Athletic performance is not about efficiency. It’s about power.

One of the most oft-used pieces of artillery in the debate of minimalism versus maximalism, forefoot versus hindfoot, and barefoot versus shod, is the discussion of efficiency. Numerous studies have come out that rank the efficiency of these running types against each other, and consistently find that shod/hindfoot/maximalist tends to be more efficient.

(For the record, I think that the first camp that made the efficiency claim was the barefooter/forefooter/minimalist one. For reasons discussed below, that was a bad call).

Anyhow, it’s time to put this discussion to rest: Better athletic performance has never been a function of efficiency, when efficiency is defined as “lower energy consumption for a given speed.”

It has, however, always been a function of increased power output.

Before going into the science of it, let’s discuss how this makes sense from a logical perspective. Time has alwasy been the primary form of currency. A powerful runner can finish a race and begin recovery much more quickly than a slower runner. This frees the powerful runner from the effects of the race much more quickly, and reduces the time that it takes for this person to engage fully with a new task, relative to a less powerful runner traveling the same distance.

The benefits of this are as obvious as they are many, whether we be talking evolutionarily, or in terms of the body’s economy. This also holds when you look at how we define performance across all sports: increased power (and not increased efficiency) begets greater performance. Whether it be during a running race or a baseball game, whoever can apply the most energy effectively in the shortest amount of time towards achieving the goal will come out on top.

(I’ll discuss the deeper implications of this sentence in another post.)

The science corroborates this theory. In Running Science, Owen Anderson is quite clear: “The marathon is a power race.” He discusses at length how the idea of doing long, slow training for what is (presumably) a long, slow race is superficially logical but ultimately flawed. While developing aerobic capacity is immeasurably important for the marathon, as speeds get faster, greater power becomes more and more important.

The importance of power holds even for the ultramarathon. Numerous studies have been done confirming the idea that phyisological indicators of power maximums—peak treadmill velocity and VO2 MAX—correlate strongly with ultramarathon performance.

The sports technique (whether it be running technique, golf technique, swimming technique, etc.) that lends itself to the development of greater power, and not increased efficiency, can be judged to be “better,” given that what makes us universally better at sports is the application of greater power. As this article finds, more runners rise onto their forefoot the faster they go. Landing on the hindfoot is reserved for the slower crowd.

But there may be other, more insidious problems with seeking efficiency in lieu of (or at the cost of) power. In my last article I wrote how, if increasing efficiency is our primary goal, at some point we are going to be sacrificing power—basically engineering our own performance losses.

It’s fine with me that some people genuinely don’t want to seek greater performance, and rather run (or do other sports) for maintenance, rather than increase, of fitness. But this discussion of performance brings up a series of questions that I believe are legitimate: is heel-striking a “running style,” or is it a biomechanical feature—a hallmark—of subcompetitive fitness? Are heel-strikers slower, or does heel-striking make the runner slower (or alternately, become a barrier to improvement)?

I believe that this discussion merits an extensive inquiry into why heel-striking is the form of choice across a majority of runners. Is this the case because more efficient is better? Or is it the case that a majority of runners are lacking in the aerobic, muscular, or metabolic power necessary to sustain a more costly technique—one which constitutes the gateway to greater athletic performance?

These are not rhetorical questions, and they are certainly not answers. However, we treat the literature’s findings in regard to efficiency as if it somehow settles the footstrike debate (or lends evidence either way). It’s time to open the discussion again, and do so by asking questions that are more relevant than efficiency to the human body’s design, as they are to its athletic performance.

7 thoughts on “Athletic performance is not about efficiency. It’s about power.”

  1. Muy interesante reflexión, a los atletas se les dice que si corren velocidad lo hagan con las puntas, y si son medio fondistas o fondistas con el talón,.. ??
    Saludos,
    Martha

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    1. Así es, aunque típicamente sucede más por inercia que por recomendación. Te subes a las puntas naturalmente para correr mas rapido.

      Osea, lo que pasa es que se esta diciendo que correr con la punta o correr con el talon se trata mas que nada de preferencia personal. Tanto correr de fondo com velocidad se beneficia de mayor potencia, y vemos que corredores de fondo rapidos tienden a pisar mas con la punta. Por eso, yo pienso que el argumento de preferencia personal no es muy relevante, y más que nada puede hasta llegar a bloquear avances atléticos en corredores que han encontrado identidad en caer con el talón.

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  2. Great point! In regard to the scientific studies looking at heel-striking vs. forefoot striking, they really tell us very little. The same with shod vs unshod. Any single variable must be evaluated in the context of many other variables. In my opinion, these one-dimensional studies are prone to being very misleading and do not add significantly to our collective understanding of running technique.

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