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A guide to strength training for runners

Karrina Howe
Article written by Karrina Howe

Date published 17 July 2019

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If you are looking to improve your running performance: whether it be for a faster race time, a longer distance, or to simply make your hobby that much easier to do, a strength programme might be a great way forward.

Strength training isn't often thought of as a way to build stamina for running. Runners usually avoid weight training due to the perceived risk of injury, fatigue, and thinking that muscle mass will slow them down. Weight training, however, can aid in running by helping increase power, endurance, and speed.

Most runners focus on long distance whilst also using hills, sprints and Fartlek training (blending a steady pace with interval training) to improve fitness. These techniques allow the body to become accustomed to those long distances, and make what was previously uncomfortable less strenuous. But there is more to running than just long distance training. Injury prevention, enhanced metabolic rate, healthy bone density, improved balance, and agility are all important factors-and are all incorporated within strength training.

Circuits, weights, and explosive training

Despite what some may think, strength training comes in a variety of different forms. Far from being restricted to simple 'lifting weights', many consider strength training as anything that puts resistance on the muscle with the intention of improving its ability to hold weight. Therefore there are three main types of strength training: circuit training, weight training, and explosive training.

Circuit training

Incorporating variations such as HIIT (high intensity interval training) or hybrid training, circuit training combines strength training with conditioning. It can only be performed for short bursts, rather than long durations and works your anaerobic system. The anaerobic system is when the energy provided by your body in the absence of oxygen. It can only be used in the first few minutes of all exercise, before there is sufficient oxygen available at the muscles for aerobic metabolism. By using hybrid training to improve your anaerobic system, your muscles will become stronger due to the development of type II muscle fibres. You'll enjoy more power for longer durations through your workout- something that a long distance run can not provide.

By optimising your heart rate with short bursts of intense movement, you will help to increase your heart's capacity, whilst at the same time increasing the number and the density of your mitochondria, the energy powerhouses of your cells. This will raise your VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen you can deliver to your muscles in a given amount of time. In addition, this will also strengthen your skeletal muscles, and better venous return to your heart: allowing you to sustain a fast pace for longer periods of time.

Weight training

Weight training includes more isolated and controlled movements, such as bench press, single leg squats, and pull ups. It has been shown to lead to improvements in running economy, time-to-exhaustion, and neuromuscular coordination (which has relevance to top speed and may explain the increase in running economy) within long distance runners.

Since the arms are used and the upper body is engaged when running, improving the efficacy by which they function will aid performance. Each time muscles contract, oxygen and nutrients are needed in the blood. As with the legs, the arms will draw upon the heart to deliver oxygen, nutrition and remove waste products (lactate) so that they can continue moving fluently with ease. With this being the case, it makes sense to increase the strength of the upper body as well as your lower body, to prevent it from drawing too much oxygen away from the heart.

Explosive training

Olympic Lifting and similar training techniques such as CrossFit, is known to increase type II muscle fibres, creating more 'power'. 'Power', is the amount of force you are able to produce in a given moment of time. Powerful runners have a higher level of relative strength and can tap into their fast twitch muscle fibres more efficiently than weaker runners. Findings from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that runners of different distances had better race times if they were able to develop force quickly. To target fast twitch muscle fibres, runners should incorporate explosive-type exercises into their weekly routine. A well-trained, efficient body uses less oxygen to power muscles when you're pushing the pace, so you'll be able to run at a faster pace for a greater amount of time.

Greater strength equals greater endurance

If you carry more muscle, this will work to move the body forward, creating significant endurance gains. When muscles don't need to work as hard, they also don't require as much oxygen or circulating blood, and therefore will not put as much demand on the heart. In order to build what is now commonly referred to as 'functional strength', properly structured gym workouts have been embraced by most high-level endurance athletes.

Strength training builds the smaller muscles that running neglects, and can therefore help correct the muscular imbalances that can contribute to overuse injuries in runners. For instance, most people have stronger quads compared to the hamstrings and glutes, making knee stability unbalanced. Athletes must counteract this with strong hips. Strengthening the hips twice a week for six weeks can reduce patellofemoral pain (knee pain), with exercise such as single leg deadlifts and single leg box step ups.

Aim to progress with caution

Increasing load or repetitions will improve progress, but it's essential to ensure exercises are performed with proper form. Without consistent stress on the body, it will not adapt and progression will become linear. The key to injury prevention, is to address the major culprits: muscle imbalances, mobility impairments, and weakness in the core. A routine of corrective and strengthening exercises can prevent these issues, keeping the body strong enough run for miles.

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Karrina Howe

About Karrina Howe

Karrina Howe is a qualified personal trainer, Olympic weightlifting coach and Precise Nutrition Level 1 coach, who guides people on their path to a healthier lifestyle.