Back in the 19th century, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli achieved lasting fame by initiating a wide range of legislation to improve educational opportunities and the life of working people. Disraeli was also a colourful character renowned for his satire; for example, it was he who coined the phrase “Lies, damned lies and statistics.” But he also had more serious things to say, one of them being that “there can only be economy when there is efficiency. He was talking about economics of course, but this is a phrase that can be equally applied to endurance performance.
Efficiency and economy
What do we mean by efficiency and muscular economy? In the context of sport, these two terms have a very similar meaning, but they’re not quite the same. ‘Efficiency’ is a broad-brush term, which refers to how much energy is expended while moving at a given pace – e.g. through the water when swimming or across the ground when running. Greater efficiency means that less energy is required to sustain a given pace.
In the case of a cyclist for example, greater efficiency can be achieved by adopting a more "aero" position so that less energy is wasted overcoming wind resistance. Similarly, swimmers who improve their stroke technique will become more efficient, wasting less energy overcoming hydro-static resistance. This in turn means more energy is available for propulsion through the water. Runners meanwhile can benefit from energy return shoes that are more mechanically efficient.
But there’s another component to efficiency, and that’s to do with how much energy is used internally by your muscles. Muscles that work very efficiently are able to generate more propulsive force while requiring less energy (and therefore less oxygen). This internal type of efficiency is referred to as ‘muscle economy’. Economy refers to how efficient the muscles are (in terms of oxygen usage) at producing force during sub-maximal exercise (ie not flat out). The better the economy of your muscles during exercise, the less oxygen you need to use to propel yourself along at a given speed.
Note that economy is not the same as technical efficiency. You can swim faster for the same effort by improving your technical efficiency in the water even though your actual muscles aren’t contracting more efficiently. Muscle economy on the other hand is related to the chemical and biomechanical efficiency of contracting muscle fibres. In other words, your muscle economy while running, swimming, cycling etc is but one component that determines your overall efficiency.
Muscle economy matters because studies show unequivocally that elite athletes have much higher levels of muscle economy than their amateur or recreational counterparts. In other word – muscle economy and high levels of endurance go hand in hand.
For example, one study found that just two factors – maximum aerobic capacity (VO2max) and running economy – could account for 92% of the variance in performance during an 8000m race(1). Research also shows that the key reason for the phenomenal performance of many elite African distance runners (compared to their European counterparts) is their exceptional running economy(2).
However, you don’t have to be an elite athlete to experience the benefits of improved muscle economy. Even an averagely fit recreational cyclist or runner can reap the benefits of improved muscle economy. For example, a 4% gain in economy would mean that over a 100-mile cycling event, a cyclist would cover the distance around quarter of an hour faster for exactly the same effort!
Given the above, it makes sense that endurance athletes who are serious about improving performance should train in a way that boosts muscle economy, and overall efficiency. What does this mean in practice? In terms of efficiency, swimmers particularly need to work on stroke technique while cyclists need to ensure that they learn how to ride efficiently by adopting an "aero" position and using clothing and equipment that reduces aerodynamic drag.
When it comes to muscle economy, all endurance athletes, regardless of discipline, will benefit from including the right kind of training elements in a weekly programme – the most important of which is heavy weight training. As regular Peak Performance readers will be aware, new research on muscle economy, strength training and endurance performance is something we’ve looked at in detail in recent months, and which continues to be a hot topic. Something you’ll also know is that the good news is that even the most gym-averse endurance athletes can be reassured that strength training for economy is quick and simple to perform. Maybe it’s time to make 2017 the year of efficiency!
Yours in fitness,
Editor, Peak Performance
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1 – J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1991 Sep; 31(3):345-50.
I am the editor of Peak Performance Weekly Newsletter and commissioning editor of and contributor for Peak Performance.
I am a sports science writer and researcher, specialising in sports nutrition and I’ve worked in the field of fitness and sports performance for over 30 years, helping athletes to reach their true potential. I am also a lifelong endurance athlete myself.
I’m dedicated to helping you improve your performance by unravelling the latest sports science and translating it into plain English and by giving you practical training recommendations that you can start using straight away.
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