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What is running power – and how can it help you to run better?

running power
Running power metrics could be a powerful tool for performance (Image credit: Getty)

What is running power? Many more people, especially running coaches, are discussing and using this new metric as a way to measure the performance of runners, or improve performance. Let's take a look at what running power is and how you can use it to help your training.

Traditional measurements for improving running performance usually focus on running pace, heart rate and VO2 max data. But now there is a new 'power' metric that measures running effort, while excluding the influence of elevation, terrain, weather and other factors that are a part of every run. 

In simple terms, Ruth Stone, a PT and fitness expert at www.sweatband.com (opens in new tab), defines running power as “a real-time measure of your work output when you’re running”.

She adds: “Running power is measured in watts, with the higher number of watts relating to the more power a person is generating when running.”

If runners want to understand how successful and objectively efficient their running is, they should look at how much power – in watts –  their run can generate when their heart rate is lower.

“The more power produced at a lower starting heart rate, the more efficient your running ability is," Stone says.

Woman running with stylized lines representing energy

Running power can be measured as a way to better understand a runner's capabilities (Image credit: Getty)

The development of running power meters

Cyclists have been using power as a metric for improved performance for many years. Many riders have a power meter fixed to their bike to show them the ideal power to effort output. 

Now smaller and increasingly powerful sensor technology products are being developed and sold for runners, too. 

These include: 

Stryd
The Stryd (opens in new tab) sensor is a pod that clips on to your running shoe. It uses motion-sensing accelerometers to measure power from the foot. It works with an app and modern sports watches, to show you the power.

Polar Vantage V2
The Polar Vantage V2 (opens in new tab) is a sports watch that records running power via your wrist, as well using GPS-based speed and data.

Garmin Running Dynamics Pods
Garmin sells accessories the can track running power. For example, these include a belt-clip pod and one that is more of a standard chest strap. Both work with higher spec Garmin watches like the Fenix 5 or Fenix 6.

RunVI
RunVI is a Kickstarter (opens in new tab) for a wearable power meter that takes the form of a set of 'smart' insoles that fit into your favourite road or trail running footwear, combined with an app. The insoles have accelerometers, plus 30 pressure sensors, to record real-time power data.

Woman running by a lake at sunset

What is running power? It’s defined as a real-time measure of your work output when you’re running (Image credit: Getty)

How to track running power

Running power is best measured using a running power meter, such as those above. These are devices that have been developed to ensure real-time feedback, taking into consideration all possible variables. 

Stone explains: “Generally speaking, the power meters consider your speed, external factors like incline, wind, temperature and humidity.

“No matter who you are, there is an intensity sweet spot and an ideal level of exertion for all aspects of your running training, be it shorter runs, long distance ventures or flat-out racing. 

“Establishing your running power will allow you to structure your running plan to the point in which you know exactly how hard you should, and can be, running in any given scenario. This allows for optimum accuracy throughout any training period. 

“Doing this will not only improve your running, but it will also give you the edge on other runners. It can improve both endurance runners and sprinters alike.”

The benefits of using running power

The biggest benefit of using running power as a metric for measuring a person’s running ability is that it avoids other, less accurate and more subjective methods that we regularly use to test and improve our ability to run.

Stone reveals: “Runners often think about, for example, rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and pace, which are both useful. But RPE is incredibly subjective and doesn’t give much guidance for improvement, while running pace tells us the results of our work but ignores how hard our body is working.

“Running power, on the other hand, helps to paint a more complete picture of a person’s training, tracking our body’s actual physical output level in conjunction with our heart rate in real time.”

The drawbacks of using running power

There's ongoing scientific debate about how best to measure running power, including  what is being measured and how to apply it. The technology is still emerging but many sports scientists believe it is promising. However, it's worth noting that running power metrics are best combined with a professional coach who can work with an athlete to understand the power potential.

Ruth says: “In my opinion, running power as a metric to improve performance. At this stage, is much more suited to competitive runners.

"Measuring pace, heart rate and split running are much more accessible method for the everyday runner. Mechanical efficiency is an example of something all runners can benefit from, particularly over distance. Working on core strength, taking smaller strides instead of larger ones and rolling from heel to toe with soft knees are all easy technique-tweaks that are accessible for all to incrementally improve performance.”

We expect to hear a lot more about running power in the coming years and it's worth keeping an eye on this developing technology for improved running performance. 

Fiona Russell is a widely published adventure journalist and blogger, who is better known as Fiona Outdoors. She is based in Scotland and is an all-round outdoors enthusiast with favourite activities including trail running, mountain walking, mountain biking, road cycling, triathlon and skiing, both downhill and back country. Her target for 2021 is to finish the final nine summits in her first round of all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of more than 3,000ft high. Aside from being outdoors, Fiona's biggest aim is to inspire others to enjoy the great outdoors, especially through her writing. She is also rarely seen without a running skort! Find out more at Fiona Outdoors (opens in new tab).