by Coach Steve
Economy for endurance sports is analogous to fuel economy measurement
in your car. It’s a measure of how much energy it takes to
maintain a certain pace. Obviously if race day speed is your goal,
the less energy it takes to hold a distinct pace the better. If
you continue to improve your economy throughout a season, you should
be faster in each race of the same distance with the same total
I encourage athletes to measure their economy during certain phases
of their training to assess fitness gains (or losses—which
is very, very rare). If you’ve been involved in endurance
sport for a while you may have heard of the MAF (maximum aerobic
function) test. This test was developed by exercise physiologist
Phil Maffetone and is still used by Mark Allen and others in their
The MAF test is done on a track for consistency of conditions;
the athlete being tested runs at an exact heart rate for a set distance.
The test is repeated as the season progresses. As the athlete moves
through his/her base-building training—if all goes as planned—the
athlete goes faster at the same HR with each subsequent test. If
the athlete doesn’t go faster with each subsequent test, there’s
either a physiological problem, or the athlete has plateaued to
peak fitness levels for the amount of training time completed per
week. The difference between elite athletes and the majority (us),
is that they're more efficient at processing oxygen (generally higher
max VO2 values because of age or genetic 'talent').
You can't alter your genetic potential for endurance sports, and
we're not all created as equals in this regard. So the best measure
of progress is comparing you to the former less well trained you.
Effort is the best measure of success, and the wise athlete only
competes against himself. Enough of my lecturing...
Keep in mind that form counts, so economy gains can come not only
from improved cardiopulmonary fitness, but also efficiency of movement.
Generally, form improves with repetition, but not always. For example:
optimal swim form is so different than any other movement we normally
use in our lives that time dedicated to form work is as important
as the consistency of your timed swim sets. Bike and run form can
become more efficient with form work as well.
For endurance athletes, improvements of economy are absolutely
the best measure of fitness gained. If you can hold a 7:30-minute
per mile pace at a HR of 145...where during the last test you could
only maintain a 8:00 pace, you’ve had substantial improvement
of aerobic efficiency! Keep in mind that improvements of economy
for athletes new to endurance sports will be greater than for those
training for many years, who've already developed their potential
to a great degree.
I recommend a slightly different economy test which I describe
as the ‘real world’ MAF test. The difference is that
I ask the athlete to find a 5-mile to 10k route on roads and/or
trails with hills—and whatever else you might encounter in
the 'real world' on race days. The course needs to be one you can
exactly repeat each time you test yourself, with distinct points
to start and stop your watch. In fact this workout is probably not
much different than a regular run day, except that you’re
very focused on the HRM, holding a certain pre-determined HR as
accurately as you can.
This real world aerobic economy test works best for runs, but it
can also be done on the bike with timed efforts over a set course.
I've always found my HR on the bike to be more varied from day-to-day
than for runs, so for me the run test is a more accurate assessment.
On the bike I'll typically observe a lower HR with the same time,
rather than a faster time at the same HR. Your experience may vary.
To assess swim economy I prefer a standardized set you can repeat
periodically. For example: 16x100 yards restarting on a set interval
for Olympic distance focused athletes work well. My HRM doesn't
work in the pool, and I wouldn't have time to look at it during
a set anyway, so I do all swim tests by distance and time.
Beyond better results compared to your age group peers on race
day, improvents on measured training days can be very satisfying.
Choose a set course and test yourself in the off-season when fitness
should not be near peak. Then compare your pace at a certain heart
rate in-season and take satisfaction in creating the new fitter