Strength training for Runners
Should runners complete any form of strength training???
Within the running community this is often a very topical question. One side of thought thinks that strength training will slow them down and impact their ability to cover long kms, while the other side swear by it and think it plays a major role in injury prevention and performance enhancement. But which side of thought is right?
Everyone understands that strength plays a very important role in a 100m sprinters preparation but it isn’t as well recognised that longer distance athletes complete A LOT of strength work too!
In my point of view as a Strength and Conditioning Coach I think that strength training plays a crucial role in a runner’s preparation!
How does Strength training benefit a runner?
There are many ways in which strength training can benefit runners. A stronger muscle will able to perform at higher intestines and for longer durations. Enabling the athlete to push their body even further and improve their performance.
Through the use of plyometrics, a stronger runner will also be able to get more of a contribution from their tendons (which is a non metabolic tissue). This means they will be able run at the same speed with less of a metabolic cost – almost like they have stored energy/springs in their legs. A stronger runner is also more resilient to injury.
As with any change to a training program though, it needs to be done with caution, don’t just jump straight in head first! Gradually introduce strength work into your currently schedule.
What is Strength Training?
First of all lets actually look at what can come under the banner of ‘strength training’. Strength training can include anything that involves a muscle performing a contracting against a resistance, this can either be a concentric/eccentric/isometric/isokentic contraction. The main ways a runner needs to be aware of are the first three. We then need to think about how to strengthen these different muscle contractions. Now there are many many modes we can use to do this.
For the purpose of this article I am going to keep it to three key areas:
- Weight training
Plyometrics really became involved in an athletes preparation after the 1970’s when it was noted that the Russians were using basic forms of it in the lead up to competitions.
Basically it is any movement in which the body is trying to exert maximum force as quickly as possible when transitioning from an eccentric muscle contraction (muscle lengthening) to a concentric contraction (muscle shortening). This phenomenon is also referred to as the ‘stretch-shortening cycle.
The best example I have for this is watching a Kangaroo. How they easily transition from bounce to bounce almost as though they have got springs stored in their feet. This is what plyometrics are trying to develop – By increasing the strength and elasticity of the athlete’s tendons.
From a running point of view – If you have got these mini stored ‘springs’ in your legs it makes you a more efficient runner. Instead of always expending lots of energy with each stride the stored elasticity helps to propel your forward. Also helping with increase speed and jump height.
Examples of Plyometric exercises:
- Drop jumps
- Hopping – single and double leg
- Speed bounding
- Use of hurdles
click through to 1:18 in this video to watch some old school plyo drills
The first thing we need to master with the athlete’s weight training is their movement efficiency. No point loading up an athlete that can not move. Some key things to look at here:
- Can the athlete squat? what is their range of motion? any major restrictions?
- Can the athlete hip hinge? pivot their weight from the hips?
- Single leg balance? can they control their weight on one leg?
- Muscle activation can they switch on the major muscles? deep core muscles , glutes?
Once the athlete can master these, then we can consider loading some movements. When I look at weight training for a runner some key things they need to work on are:
Single leg control – majority of the time they are on one leg so need to be strong in this position. Great proprioception through the hip/knee/ankle, glute control preventing the knee from internally rotating (can lead to injuries-thats of another article though)
Posterior chain – the main muscles on the back of the athlete are what drive the running motion – calves, hamstrings and glutes.
Torso and Hips – this is a key area often neglected and combines all the muscles involved around the hip complex. Being able to keep the hips relatively stable during a run can help with efficiency and reduce injury risk.
Examples of weight training exercises for a runner:
- Single leg squat
- Single leg arabesque
- Single leg Calf raise
- Glute bridge
- Side hold/bridge
Now this isn’t my area of expertise and would certain refer to an Exercise Physiologist for Pilates, but it does need to be mentioned in this post. This is taken from a previous article AEP Jess Luke wrote for me. Pilates is based on 5 principles
1. Relaxation : Undertaking exercise in a relaxed state helps to relieve stress, lower blood pressure and heart rate and lower the chances of potential injury whilst undertaking exercise
2. Concentration: Increased focus on movement helps to perform the movement correctly and aids in proprioception for movement sequencing.
3. Alignment: Correct alignment is required when the body is in motion to promote efficient motor patterning. Poor motor control can lead to potential injury and compensatory patterns to occur
4. Breathing: Breathing correctly can be the difference between straining to complete the exercise and completing it easily. Correct breath to movement patterning helps to reduce unnecessary tension within the body and takes pressure off key supporting structures such as the pelvic floor and diaphragm.
5. Centring: The centre of our bodies, our core, is the foundation of our movement. For the purpose of this blog, the core consists of the lumbo-pelvic hip complex and the rib complex; along with several key muscles involved in each. Becoming aware of the coordination between the core areas enables us to establish efficient movement patterns.
In order to increase neural connection between the brain and the muscle, pilates consists of increased repetitions at a lighter intensity in order to promote neural activation to problematic areas whilst not promoting recruitment of currently dominant compensation patterns (Eg you may be using your hip flexors for hip extension!!). By isolating the correct muscles in the correct sequence over and over again, we strengthen our neural hardwiring of how to undertake that movement correctly. The stronger these correct neural connections are, the more efficient your muscles will work to undertake a movement.
Hopefully this article outlines the importance that Strength Training can play for a runner. I would certainly recommend to any runner that they complete some form of strength training twice a week to compliment their running.