5 Strength Training Considerations for Runners
5 Strength Training Considerations for Runners
Spoiler alert: I have never been and never will be a runner. I’ve always shied away from long distance running because… well, I hated doing it. And when I did do it, it was painfully difficult. I’d much rather run to the squat rack than jog around the block.
Despite my bias against running, I’ve learned that it’s a worthwhile activity for long-term heart health and weight management (my triathlete professor in grad school opened my eyes to this). And my fiance runs half marathons a few times a year, so I have to say nice things about running.
Most recently, I started training a runner through his cross-training sessions as he prepares for the Boston Marathon. Since I’ve had minimal first-hand experience with running, I needed to do my homework. Calling upon my academic background in exercise physiology and my work experience in strength and conditioning, I’ve been helping my client, Mac, get faster and stay healthy during his training.
Mac will run his 7th Boston Marathon today and I couldn’t be more proud of his efforts this training cycle. Over the last 10 weeks, I’ve compiled a list of things a runner’s strength training program should achieve. If you’re a fan of hitting the pavement or the trails, I hope you find this info helpful.
UPCOMING SEMINAR AT CRESSEY SPORTS PERFORMANCE WITH ALEX VIADA
It’s entirely possible to be a good runner and a good lifter. I’ve watched CSP coach Greg Robins add a significant amount of running to his exercise program and still lift like a beast. Not coincidentally, Greg hired ultra-marathoner/powerlifter Alex Viada as his coach. And Alex happens to be presenting a one-day seminar at CSP Massachusetts on June 28. For a chance to learn from an incredible coach who runs ultra-marathons and squats and deadlifts 700 pounds, click here.
WHY RUNNERS SHOULD LIFT WEIGHTS
First and foremost, this isn’t an article about why runners should lift, but believe me: runners should lift. I’m going to keep this brief, but here are a few quick reasons why lifting weights will improve running performance:
- Increased force production: Getting stronger decreases the relative intensity of submaximal muscle contractions, such as those performed during running. Basically, if you’re stronger, every running stride is a bit easier than it would be if you were weaker. You’ll consume less oxygen to do a given amount of work, which improves running economy.
- Increased glycogen stores: More muscle means more glycogen, which is your body’s favorite fuel for intense exercise. Glycogen is a stored form of carbohydrate that is easily burned for energy, and running out of glycogen during a long race is a runner’s nightmare. Building muscle essentially gives you a bigger gas tank.
- Fast twitch muscle fiber development: Our fast twitch muscle fibers are responsible for intense, powerful movements, such as climbing a steep hill or the kick at the end of race. These fibers are best developed with weight training – the more intense, the better. So lifting heavy weights with explosive intent (i.e. trying to push the weight quickly) or lifting close to concentric failure (i.e. until you can’t move the weight anymore) develops these fibers to help you run harder and faster.
Are you convinced? Good. Now here’s what runners should focus on in the weight room:
1. IMPROVE MUSCULAR ENDURANCE
Endurance athletes need muscular endurance (i.e. the ability to perform repeated muscle contractions at a submaximal load). Pretty obvious, right? But there’s more to building endurance than just running.
Targeting specific muscles, especially those in the lower body, with high reps and lots of time under tension can improve your running performance. That’s because when you lift weights for high reps and approach muscular failure, lots of lactate accumulates in the working muscles. Your muscles burn like crazy, but you push through, and over time, with repeated exposure to lactate, your body can tolerate more of it.
Lifting for muscular endurance improves your lactate threshold so you become more efficient at buffering lactate, which is great because lactate can actually be recycled and used as fuel while you run. Basically, you can work harder and longer before feeling that “burning” sensation.
To improve muscular endurance, perform sets of 15-20 reps with a slow tempo. Pick a weight that leaves you pretty close to failure when you finish the set.
2. INCREASE AMPLITUDE
Running is what we call a “low amplitude” activity, meaning that you use a very small range of motion when you run. The hips don’t flex and extend much when you jog, nor do the arms swing very far. Over time, this can cause muscles to become short or stiff, so when you’re in the weight room, pick exercises that take you through a full range of motion to improve mobility.
Lower body exercises like squats, split squats and lunges involve flexion and extension of the hip and knee through are large range of motion, so you’ll improve strength and mobility simultaneously.
3. EMPHASIZE THE POSTERIOR CHAIN
According to a 1998 study that looked at the biomechanics of running, the ankles, knees and hip flexors do most of the work while running. The muscles of your posterior chain like your glutes and hamstrings don’t contribute as much, which puts even more stress on your knees. Your lifting should prioritize these areas to stay balanced.
Exercises like deadlifts, kettlebell swings and glute bridges can strengthen your backside, take stress of your knees and help you put more force into the ground when you run.
4. OPTIMIZE BREATHING MECHANICS
VO2max (the maximum amount of oxygen an athlete can consume) is the ultimate measurement of fitness for an endurance athlete. At a certain point, it’s really hard for elite runners to keep increasing their VO2max.
So how do elite runners keep getting better? The main limiting factor isn’t running economy or lactate threshold. It’s the endurance of their respiratory muscles. In other words, the world’s best runners breathe more efficiently that the rest of us.
By incorporating positional breathing drills during a warm-up, along with strengthening the muscles that pull us into a better position for optimal breathing mechanics, runners can learn to breathe better in the weight room.
I’ve been lucky to learn from the coaches at Cressey Sports Performance, who’ve taught me some powerful exercises that can improve breathing mechanics. Watch the video below for more info and why breathing is so important for performance. It only scratches the surface, but you’ll learn a few exercises you can start doing right away.
One of my favorite breathing drills is called All Fours Belly Breathing, which teaches you to inhale and exhale efficiency by getting into a more flexed position through your upper back. Try it during your warm-up or as a cool-down exercise.
5. BACK OFF BEFORE BIG RUNS AND RACES
It’s always important to keep the goal the goal. When training a runner, strength training has to enhance his or her running performance, not detract from it, so it’s important to know when and how to adjust your lifting sessions so as not to interfere with runs or races.
Many runners train six days per week with multiple shorter runs and one to two longer runs during the week. Make sure your strength training sessions don’t interfere with the longest, most important running sessions.
For example, here’s a common weekly training schedule:
Monday – Rest
Tuesday – Short distance, easy
Wednesday – Medium distance, race pace
Thursday – Short distance, easy
Friday – Rest
Saturday – Long run
Sunday – Cross-training (Bike, swim, etc.)
It’s entirely possible to lift 2-3 days per week with this setup, but just make sure your hardest lifting session is 2-3 days removed from the long run.
Lifting should also taper off as an important race approaches. Just like the running plan will set up the runner to peak for a race, lifting volume should decrease and intensity should be just enough to maintain strength as race day draws near.
BEST OF BOTH WORLDS
Endurance training and strength training can compliment each other nicely. You just have to have intelligent programming and keep your goals at the forefront of your mind. Put these 5 training considerations into practice and you’re well on your way to be a more well-rounded athlete.