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Economy and the Athlete

Tuesday, September 18, 2012 by Coach Tommy

There are three primary determinants of athletic performance for the endurance athlete: VO2Max (also called aerobic capacity), Lactate Threshold (also called anaerobic threshold), and economy.

While the first two draw the most attention from athletes, economy is not well understood by the scientific community and is not a primary focus of training for most athletes. But it should be.

Economy is defined as the amount of oxygen consumed at a constant speed. For example, if athlete A is running 10 minutes/mile and consumes 40 ml/kg/min of O2 and athlete B consumes 35 ml/kg/min of O2 at 10 minutes/mile then athlete B is more economical. Athlete B is using less energy than athlete A while running at the same speed. This is a huge issue for endurance athletes, especially long course triathlons like Ironman and half Ironman. In these events, energy conservation is a key factor for superior performance.

Several factors can affect economy: weight, technique, form, aerodynamics, strength, frequency of training sessions, and neuromuscular connections.

Here are some ideas for improving your economy:

Swimming

  • Technique, technique, technique! Schedule some lessons with a swim coach. It’s very difficult to teach yourself to swim well
  • Swim often, even if the swims are short. For example, given two hours per week for swimming, you are better off swimming four times for 30 minutes rather than two swim sessions for one hour each
  • Functional strength training focused on upper body, lats, shoulders, and core

Bike

  • Buy a lighter bike, helmet, shoes, etc.
  • Lose body weight…up to a point. Never sacrifice muscle mass and strength in order to become lighter. Focus on losing fat.
  • Reducing aerodynamic drag can improve economy. You can do that by buying aero wheels, aero helmet, etc.
  • Get a bike fit. A good bike fit can reduce aerodynamic drag and improve power output, both of which improve economy
  • Add drills and technique work to your training plan, such as single leg drills, cadence work, spin ups, etc.
  • Hill repeats are strength workouts on the bike – increases in strength have been shown to improve economy
  • Strength training – both functional and heavy lifting
  • Very fast, very short intervals. Improves brain to muscle connections.

Running

  • Lose body weight
  • Take lessons with a running coach
  • Add drills to your track sessions
  • Wear tighter fitting clothing to reduce aerodynamic drag
  • Change your running form (i.e., move from a heel striker to a mid foot striker) and/or change your cadence
    • Caution: Changing your running form can take months to years. Go very slowly when trying to change how you run. There is the potential for injury any time you try to change how you run. On the other hand, the rewards could be great.
  • Hill repeats to improve running-specific strength
  • Add strides (short, fast running) to your run sessions

Improving economy requires doing some of the boring and mundane workouts. For example, not many enjoy doing drills in the pool, on the bike trainer, or at the running track. We all love to get out on the open road and ride our bikes instead of doing drills on the trainer. Additionally, you may see a setback in performance while your body adapts to the new form or technique (For example, your heart rate may increase until adaptation to a faster run cadence takes place). But improving economy can provide significant benefits to your performance.

 


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