The Basics: Components of Running Fitness

I am going to lay out my training philosophy in a series of posts that I will call “the basics.” Simply because everything that I do as a coach or recommend to a fellow runner stems from these principle centered ideas. These ideas are based on my years spent running and experimenting on myself. It’s also based on the influences of a ton of coaches and scientists that I respect and continue to learn from. People like Jay Johnson, Tim Noakes, Jack Daniels, Steve Magness, Jeff Gaudette, Greg McMillan, and Jason Fitzgerald. I don’t always agree with everything that they write or say, but these people always get me thinking.


Without further ado here is the first: the components of running fitness.


There are three main components of running fitness. These are aerobic fitness, neuromuscular fitness, and running economy. Every workout or run should serve to develop one or more of these components.


Aerobic Fitness
Aerobic fitness is the body’s ability to get oxygen from the air and use it to generate energy in the muscles. VO2 max is a good indicator of aerobic fitness. If we think of the body as a car, aerobic fitness would be the engine. The vast majority of information found online and in magazines is dedicated to improving aerobic fitness. This is with good reason as it is the biggest limiter when someone begins running. It is also the element that plays the largest part in your success at any race longer than 5k. Training elements that will work aerobic fitness are the long run and getting in consistent mileage week after week. That being said you also need to work on your neuromuscular fitness as soon as possible. This is because your aerobic fitness develops much faster than your neuromuscular fitness. Many new runners get injured because their aerobic ability is too far ahead of what their muscles, tendons, and bones are capable of.  An imbalance or weakness in neuromuscular fitness increases injury risk.

Neuromuscular Fitness

Neuromuscular fitness is your body’s ability to run well from a nerve and muscle perspective. It involves how much muscle your body activates when running and which muscles your body activates for running. When you can activate more muscle the load is spread amongst a larger pool of muscle, reducing fatigue, and preventing injury. When you use your hips to stabilize your stride, your ankles, calves, and quads don’t get overloaded. If your body were a car neuromuscular fitness would be the suspension. Elements that build neuromuscular fitness are probably the elements that are missing from your training (the free training plan from that magazine or website usually doesn’t include this stuff). Things like strides, hill repeats, track workouts, and strength training all contribute to neuromuscular fitness.

Running Economy

The final element is running economy. Your aerobic fitness determines how much oxygen you can get into your system. Running economy is how efficient you are with it once it gets into your system. Keeping with the car analogy running economy would represent the transmission; how well the power gets turned into forward motion. Running economy is developed over time as you run a lot of miles. There are also drills that you can do that will improve your form and help you move more efficiently. This element is the most elusive because every runner is different. We all have an ideal stride but the problem is that it’s different for every runner.


The three components are interrelated. Building your neuromuscular fitness will allow you to minimize your risk of injury which in turn will enable you to run more consistently and build more aerobic fitness and running economy. Similarly running all those miles will increase your aerobic endurance and your running economy. It all works together.


In my next post I will outline common runs and workouts that address or build each component of running fitness.


For me my strength is aerobic endurance while running economy is a weakness. Let me know in the comments which component is your strength and which one you need to work the most on.

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