Efficiency in a nutshell

Editor’s note: Original May 2011; updated Feb 2013, Dec 2017

Beep. Roadrunners. I’ve noticed it’s been more like “buh…” around here, since I wrote a month ago On Balance, the “B” in “beep,” and have not moved on from there. So, with that glaring example of inefficiency before us, let’s see if we can’t “BE” better: Today’s topic is “Efficiency.”

I did take a few baby steps in this direction in First steps and On balance, discussing mechanical efficiency. That means your arms and legs are generally tucked in tight, strides and arm motions are compact and focused forward with little side-to-side motion and little extension in knees and elbows.

But as with balance, efficiency has a dual nature. It is an attribute and a target or approach. Your stride is efficient or not, but if it isn’t you can apply straightforward (!) techniques to make it so.

Concentrate on the description above: “Compact,” “focused,” “tucked in.” We tend to think of power and speed as big things. We think running fast means stretching way out with big arm and leg motions; a knockout punch is a swinging haymaker. But martial artists know that power comes from minimal motion as direct to — and through — the target as possible. Same with running. Same with most things.

Most of us, even experienced racers, tend to overstride trying to be fast. This puts the mechanical burden on the wrong tissues, slowing us and also leading to breakdown and injury. If you want to go faster and breathe easier, shorten your stride until you feel the power as your thighs do most of the work. If you can’t tell what’s happening while you’re thinking of your legs, think about your arms. Keep your elbows tucked tight to your side, moving your forearms straight up and down. Your elbows move only slightly forward and back from the plane of your shoulders. Your legs will go along in compact motion, and you’ll move faster while working less. Efficient.

Efficiency is more than mechanical, though. It takes attention and practice to move with mechanical efficiency. Attention and practice require mental efficiency (few distractions) and practical efficiency (time management). You need a schedule that allows you to practice without rushing or worry. You need a clear head to focus on the messages your body is sending — better fitness and more oxygen to the brain may help you solve problems you “ignore” while you focus on running.

Efficiency is knowing your route before you start (study a map or walk/jog a race course before you compete), laying out your gear the night before a race or even a workout, setting your training schedule months in advance according to a realistic goal. Efficiency is finding the best technique and learning it so well that it becomes automatic, seemingly natural.

Watch a track championship or road race on television and see how smooth the leaders look, especially early on: Their heads seem unmoving, neither bobbing up and down nor swaying side to side, and their feet seem to spend no time on the ground though they cover great distances with each stride. Despite gobbling the ground, they are not reaching forward so much as springing forward. So powerful, so graceful, so natural — so many years of efficient practice!

Ironically, you can train yourself in efficiency by pushing yourself through inefficiency. When I practice or run solely for fun (and ultimately we want it always to be for fun, even if fitness or competition is a short-term goal), I always take the long way around a corner. I hug the outside shoulder on a road course or use the outside lanes on a track. When I race, I take the shortest allowed route, following the tangents on curves in road races and staying inside on a track.

If you don’t have an efficient stride, run short bursts as fast as you can — your body will teach you to become compact. You’ll feel the difference when you’re efficient rather than flailing. If you don’t breathe efficiently, run longer workouts and you’ll develop lung capacity. You’ll breathe easier on short runs.

Remember as you’re working on Efficiency that you cannot “BE” better without Balance first. Eat well, rest as necessary, don’t overdo.

BE smart. You’re getting closer yet going farther every day.

Many small steps.

Beep beep. Roadrunner.

Feel free to ask questions, demand fuller explanations or suggest topics.