Distance runners often intuitively feel that the only way to improve running performance is to increase mileage and run more.
Although this approach will work for a while, you will eventfully reach a point of diminishing returns. Once you've hit that juncture, any additional running will not bring many benefits in terms of improving performance, but the injury risk will continue to increase.
With each step, you make contact with the ground. Those contacts create impact forces that travel through your body and need to be absorbed somewhere. If your muscles are not strong enough to absorb this load, connective tissues like tendons and bones will suffer most. This may eventually lead to many of the most feared injuries amongst runners like stress fractures, IT band, and tendon problems.
The logical way to improve muscle strength and avoid many of the previously mentioned issues is to incorporate strength training into your routine. But distance runners often fear weight training will make them slow and bulky, as carrying the extra weight of added muscle mass means more work on every stride. However, research has found that if the strength training is performed complementary to your running, this won't be the case. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that "40 weeks of strength training can significantly improve maximal- and reactive-strength qualities, (running economy) and (velocity at maximal oxygen uptake), without concomitant hypertrophy, in competitive distance runners." That means the runners became stronger, more efficient runners without experiencing significant changes in body composition.
But stepping into the weight room and performing hours of Biceps Curls isn't going to get distance runners the results they want. Exercise programs we create for runners need to take into account their running training, address specific weaknesses, and focus on specific physical qualities that will have a high transfer to running.
With that in mind, here are three benefits well-implemented strength training offers distance runners.
1. Better Running Efficiency
Like the fuel economy of a car, the less energy and oxygen used at a certain pace, the longer you can run at that specific speed. For distance runners, this means you can maintain higher speeds during your runs, which translates to better times. In addition to the study discussed above, a 2013 study found that runners who incorporated strength training as a part of their training improved running economy by more than 6 percent! And again, this improvement in running economy came about in the absence of any increases in body weight or muscle size.
2. Increase in Running Speed
Aside from incorporating hill running, tempo running, sprint and interval running, if you want to fully develop your speed potential, strength training is a must. Developing adequate muscle strength will provide a base for power training, which will rely on that strength to convert it to speed. Greater muscle strength relative to your body weight, as was achieved in the aforementioned study, means greater potential to further develop running speed.
3. Injury Prevention
A stronger body and stronger muscles are better able to absorb impact forces and resist injuries. By incorporating progressive overload with strength training, we are not just improving muscle strength, but also getting our tendons, ligaments and bones thicker and stronger.
Having adequate muscle strength means muscles are able to properly stabilize joints and allow expression of proper running form. This usually means reduction or prevention of pelvic drop, crossover, or even the heel strike pattern.
As a result of the repetitive nature of the sport, runners tend to develop asymmetries and weaknesses at specific points along the kinetic chain. This leads to an over-reliance on one side, which can cause overuse injuries on that side. Properly designed strength training will reduce or eliminate these asymmetries and weak points and thereby reduce the risk of injuries.
Aside from all the previously mentioned benefits to running, strength training has many other benefits that make it worth investing extra effort and/or energy in making it part of your exercise routine. The good news is that you don't have to do much right away to experience these benefits. Start slow, make it a habit, and over time, as you get more advanced, start increasing volume and intensity of your strength training.
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