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A study says runners prefer a low-effort pace, no matter the distance

“When you go out for a run, you run to have your best fuel economy,” said Scott Delp Unsplash/Jack Atkinson

Stanford University scientists have found that when recreational runners are left to their own devices and outfitted with a wearable fitness tracker, they prefer to run at the same calorie-saving pace, regardless of the distance ran – contrary to the explicit goals of competitive racing.

Previously, scientists theorized that runners burn the same amount of calories for a given distance no matter how fast they run because the energetic cost depends mostly on the weight of the runner and time ran. But a new study, published April 28 in Current Biology, helps upend this thinking in favor of a more economical one. With data from more than 4,600 runners totaling more than 28,000 hours of running, researchers compared energy-saving running speeds measured in a lab setting to the preferred, real-world speeds measured by wearable trackers and found the two to be indistinguishable.

“When you go out for a run, you run to have your best fuel economy,” said Scott Delp, the James H. Clark Professor in the School of Engineering and director of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, who is senior author of the paper. “So, regardless of the distance you travel, you run in such a way that you burn the least amount of fuel per distance traveled.”