Why it’s so hard for most joggers to burn lots of calories

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Humans evolved with the ability to travel long distances using relatively little fuel while hunting animal prey across savannahs millennia ago.

As hunters, at first Homo sapiens developed spectacular endurance that allowed our ancestors to overtake other species that were perhaps faster sprinters but did not have as much long-term endurance. As runners, if our species had a motto that summed up our energy-efficient pace, it would probably be: “Slow and steady wins the race.”

New research from Stanford University sheds light on how running efficiency and calorie conservation that are embedded in our evolutionary biology affect recreational joggers, 5k runners, marathon runners and everyone in between. . These discoveries (Selinger et al., 2022) on how the energetics of “running in nature” affect ecological running speeds were published April 28 in the peer-reviewed journal Current biology.

For this study, first author Jessica Selinger and her colleagues at Stanford, who study the science and biomechanics of peak performance, began by collecting lab data on running energy from 26 people using treadmills. Plus, they got big data from hundreds of “free” runners who wore fitness trackers while doing daily activities and running “in nature” (not in an exercise physiology lab). Next, they compared the controlled laboratory data with the free-life data.

The latest “running speed energy” experiments conducted at Stanford’s Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance were designed to answer two research questions:

  1. Do runners adapt their preferred speed for different distance tasks?
  2. Are the preferred speeds of runners energetically optimal?

Selinger et al. found that regardless of whether someone jogs for 10 minutes or trains for a 10k, most runners subconsciously click into an “optimal energy speed.” Notably, if someone doesn’t make a conscious effort to challenge their hard-wired biology and run faster, runners’ bodies automatically gravitate to an energy-efficient pace that burns fewer calories.

Human runners have evolved to use fewer calories by automatically seeking an energy-efficient pace

“Human runners prefer a particular running speed that is independent of task distance and consistent with the goal of minimizing energy expenditure,” the authors explain. “Overall, when we go for a run, although a goal may be to burn calories, we are moving at a speed that minimizes [calories burned]. This is consistent with the free-living preferences of other non-human animals for energetically optimal locomotion, whether walking, flying, or swimming.”

“Minimizing energy expenditure has evolutionary benefits, it allows us to travel farther on fewer calories. We share this trait with other animals, whether it be flying birds, swimming fish or horses. at a gallop – it’s been proven that we all move by conserving calories in nature,” Selinger said in a Press release.

“When you go out for a race, you are racing for your best fuel economy,” added lead author Scott Delp. “No matter how far you run, you run in such a way that you burn the least amount of fuel per distance travelled.

The pros and cons of running at an energy-efficient pace

Running at an energy efficient speed is not necessarily good or bad. The pros and cons of sticking to an optimal energy pace versus running at calorie-burning speeds depend on your personal goals.

For example, if you enjoy jogging because it boosts your mood, boosts creativity, and offsets the risk of depression, running at a comfortable, energy-efficient pace means you can reap all the cognitive benefits of jogging without burning out. , without stressing your body too much. system, or increase your risk of injury. (See, “Superfluid Brain Connectivity Streamlines Cluttered Minds.”)

On the other hand, if you’re a jogger trying to lose weight by burning extra calories through cardio workouts, you need to consciously push harder to avoid running on “autopilot” and allowing your body to click. on its natural rhythm of saving energy. which doesn’t burn a lot of calories.

Additionally, if your goal is to become a faster runner, you’ll need to push past your energy-efficient comfort zone so your body adapts by improving cardiorespiratory fitness and VO2 max levels.

Music motivates people to go beyond optimal energy speeds

The latest research (2022) on the energetics of running suggests that our bodies have evolved to run efficiently and conserve calories by automatically seeking energy-optimal running speeds. Just as water creates balance by seeking its own level, our bodies have an energy-efficient rhythm that runners instinctively gravitate toward.

The knowledge can serve as a factual reminder to push beyond your comfort zone if you want to improve your fitness or lose weight. Delp recommends finding your optimal energy zone and then pushing slightly above it. “At these speeds, runners will see more weight loss and endurance gains,” he says.

If you need some motivation to replace your bio-coded energy-saving running speed, Selinger recommends listening to some uptempo music. Synchronizing your kicks with the beats per minute of an upbeat song will inspire your feet to pick up the pace. “Listening to music with a faster beat has been shown to help increase stride frequency, which can then increase running speed,” she concludes.

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