Strength Training Hacks for Runners
A common misconception is that to be a great runner, one must spend a lot of time running while doing little of anything else. It is true that the more you run the better you will be at running, but there are a number of other activities that need to be incorporated into a runner’s regimen, including strength, core, recovery, mental game training, and attention to nutrition and hydration. All too often, runners mistakenly believe that strength training is least important when training for a race when, in reality, it should come first for many athletes.
Why Do Runners Need Strength Training?
One of the most compelling reasons for a runner to strength train is to ward off injury. Often, injuries are caused by muscular imbalances that place undue stress on parts of the body. For instance, runner’s knee is commonly brought on by muscle imbalances in the calf, hamstring, or quadriceps that cause the patella (knee cap) to be pulled slightly out of alignment. Runners often lack hamstring strength relative to their quadriceps, which can also cause injury in the form of a hamstring strain or tear. Fixing these imbalances is important, and many coaches even recommend that a runner spend less time running and more time in the weight room if time constraints are the root cause of neglecting adequate strength workouts.
Most of the running-related injuries can be offset with greater strength, which means stronger connective tissues, joints, and muscles. More strength in the problem areas of knees and hips means tougher structural integrity and more control to handle the high impact of running. In addition to this, strength means more speed, too, and who doesn’t like that?
A study from 2005 looked at injured and healthy runners who had their hip strength tested at an orthopedic clinic. It showed that in a control group of amateur, recreational runners, the injured ones had way weaker hip abductors and hip flexors on the injured side, while the adductors were actually stronger on the injured side. All the healthy runners had no differences in muscular strength.
Another study shows that strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Even though cardiovascular markers such as VO2 max did not change, the experimental group’s running economy was elevated by 4% while the control group showed no significant improvement.
This meta-analysis tried to find a relationship between running economy and strength training, and tried to measure how much energy the control group of athletes burned to run at a given pace. Out of five studies that had to meet certain standards, they found a “large, beneficial effect” of strength training on running economy. The researchers found an improvement of 2.32 mL/kg/min in the experimental group’s running economy. In other words, if you train properly, you could maintain the same pace using 3-4% less oxygen.
What Types of Workouts are Beneficial?
Workouts that test a runner’s balance are beneficial for creating a more stable stride and core. Balance muscles tend to be “minor” muscles, and are often neglected when major muscle groups are targeted, such as hamstrings or quads. However, attention to minor muscle groups is extremely important for injury prevention.
Suggested exercises include single leg lifts, Bosu ball work, and balance poses from yoga. Single leg exercises, such as single leg squats, single leg dead lifts, and single leg calf raises are an efficient way to even out imbalances between legs. Just as every person has a more dominant hand; most runners have a dominant leg, which leaves the other leg weak and susceptible to injury. Using these single leg exercises to identify weaknesses and then targeting them with balance work is recommended.
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The Bosu ball is an increasingly popular tool for balance-specific strengthening. A Bosu ball looks like half of a Swiss medicine ball, but is flat on one side. Either side of the Bosu ball can be used, such as by balancing on the platform with the ball-side touching the ground, or vise versa. When standing on the platform side, normal weight lifting exercises, such as squats or shoulder press, can be performed to add an extra level of difficulty. If standing on the ball side, exercises such as single leg squats, planks, pushups, or lunges (with one foot landing on the ball) can be done to gain benefit from the additional balance work.
Yoga also helps runners work on their balance. Incorporating certain poses into a runner’s routine, such as tree pose or dancer’s pose, is a great way to not only improve flexibility but also increase functional muscle strength.
Sometimes, runners simply lack the pure strength that is necessary to withstand hours of pounding the concrete. For these runners, standard lifting routines are recommended, which involve exercises such as bench press, squats, chin ups, shoulder press, push-ups, tricep press, step-ups, and walking lunges. When possible, it is best to do each of these exercises with dumbbells as opposed to a weight bar, as imbalances between the two sides of the body can be better identified in this manner.
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Weight training is a wonderful way to improve a runner’s endurance, especially if prone to overuse injuries. To improve the ability of muscles to withstand stress, runners should increase the number of reps they perform for each exercise while decreasing the amount of weight they are lifting. For instance, if an athlete typically squats 60 lbs for three sets of eight repetitions, he or she should instead squat 45 lbs for 3 sets of 12–15 repetitions. By the end of each set, muscles will experience a similar burn as at the end of a race.
Plyometrics are explosive exercises performed using your body weight. Think burpees, mountain climbers, jump squats, box jumps and similar workouts. These exercises may hurt, but they actually help you build fast twitch muscle fibers and enhance your running economy. Both are key to running faster at any distance. Since running is essentially an extended combination of single leg hops, building an explosive power will make you a faster runner.
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If you’re not sure where to start, begin with burpees. Know that such exercises will make you sore. Do them before an easy run, so you are not too tired for a key workout.
In addition to this, you can perform bench taps, leg bounds, and box jumps.
For runners who lack the explosive power required to strongly finish a race or switch gears, power workouts are necessary. There are two common ways to accomplish this goal, including hill repeats and jumping exercises. Hill repeats are often considered a strength workout in disguise because of the resistance they offer. The knee drive and strength that is necessary in order to reach the top of the hill results in huge power gains, especially when performed regularly.
Another great power workout is to jump rope. Simply jumping as fast as possible while limiting the number of mistakes made for 1–3 sets of 60 seconds can provide important benefits to a runner’s power capacity.
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One way to improve a runner’s anaerobic strength while also strengthening muscles, is to incorporate circuit work weekly. These workouts are like miniature fartleks, which stress all systems of the body to provide important training that translates to faster results on race day. A runner should choose 8–10 exercises, such as pull ups, tricep press, jump rope, mountain climbers, etc. and spend 45 seconds completing each activity as fast as is safely possible, with 30 seconds rest between exercises.
When Should Strength Training be Incorporated?
Different types of strength training should be incorporated at different points of a runner’s training. The “off season,” (meaning any time a runner is not actively participating in a training build up) should be reserved for true strength-type workouts, such as those discussed in the “strength” section. Power and endurance workouts are appropriate during the first 1-2 months of a training cycle, during the base building phase, while balance, power, and circuit training can be completed at any time. Runners should do a maximum of three days of lifting per week, and should incorporate as much variety as possible. As with any strength routine, lifting should be eliminated during taper.
Wrapping it up: Gain Total Body Strength
Science is keeping up with the technological advancements in sports and there are multiple studies which show that strength training can actually enhance running economy, translating into greater muscle endurance and speed. However, as a runner, the most important part of your body – the legs – should be trained separately to avoid injuries, but you need to gain total body strength to avoid other serious complications such as inguinal hernia or meniscus tear.