Using more oxygen doesn't make you a faster runner... the truth is actually the opposite!

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Long distance running is an aerobic sport, we use oxygen to create the energy we need to run. If that's the case, then the answer to running faster is simple, all we need to do is take on board MORE oxygen and create MORE energy and we'll run even faster! Sports scientists for years have talked about our 'aerobic capacity' or our 'VO2 maximum' as a way of measuring our performance. Your VO2 maximum is the maximum amount of oxygen that you can take into the body and use to create energy. A bigger VO2 means more oxygen, more energy and therefore more speed! It really is that simple! Using more oxygen makes you run faster...

If only that were the truth

You've probably guessed there is a 'BUT' to the scenario above. The truth is, great runners aren't great because they use a lot of oxygen.... great runners are great, because they hardly use any oxygen. The best runners is the world are the one's who use the least amount of oxygen... confused? Let me explain...

Bob is a club runner and when he is at his maximum limit, he is capable of using 4 litres of oxygen every minute to create energy. That's Bob's VO2 max, 4 litres per minute, that's Bob running as hard as possible and it equates to 9 minutes per mile pace.

Sarah is a club runner and when she is at maximum, she is capable of using 3 litres of oxygen every minute to create energy. That's Sarah's VO2 max, 3 litres per minute, that's Sarah running as hard as possible and it equates to 7 minutes 15 seconds per mile pace.

Ok, so here's the thing. In the first paragraph when we explained VO2 maximum, we said more oxygen means more energy and more energy means we can run faster. So why is Bob slower, when he's using more oxygen? The question we should be asking is not 'how much oxygen can you use'.... the question we should be asking is 'how much oxygen do you actually need, to run at the speed to want to run at!

I'm completely lost...

Ok, let's consider this:

1. The amount of oxygen you can use is your VO2max, or to put it a simpler way, it's your 'engine size'.

2. Most family cars will have an engine size of 1-2 litres (that's your car's VO2max).

3. An articulated lorry will have an engine size of 8-12 litres.

So... with a VO2max of 8-12 litres, the articulated lorry should be a LOT quicker than your family car, but it's not.

It's all in the economy...

The simple fact is that it requires a HUGE amount of energy to make an articulated lorry move. Yes, the engine size / VO2 maximum looks impressive, but it means nothing if it needs a HUGE engine to move it along at even the slowest of speeds.

By comparison, some vehicles have a small engine / VO2 maximum, but they actually don't need a lot of energy to move them at relatively quick speeds. They're lighter, they roll better, there's less resistance and they're shaped different, all of these things impact upon the economy.

Economy is simply explained as 'how much oxygen / energy do you actually need to move at any given speed'.

How did we get onto trucks and what if I don't own a car?

Focus please. In our training programs we always talk about the 3 key ingredients:

1. Run speed & technique - Very short distances, very quickly with long recoveries
2. The engine (aerobic capacity) - Hard intervals and tempo running
3. Durability and economy - Run long and slow for tougher legs and fuel economy

If you complete the 'engine' sessions by running hard intervals, your aerobic capacity will improve and most runners think this is the best way to run quicker. HOWEVER, if your economy is poor, you will need a huge engine to move at even a slow pace (just like the articulated lorry). By contrast, if your economy is great, even a small engine will be sufficient to push you along at the fastest of speeds.

Bloody hell... I get it!!!

There you go!! You see where I'm coming from now? Okay, stay with me because I know what you're going to ask now... how do I improve my economy?

Here's the key things your need to know:

1. The speed sessions (very short and very fast) are the critical ones. In the simplest of terms, when you're smooth, your energy use is low (like pumping up the car tyres). If you struggle to move your limbs quickly in a coordinated manner, your body has to work harder and uses more oxygen / energy.

2. Running slow all the time will make your economy worse. Maffetone / slow running is great, but if it's done too much, you'll dig yourself into a slow hole. When you do try and run a bit quicker, your coordination will struggle as you've been used to moving slowly and your economy will suffer.

3. When you are running 'speed' sessions or 'engine' sessions you should focus on using as little oxygen as possible. Relax your arms and shoulders, let your legs flow and relax your breathing. Distance running is simple, it's about using as little oxygen and energy to go as fast as possible. TREADMILL RUNNING can help with this, when running at speed, focus on relaxing your arms and your breathing in an attempt to reduce your heart rate.

4. You should see changes such as LOWER HEART RATE for the same running speed. This is a sign that you are more economical as you need less oxygen / energy.

5. Distance runners and in particular ULTRA RUNNERS are obsessed with mileage at slower paces as they are convinced that it will make them quicker by enhancing endurance. Their biggest issue is in fact their economy and running slowly for lots of miles has an adverse effect upon performance. Their training doesn't make them faster, it just means that they can run at the same pace for longer.

6. Don't worry too much about 'which is the best running technique'. Many world class runners heel strike, but they roll from heel to toe in a very smooth and economical manner. Relax and focus on a smooth, flowing style, NEVER start to pump your arms and tense your upper body... run like a distance runner, not a sprinter!

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