recovery

Recovery is often overlooked by a lot of runners. You can get the training right, but with less than adequate recovery, you increase your risk of injury and sacrifice overall performance. Many runners make numerous mistakes when it comes to recovery, including:

  • Running too much with too few rest days
  • Running with too much intensity on run days
  • Not getting the right nutrition to support recovery

If you’re starting a new training plan, whether training for a half marathon, marathon, or another event or even starting to run for the first time, recovery is even more important. Build up your training (both time spent running and the number of days you train each week) slowly

Keep a training journal and follow a training plan to ensure adequate recovery is practiced.

Below you will find several tips to help you recover between sessions:

  • Don’t perform two intense sessions on following days (e.g., a tempo run and then an interval session)
  • Aim to consume protein and carbs following an intense training session
  • Perform dynamic stretches before running and static stretches after running
  • Change your mindset surrounding recovery — it’s when you become faster!

The bottom line: how to run more efficiently

If you want to improve your running performance, then you should pay attention to your running economy and form. Distance running is not just about how fast or how far you run; it’s about how you run.

Focus on practicing good form and biomechanics by applying the advice laid out in this article, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a stronger, more efficient runner. If you’re looking for a training plan to get you there, you can view our collection of free plans here.

You can also sign up for a training app like Runna where you get 2-weeks free with code HALFMARATHON.

Running efficiency FAQs

Is running speed or efficiency better?

It’s better to focus on running efficiency first because as you become more efficient, you’ll become faster with less chance of injury.

How can I run faster?

Practice proper running technique, run intervals, strength train, and follow a structured training program to run faster.

Should you run heel or toe first?

You should run midfoot first. Both heel and toe are not ideal and place additional stress on the joints and feet.

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