Can You Spot the More Efficient Runner?

In the culture of running, we often marvel at smooth runners who seem to be floating and gliding across clouds and scoff at those with chicken-wing-arms, head-bobbing, leg-flailing characteristics. We have long classified these smooth gliders as more “efficient” and those with seemingly less grace as “inefficient”. But, do we actually know this? Can we see who is more efficient and who is not? The most important question that arises is this: should we change someone’s gait to make them look more like the “efficient” glider we have come to glorify?


A study published last year in the European Journal of Sport Science asked this very question of various levels of running coach. (1) Let’s first take a moment to define running efficiency. The best way to track running “efficiency” is by tracking oxygen utilization for a given pace or distance. This study examined both. Typically, you will set the treadmill to a given pace and track the amount of oxygen the athlete uses to maintain the pace for a set period of time. You then divide that amount by their body weight to account for size differences between runners. This gives you a great measure for how “efficient” a runner may be at a given pace, because oxygen is the currency of speed and effort.


In this study, they videoed 5 trained recreational distance runners from the standard view (front, side, rear). Then, they sent these videos to 121 experienced endurance coaches ranging from high-school to international. The coaches were then asked to rank the runners 1-5 from least efficient to most efficient based on the running form shown in the videos. Now, you and I may like our chances on getting some of these correct, since it should be pretty clear who is more efficient and who is not, right? The results will shock you. Of these 121 coaches, only SIX percent were able to get THREE of the runners in the correct order. We aren’t talking about the majority getting the rough order correct. We are talking about an abysmal failure of running economy assessment based on visual analysis.


But, what does this mean? Well, first we should take pause since this is only one study. We never want to base our decisions on a single study. However, we can take some points away from this study for use in practice. First, we should be very cautious about advising someone to change their running form to achieve better efficiency. Efficiency is a very complicated measure and since the body is a system of interdependency, by changing one small thing you may cause a cascade of events that actually makes the runner less efficient! We should also have a generous helping of humble-pie when one of those “flailers” passes us during a race. We all come in different shapes and sizes and running form is no different.


I do have one remaining, very-important, caveat. This study examined running efficiency alone and asks the question if we should change running form to improve this. It does not examine if we should change running form to correct injury or potentially prevent injury. In clinical practice, I will change athletes’ form based on the injury they may have. This is a needed correction, because the body is telling us that something is wrong – via the interpretation of pain. In short “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” but “if it is broke, you should try to fix it”.


I hope this blog post was interesting for you, because when the study first came out I was blown away by the findings. After all this time of runners and coaching, we still don’t know as much as we think we do!


Thanks for reading,

Ryan









Source: Cochrum, R. G., Conners, R. T., Caputo, J. L., Coons, J. M., Fuller, D. K., Frame, M. C., & Morgan, D. W. (2020). Visual classification of running economy by distance running coaches. European Journal of Sport Science, 1-8.