The Role of Strength Training for Runners. By Michael Hennessey.
posted on 23/10/2013 5:10:00 AM
The Role of Strength Training for Runners
By Michael Hennessey
Strength training is an essential part of a runner’s preparation. Many race plans focus exclusively on running, or possibly include some race-specific tips regarding equipment, nutrition and pacing. Many coaches and personal trainers, however, neglect strength training. Strength training is important as it has the ability to not only improve running performance, but also facilitate greater training and reduce the risk of injuries.
The Role of Strength Training for Beginners
New runners or runners who have been running sporadically have not developed the peripheral adaptations that more experienced runners have. Only time can fully develop things such as increased muscle capillarisation, increased mitochondria size and many more adaptations. However, strength training will improve balance, agility, muscular power and muscle and ligament strength in the lower body. Strength training will also improve running economy without requiring additional running and the added impact of those extra kilometres. Increased running does improve running economy as well, but for a new runner, overtraining and overuse are common traps. This is an important idea to note for personal trainers & coaches of new athletes. Whether training for a 10km, half marathon or even the local fun run there is the temptation to shorten the preparation time and increase the weekly volume in an attempt for dramatic results. Beginners are always going to improve with a new training stimulus and the temptation to reach for the stars is all too tempting for uneducated trainers. The 10-week couch-to-5km or 12-week half marathon programs are at the limit of what many individuals can sustain and, unfortunately, are more than most can sustain. Staggeringly, more than 50% of runners will suffer running-related injury in a 12-month period, so it is important to manage training volume (or total running kilometres). Strength training is a crucial element in this. The take-home message for new runners is to progress slowly when increasing volume or intensity; for coaches and PTs, sensible goal setting and long-term progression to longer races is essential.
What to Program for Beginners
A general muscular strength and endurance program targeting knee extensors, knee flexors, hip extensors, hip lateral rotators, ankle plantar flexors and stabilisers should be the basis. In addition, include core strength exercises and ‘form drills’ in a beginner’s program as it will help to improve their posture, develop trunk stability and improve running efficiency, as well as develop effective movement patterns for efficient running. Exercises such as high knees, glute kicks, run throughs or ‘strides’ will help to improve co-ordination, mobility and efficiency.
Flexibility considerations will vary with individuals, but common areas to target include hamstrings and hip flexors (especially for sedentary, desk-based workers), calf muscles and the hip abductors and adductors.
Identifying Muscle Imbalances
When developing a running plan or starting a new strength program it is essential to include strength and flexibility assessments for both new and experienced runners. Obviously it will provide insight into any necessary corrective strength requirements as well as flexibility imbalances that may be more susceptible to injury with increased running training. Assessing hip flexor, quadriceps, hamstring, Achilles and gastrocnemius flexibility is important. While individuals will vary, bilateral equality in flexibility is also important. Unilateral strength and stability tests such as standing single leg balance and squats are also important. The nature of the running gait, with only one leg in contact with the ground at any one time, makes it crucial that single leg balance, pelvic stability and glute activation is not compromised.
Other factors to consider for identifying injury risks include the athlete’s previous injuries, periods of high stress, high training volume and poor running technique.
The Role of Strength Training for Experienced Runners
Strength training has been shown to improve running economy in competitive 5km runners, and experienced runners have the most to benefit in terms of performance. A similar improvement in strength for experienced runners to that of beginners is often the missing element in training. This can enable them hit new PBs or sustain higher training loads without getting injured, thus facilitating increased racing, faster times or increased longevity. The role in injury prevention is very hard to quantify but I strongly believe strength programs which regularly re-evaluate unilateral strength and flexibility factors will go a long way to preventing many common injuries.
What to Program for Experienced Runners
Targeting common weak points in runners and those that can lead to common running injuries is a good place to start. Glute strength, core stability, ankle stability, proprioception and flexibility programming are vital. Then, personalising the program for the individual athlete is critical.
For more competitive athletes and those experienced in strength training, plyometric training has been shown to improve speed, power, running efficiency and neuromuscular activation in runners. Plyometrics are especially important for sprinters and middle distance track runners as it increases the explosive power and reduces ground contact times. Plyometric training utilises the elastic energy in the muscles and connective tissue, however, this high-intensity training must be progressed gradually. Even experienced runners with high weekly kilometres should progress slowly when beginning plyometrics, starting with simple jumps and hops and low total contacts each week before progressing to more advanced moves with higher loads.
The Role of Strength Training for Marathon and Ultra-Marathon Training
As the length of the race increases, so too the potential for local muscle fatigue, neural fatigue and impaired running technique, economy and injury increases. For these reasons it is quite important for ultra-runners to complete strength training routines. Many ultra-runners prefer to get out on the trails and use the dynamic terrain to strengthen their running, which is quite sensible, however, specific strength training still holds many benefits. For those stepping up to ultras or with specific biomechanical or technique abnormalities it is even more important, for example weak postural muscles that may not cause a problem in a half marathon will be under much more sustained strain in a six-hour, 10-hour or 18-hour race. Even though the speed of the running will be slower, the impact forces are high and the terrain much harder. Big descents (often hundreds of metres in vertical elevation), uneven trails and loose rocks and sticks make precise running even more important. Poor technique running down a hill, poor proprioception or weak pelvic stabilisers will increase the stress on knees or send increased shocks up through the back. Compounded by the long duration, it becomes clear how important a strong body is for the ultra-runner. The combination of specific strength work (at high intensity) and training on appropriate terrain will condition the body to the demands of the race.
What to Program for Ultra-Runners
Balance, agility and proprioception are important elements due to the unpredictable nature of the terrain. Strength and balance training on unstable surfaces is very beneficial as is completing some of the strength training under pre-fatigued conditions such as post-run. Ultra-runners need to be able to maintain stability on the trail for hours into a race when under significant fatigue and often in poor light or harsh weather conditions, so it is important to replicate some race-style training where appropriate.
Ultra strength programs should also include similar elements to experienced runners to maximise running efficiency and speed. Despite being capable of running significantly longer distances it doesn’t necessarily translate to a greater running efficiency. As previously mentioned, biomechanical issues which may be otherwise missed will definitely be exposed in a prolonged race over 100km or longer.
Will Strength Training Lead to Weight Gain, ‘Bulking’ and Slower Times?
In a word: no. Strength training (even at high intensities) for three times, 30 minutes per week will not significantly change the body composition of a runner who runs for three hours or more per week. And for those more experienced runners covering 60km or more every week, we shouldn’t shy away from real strength training in the 8-12 rep range. The goals of strength training, such as recruiting the maximum number of motor units, is achieved by placing a greater resistance on the muscle, not through completing 20 or more repetitions of a light weight. This type of intense training will not lead to 60kg ectomorph runners developing bodies resembling endomorphs. More importantly, strength training will not reduce running performance; in fact, it will result in quite the opposite.
Is Functional Training The Only Strength Training That Works?
There has been much debate and criticism over whether open chain, supine or traditional gym-based resistance exercises are beneficial for runners, with some quarters stating that only closed-chain functional exercises could benefit the movements of running. This needn’t be the case, especially where muscles aren’t firing correctly and others are compensating - or if particular muscles are fatiguing, then it is necessary to use whatever exercises are available to strengthen and possibly even retrain ineffective movement patterns. In rehabilitation situations and ‘pre-hab’ exercise programs it is necessary to develop a level of strength in the specific muscles before moving onto advanced or more technically complex exercises. Where injuries or abnormalities exist, the impact forces associated with more running or plyometrics simply isn’t going to be positive.
Where possible, however, incorporating running-specific moves (unilateral leg contact and pelvic stability) and closed-chain exercises are beneficial.
Michael is the Director of OUTFIT health + fitness, Senior Exercise Specialist and a passionate recreational runner. With an Exercise Science degree, Dip. Ed., Cert III & IV in fitness and Athletics Australia coaching certifications, and over 15 years in the fitness industry Michael is experienced and passionate about exercise, especially endurance sports. Michael also lectures for Fitnation (Cert III & Cert IV) and is a First Aid trainer for Medilife. Contact Michael via www.outfithealth.com.au or on 0412 316 916.
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