By Paul Parker BSc(Hons) MSc
Strength Training, and Running. Two things that a lot of people seem to think paradoxical, and that the last place a runner needs to be seen to improve their performance is in the gym. This myth however, is being well and truly quashed by many of the worlds’ most successful runners, and thanks to some fantastic practitioners and researchers around the globe that continue to bang the drum for the value of strength training for the running community. Whether it’s a Park Run, an international 10km, the Great North Run, a Marathon, or an ultra-endurance event, strength can, and does, play an important role in getting you to the finishing line faster.
This article hopes to give a little insight both in terms of how strength training can have a direct affect on your running, as well as some practical tips in terms of the type of strength work you can and possibly should be doing if you have aspirations for improving your running performance.
Running Economy One of the primary benefits of strength training is the effect that it has on a person’s running economy. But what is running economy? It may not be a term that all athletes are familiar with, maybe not nearly as familiar as the term VO2 max, but yet, it potentially holds more importance. Research has shown that running economy can be the difference between athletes whom possess the same Vo2 max and in frank terms, it refers to the efficiency of being able to run at a given speed, via a combination of biomechanical and physiological factors (being able to run at the same given speed, but at a lesser cost in terms of energetics). There is an extensive body of research showing that the implementation of strength training, in turn improves an athlete’s running economy. And the good news, it doesn’t need to be developed in exchange for an increase in body mass, or changes in maximal oxygen uptake, a fear held by a large number of athletes without proportionate reason. The development of running economy should be at the forefront of any endurance athletes mind and strength training could be just the ticket. Improved running economy, improved time to exhaustion, improved rate of force development properties, and an improved capacity to generate force – why the hell wouldn’t you?
It Doesn’t Stop There So, if running economy hasn’t improved, what exactly have I improved? As mentioned, improvements in running economy can be multi-factorial, and the benefits that strength training can yield are equally as varied. In terms of the structural and neural adaptations that strength training can promote, the list goes on and on – so let’s dive in and take a look at a few.
Connective Tissue: When we think of strength, it’s easy to immediately think of the muscle itself, after all, it’s the muscle proteins that interlink and shorten/lengthen to provide movement. Although it does represent an element of the force production equation, it is by no means the only element. Strength training can influence the health and characteristics of the connective tissue, that joins the muscle to the bone (after all, “bones give muscles something to do”). Strong and healthy tendon allows force generated in the contractile component to be effectively translated to the joint (and ultimately, to the floor when running).
Neural Adaptation: Strength training can not only enhance the structure of the cells that make up our body, but it is also well documented that strength training can have a beneficial effect on the central nervous system and its relationship with the muscle. With adequate and suitable training, the brain can become more affective at driving signal to the working muscle, and enhancing subsequent recruitment that drives muscle action. Now that might sound complicated, and it definitely is… but just think of it as a socket to light bulb relationship. Yes, you can work on the bulb, and get a better quality, brighter light that way, but you can also improve the supply of power, the effectiveness of the transport. We’re essentially developing the voltage, as well as the bulb.
Muscle Function: It would be impossible for me to write a post on strength training without mentioning the muscle. Probably the first thing you think of when you think of the benefits of strength training is the function of the muscle and the protein fibres that make them up. As well as the contribution from the aforementioned neural component, strength training can also enhance the characteristics of a muscle, including but not exclusive to global tissue health. Tissue health has been shown to increase with strength training, and thus improving blood supply to working tissues during exercise, aiding in the uptake of oxygen required for aerobic metabolism during endurance exercise. it is a combination of these enhancements ultimately lead to better force properties, and allow us to produce more force, in less time. This is crucial even for ultra-endurance running, as being able to produce and transmit more force per stride, for the same energy cost as previous, is advantageous on the performance outcome (speed!). Relative Strength: A lot of runners (and people in general), have developed the idea that lifting weights and resistance training regularly will make them “bulky”, if only it were that simple! This does not have to be the case at all. Adding muscle is a result of dietary behaviour as well as the appropriate delivery of well-selected training modalities. Strength training can yield force related benefits without the addition of any cross-sectional area, or any mass. This is important in running and/or endurance events as relative strength is of high importance (meaning the amount of force that can be produced relative to body weight). As aforementioned, strength does not come from the structure alone, but the ability to utilise the central nervous system to recruit the muscle effectively plays its part.
“Core Training”: Core, trunk, or whatever you want to call it, plays an important role in running. Although it may not be the first thing you think of when you think of the benefits of strength training, research indicates that this alone has the potential to improve running irrespective of changes in the amount of ground reaction force you can produce, or stability of the lower limbs. Instead, appropriate strength through the trunk can aid in stabilising the pelvis and ensuring that rotational forces present where running are managed appropriately, and don’t lead to “energy leaks” through wasted energy spent swaying side to side, and swivelling at the hips. This in turn can lead to more efficient running and better contralateral transference (sounds complicated but essentially just refers to the relationship between your left arm, and right leg and vice versa whilst running to maintain linear momentum).
We can still appropriately design a training structure that allows the points above to be addressed and developed progressively over time, without significantly hampering your mileage
Okay, so tell me about “Strength Training” That sounds great. Most of it even makes sense, but what exactly do I mean by strength training and how can you implement it into your practice? The unfortunate answer here is that there is no silver bullet. However, we can still appropriately design a training structure that allows the points above to be addressed and developed progressively over time, without significantly hampering your mileage and honing the side of your craft that pays enormous dividends… running.
Strength training takes many forms, and rather than delving into the benefits of supra-maximal lifting, vs high volume exercise, I instead thought I would give you a few simple and easy to implement pointers that can get you kick-started on your route to a stronger stride.
Foot and Ankle Health: I don’t know on average how many strides it would take someone to complete a 10km, but I do know it’s a lot. That is a lot of repetitive strikes that your foot is required to make with the ground, often transmitting forces equivalent over 4 times your bodyweight into the floor, at a single point of contact. This is just one element that effectively programmed strength work can influence. Developing the foot and ankle to better absorb and transmit force can make a huge difference to your foot health, and running performance. Doing unilateral based exercise, and “active foot” type exercise, helps develop the relationship between glutes, hamstrings and calf’s, and ultimately, the foot, thus enhancing the co-coordinative relationship of the posterior chain that is so crucial to running performance.
High Intensity Plyometrics: Just as above, developing stiffer and more robust connective tissue, will maximise your ability to translate force through the floor in return for speed. We want to be able to minimise the braking forces that are there with every foot strike, maximise the propulsive forces, and reduce the time taken in between (known as the amortization phase). Running itself is plyometric in nature, and runners are exposed to incredibly high volume work every time they get their running shoes on. There’s no great requirement then, to add to this load – however, we can manipulate the intensity side of the equation to better serve the function of the connective tissue and the ‘elastic’ component of the musculotendinous unit (MTU). Low volume, high intensity plyometrics have a place in every running-based sport in my opinion, and this is no different. Start by developing your ability to absorb force rapidly, by drop/altitude landings of various and progressive heights, and then start to work in some high quality, max effort drop jumps (once suitable to do so), to give the high intensity plyometric stimulus that your program may currently be missing.
Isometrics: There has been a recent surge in the interest surrounding isometric training following some recently published work from Alex Natara. This by no means makes it a new training method, but it shines a light on an area of training that can yield enormous reward, given the right application. Isometric training refers to exercises in which static positions are held, and where little to-no lengthening of the active muscle occurs, whilst under tension. Broadly, there are two categories, “yielding” and “overcoming” isometrics – both of which have value. Yielding isometrics involve holding a position under sub-maximal load (or body weight), for an extended period of time. This allows the MTU to resist lengthening, and develops the ability to appropriately co-ordinate and synchronise appropriate muscle sequencing. Just like “overcoming” isometrics, this allows us to get a really good handle on the joint angles we want to train and develop, and have particularly high value in rehabilitation settings due to the mechanical tension that can be created under sub-maximal loads. “Overcoming” isometrics, involve pushing maximally against an object that you’re unable to move (e.g. a door frame, or a wall). The use of overcoming isometrics sees a higher transfer to concentric exercises, whilst also stimulating the recruitment of high threshold muscle fibres, all for a lower energy cost than eccentric/concentric exercise. We can here then, get some really good and high-quality strength work done whilst minimising the mechanical and structural damage caused through exercise – perfect if you have multiple sessions in a day, and high volumes on the road throughout the week. Both types promote neural adaptation, aiding the link between the central nervous system and the muscles recruited, and helping to forge better “mind-to-muscle” connection.
Heavy Concentric Lifting: Implementing heavy lifting into your program can lead to favourable changes to nearly all of the aforementioned points. This doesn’t have to be all the time, and if your strength training history is limited, it doesn’t have to be that heavy either. Just like your isometrics, you can make this specific to the joint angles that are relevant. Strength and competence through full range is important, and good for both joint health, tissue health, and your general strength profile, but don’t be afraid to get some overloaded work in the areas that matter most. Heavy step ups to a low box, or concentric only squatting to quarter depth, can prove incredibly advantageous. If you don’t know what I mean by concentric only, I mean only “working” through what is typically (not always) the “up” portion of a lift. For example, squatting off of pins in a gym, or using a trap bar to deadlift, makes it easy to only stress the shortening action of the targeted muscles. This eliminates the lengthening action, which is typically the muscle action that causes muscle damage and subsequent soreness – which makes it a win win: more strength benefit, better force output, and less accumulative fatigue and soreness to hamper the rest of your training.
A well designed and appropriately delivered program can have real meaningful contribution to your development as a performer, and can shave seconds and minutes off your current PB’s in a matter of weeks
A closing statement; I would encourage all runners and endurance athletes to delve deeper into seeking support to aid with their strength development (if they’re not getting it already!). A well designed and appropriately delivered program can have real meaningful contribution to your development as a performer, and can shave seconds and minutes off your current PB’s in a matter of weeks if it has long been an un-tapped area within your training regime.
If you’re interested in learning more – or better yet, you want to be led via a professional through a structured program then contact the clinic on 01732 666050 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks for reading
Strength and Conditioning Coach