Runners, we need to talk. You and I have probably had the same thought: I don’t need to do strength training. I run, so my legs are plenty strong.
Strength is a completely different adaptation than endurance. Achieving some aspect of both maximum strength and power can go a long way to improve your running capacity. I ignored lower-body strength training during my first attempt at the NYC Marathon, and I paid dearly for it. I refused to make the same mistake a second time.
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Whether you’re looking to run a 5K or a marathon, you need to include strength training in your program to ensure a successful training cycle. Fewer injuries and better speed and efficiency are some of the benefits.
The key thing to remember is: Be smart about how to program the strength segment of your program. If you’re training for a race, you’ll need to make some alterations in both your endurance and strength training programs. You’ll need to adjust your mileage, intensity, frequency and volume to ensure you are recovering completely from workout to workout.
And pay attention to exercise selection: Which exercises will work best to produce optimal results and remain compatible with your race training, so that your endurance doesn’t suffer?
Benefits of Strength Training
1. Injury Prevention
Building strength can help runners prevent knee and hip pain and avoid many running injuries. Running is notorious for creating dysfunction in the hip, forcing the knee to compensate. It can also put a lot of stress on the hip flexors, causing the larger glutes to lose their ability to function as they should. Performing exercises like Deadlifts and Hip Thrusts, which are specifically targeted to the glutes, can help you avoid some of those nagging injuries.
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2. Increased Speed
What runner doesn’t want to get faster? Reaching your goals and hitting personal bests leaves you with an amazing feeling. Lifting helps you build strength, which will make you a faster runner. The stronger your legs get, the more force you can drive into the ground and the more distance you can cover with each stride. If you can cover the same distance in fewer strides, odds are your times will come down and you will hit bests more often.
A recent study found that after a 40-week strength training intervention, velocity at VO2 max increased significantly. What does that mean? It means that when you reach the point of maximum oxygen intake, your velocity should be higher.
3. Increased Efficiency
Efficiency (or economy) is essentially how much energy it takes to run a particular distance or speed. In the aforementioned study, running economy was clearly defined using the formula:
- VO2 (mL/kg/min) / [speed (km/h) / 60]
This formula shows how much oxygen an athlete would use running at a particular speed. The less oxygen he or she uses over a particular distance, the more efficient that athlete will be.
When subjects were retested after the 40-week strength training intervention, researchers saw an improvement in economy.
The conclusion: The stronger you are, the more efficient your muscles become, resulting in less oxygen intake to cover the same distance at the same speed.
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Programming and Exercise Selection
Runners are a tricky breed to train and program. On the one hand, they want to build strength; yet they also want to avoid any increase in body weight. Carrying more weight around can be detrimental to their time.
So there’s a fine line to walk. For that reason, we want to stick to lower rep ranges for the more complex, compound lifts such as Squats, Deadlifts and Hip Thrusts. Since runners rely heavily on their quads and hip flexors, ideally they should include as many posterior chain exercises as possible.
For runners, programming a lot of single-leg exercises like Bulgarian Split Squats, Single-Leg Deadlifts and Step-Ups is key. The reason is two-fold. First, running is like a series of small single-leg plyometric-type movements over a long period, so you want your legs to be strong and powerful. Second, doing single-leg exercises improves hip stability, which relates back to the first point of injury prevention. In addition, including accessory exercises like Hamstring Curls, Clamshells and “anti” core exercises (anti-extension, anti-rotational, anti-lateral flexion) can go a long way toward keeping you injury-free.
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Runners need to be able to balance the amount of volume they are doing on the road and in the gym. Depending on your total weekly mileage, you may have to adjust your work or volume of strength training. Simply put, if your mileage is going up, as it typically does during a training cycle, your overall volume of strength training should go down. This will reduce or eliminate the risk of overtraining and give you plenty of time to recover from workout to workout, whether it’s cardiovascular or strength-based.
As you get closer to a race day, no matter what the distance, it’s important to taper off your mileage. But in terms of strength training, you should look to maintain the strength you’ve built over the last few weeks or months. However, don’t go all out with intensity or volume. You’re doing enough work to keep your adaptation, just “to maintain.”
Kris Beattie, B. P. (2016). “The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.