Strength Training for Distance Runners

Many years ago, I realized that my football days were practically over, as I finished college and started working in a field where others play time is my work time, so the number of games I played dwindled and so is the level at which I played. I turned my attention to the only sport that required nothing more than shorts and shoes and was always available at my convenient time, so I started running.
My running history is nothing to write home about, genetically I am more suited to be a bodybuilder than a long-distance runner, despite the disadvantage I took on many difficult trail ultra-marathons and did okay in most of them. I also happened to be lucky enough to be close with many elite trail runners, who crushed it at the most famous races in the world. That friendship of course meant that I have to give nutrition and training advice to most.
As an exercise physiologist, the first step in advising anyone is to dig into their history, current and future goals, looking across training plans or methods, nutrition, daily habits, yearly calendar of events and whatever variable affecting the athlete. Through all levels of runners, I helped, one advise seems to be the most consistent, “do strength training”.
Long distance runners historically feared the word strength training for a couple of reasons. First, it is not what they love doing, so it is only natural for them to shy away from it. Second, strength training in many people head is associated with “big muscles”, which is extra weight for a long-distance runner to carry, although this is a big misconception, but due to lack of understanding of strength training and stereotyping, the philosophy of no strength training for runners endured for a long time.
Finally, many running coaches started advising their athletes to do strength training but tailored more towards “core strengthening” and high repetition hip flexors and glutes exercises etc. This is for sure a step forward, however, is this the proper strength training to truly improve performance? To answer such a question let us look at what we know about strength training and how it relates to endurance sports.

Benefits of Strength Training for Runners

Needless to say, health benefits of weight lifting are well documented, so I will not dive into them now, the good news is if you are a runner and you do weight lifting, health benefits are a bonus.
The benefit of strength training as an injury prevention tool in running is also well recognized by most running coaches. Having stronger muscles provides support for the joint by providing stability, it also keeps a runner feeling stronger for a longer time, supporting an upright posture and a stronger arm swing. The question is, is this the extent of benefits we can get from strength training for running? Can we increase the benefits from strength training to improve performance?

Why we should push strength training further

The answer is much simpler than anyone thinks, a strong muscle produces more force, more force ability means you either push harder and increasing each stride length, or you use less of your capacity to produce the same push and get the same speed at less cost.

You really do not have to take my word for it, the research is starting to bring out evidence to support this line of thinking.
The Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in sports published an article in 2002 about maximum strength training and it’s ability to improve aerobic performance, the study was done on cross-country skiers, where they did heavy resistance pulling, that simulated the angles of pull during skiing, the repetitions where 6 repetitions max, meaning each person pull weight was at a point where they can only do 6 repetitions, of course, there was a control group that did nothing more than the continue with their traditional endurance training. The study concluded that strength training improved aerobic performance by improving efficiency in the working muscles. This also supports an earlier published research done by Hoff et al. that concluded the same about resistance training and aerobic performance.
The same logic was applied to a study on long distance runners, where a group was put through heavy squats and a control group that continued with regular training, then these runners were tested for their maximum oxygen consumption, running efficiency and time until exhaustion. Once again, the study published by the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise in 2008, concluded that resistance training at 6 repetition max was able to improve running efficiency and time until exhaustion, maximum oxygen consumption was not improved nor decreased, which is expected because that type of lifting is completely anaerobic.

So how does that affect your training?

Although the studies mentioned above provide support towards strength training in 2 sports and in limited exercise, it is completely reasonable to extrapolate from them to

build a solid program.
It is obvious that good old-fashioned strength training goes a long way in improving the performance or at least makes life easier for a runner at the same speed. The big question would be what muscles to focus on and what muscles to push heavy weights with.
Of course, the obvious answer is legs, as they are responsible for force production during a run. However, I would go further and say all lifts should be heavy. A special focus on back muscles is important as well, they are after all the muscles that prevent slouching and bad posture, those of you who ran long distance know how hard it is to stay upright when you are fighting for the last few kilometers.
Many programs talk about a focus on “functional” training style and moves for resistance training, this is a small part of what I would recommend as they tend to depend on skill and do not do a great job at improving strength output. I recommend doing more stable exercises that depend on strength alone. Here is a sample of exercises that should be done with relatively heavyweights

 

Things to remember

– Understand the form well enough so you do not instigate unnecessary injuries
– Make sure you warm-up before you hit the high weights
– Test the weight by progressively building up rather than choosing heavyweights you cant handle, and the only way is trial and error
– Choose a weight you can control moving smoothly up and down, or back and forth
– You want to be able to do anything between very controlled 4 repetitions and 8 or so, and remember numbers here are just an indication, not absolute, the point is to feel heavy and feel you can’t do more
Sample exercises
Legs
– Leg Press
– Leg Extension
– Leg Curl
– Standing Calf raise
– Adduction
– Glutes extension with a 4-way hip machine

Back
– Seated low row
– Lat Pulldown
– Back extension

Now remember all other body parts are important, but I emphasized on the parts that have to particularly feel strong, and yes core stability is also important and must be incorporated into your program.

Conclusion
The fear runners harbor towards heavy weight training is mostly unjustified, in particular when it comes to legs, as having a strong engine to push the frame cannot be bad for your performance or efficiency. Runners should add heavy legs workouts to their routine once or twice per week, and the magic will happen, it is worth the time and effort.

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