The specificity rule of training tells us that in order to be better at our given sports, we need to train at that sport.
So yes, the surest way to run better is to run, and if your time is limited, devote most of it to running. However, the fastest and most robust runners are the ones who are well-rounded and better overall athletes.
If you’re a runner and have had the pleasure of working with myself, or Matt Stevens, then you understand the importance of strength, stability, power and balance.
Without these, runners will continue to break down under the high volumes of training that they force upon their bodies.
In addition, we know and appreciate that running with poor form increases stress on the body and that running with a poorly prepared body means you’ll never be able to improve your form. It’s a never-ending cycle of doom.
Poor preparation -> poor form -> increased stress -> potential for injury
Inability to control dynamic alignment under load and fatigue is another building block of injury and over-training. People come into our clinic weak and unstable when completing even the most basic movements and we know that weak runners break down in form with fatigue.
So how do we improve our ability to combat fatigue while becoming a more efficient and robust runner? Strength training.
Benefits of strength training for runners include, but are not limited to:
-Improved running economy through “neuromuscular” improvements in how the brain recruits the muscles you already have.
-Improved maximal sprint speed and efficiency gains = faster racing and improved performance.
-More efficient stride through “stiffer” and “springier” tendons.
-Reduced risk of overuse injury.
However, one of the main issues with incorporating strength training into endurance programs is that runners and endurance athletes feel as if they can’t find the time.
To quote Gray Cook, from his book “Movement”, “Runners insist they cannot take time off from running to work on these patterns because they believe endurance will decline, but in fact, reduced efficiency is guaranteed when continuing to train and practice sub-optimal patterns with high training volume. The enhanced efficiency gained by two weeks of mobility and stability corrective exercises and calisthenics targeting weak links will FAR outweigh any microscopic loss in metabolic efficiency.”
This is why it’s so essential to incorporate strength training and cross-training into running programs. The goal is build stronger and more injury-resistant runners that are able to tap into power when needed for performance. The only way to build these types of running athletes is through strength training.
It’s not possible to get stronger through just running.
Running should be thought of a skill and appreciated for the high-level sport that it truly is. In order to continue to participate in this sport without the ramifications of injury and overtraining, we must blend aspects of strength training into our programs.
A common misconception is that resistance training will result in weight gain, which will then trigger a decrease in running performance. However, typically body mass does not increase when resistance training is added to an endurance running program. Furthermore, improved running economy (the amount of oxygen consumed at a given pace) and faster running performances are observed in runners who add resistance training to their training routines. A strong muscle has greater strength reserve and can do things for a longer period of time before it gets tired. Makes sense, right?
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In addition to the fears of weight gain, runners often feel that if they’re in pain then they should stop training altogether. As physical therapists, we commonly work with runners who are battling injuries and experiencing pain and we’re here to tell you that if you’re in pain as a runner, it’s most likely a result of overuse and the high volume of training.
Therefore, it’d only make sense to incorporate variety into your training through strength training while cutting back on the mileage; but not stopping training.
If we take knee pain, for example, simple strength exercises and simple loading are helpful for knee pain and these effects have nothing to do with changing movement patterns. We have much more evidence that load management (meaning all of the stressors, bio and psychosocial) is important for treating pain and running-related injuries than changing movement quality.
Progressive loading and graded exposure through strength exercises forces the tissues to adapt, heal and strengthen.
So how do we properly implement strength training into running and endurance-based programs?
Without the proper planning and programming, we can find ourselves battling what is known as the interference effect. When concurrently training both the capacities of endurance and strength, interference may occur, and we may begin to hinder the development of either strength or endurance when compared to training them independently.
While we often see this in the form of lost power/strength in those training for ultras or marathons, we know that endurance is typically less affected by the introduction of concurrent strength training. Through program periodization and allowing sufficient recovery between training sessions, we can minimize the side effects of concurrent training while continuing to build stronger and more efficient runners.
In addition to proper periodization, implementing heavy strength training results in improvements in endurance running performance.
However, the same effects have not been observed with light, circuit-type resistance training (3 sets of 40-45 seconds of continuous repetitions of lower limb exercises). The time a muscle is under tension, with adequate rest between sets (2-3 minutes), seems to be important factor in eliciting beneficial adaptations in a runner’s musculoskeletal system. Recent research has shown that performing repetitions in the 12-20 range does not increase muscular endurance any more than the 6-8 repetition range.
In addition, endurance athletes are already building aerobic capacity and improving their lactate thresholds through the endurance-based training itself. The purpose of strength work is to build strength so performing routines and rep ranges that target this goal is ideal.
What exercises are the most beneficial?
The gluteal muscles are important for running. They propel us forward by extending the hips while stabilizing the pelvis as we land on one foot, which is ultimately all that running consists of. In addition to the glutes, our core functions as a midline stabilizer and “chassis”, allowing us to maintain stability while rotating, swinging, and actively moving our bodies.
The commonly used plank exercise, with additional hip extension and abduction movements, is a great movement drill that targets the core and glutes.
While the glutes and core are important, the calf and the thigh muscles are actually more responsible for supporting our bodies during running.
In fact, the calf musculature contributes about 50% of the torque that supports our body during endurance-paced running. In faster runners, the forces are multiplied. The Achilles tendon, which transmits muscle forces from the calf musculature to the heel, can experience forces as high as 6-8x a runner’s body weight during running and can result in things such as Achilles tendinopathy and plantar fasciitis.
Therefore, a comprehensive resistance program should target the calf, thigh and hip muscles, with the calf musculature requiring extra attention in the masters runner. As we age, the ability to push off with our calf muscles declines, resulting in shorter step length, shuffling gait and slower speeds of running.
The eccentric calf raise builds strength through full range of motion, but is also a great accessory exercise used to target Achilles pain and tendinopathy.
Compound exercises are also beneficial when it comes to working with runners. By targeting multiple joints and placing the athlete in “functional” positions, we blend specificity into training while mimicking the actual movements of running. These exercises also allow us to place a greater load on the body and the soft tissue compared to single-joint exercises.
However, single-joint exercises may be preferable to attain running-relevant levels of muscle forces.
For instance, a single leg squat is a great strengthening exercise for the hip and thigh muscles but minimally loads the calf muscles and requires far less ankle range of motion than what is typical during running. Therefore, a runner’s resistance training program should consist of a mix of multi- and single-joint exercises to ensure that their muscles and tendons are loaded adequately.
In some capacity, strength training should be a staple of any endurance-based programming.
Building elite and robust athletes isn’t simple but is made easier when there’s variety in the training. Cross-training, strength training, intervals, speed/tempo work, recovery, etc. All are important to a runner’s health and longevity, but none match the benefits of strength training.
If you’re interested in learning more about the strength training and programming we use for our endurance athletes, reach out to us below.
Thanks for reading,