I’ve had a couple of people say recently that they’ve have been considering performing a strength program to help their running.
Whether the goal is injury prevention or simply wanting to run faster, adding a strength program to your routine could be one of the most effective training strategies you could employ. Even in highly trained and elite distance runners, those who supplement their running with strength training will notice improvements in running economy, and aerobic threshold.
Running doesn’t make you stronger
This obviously depends on your background strength and fitness, but the point I’m trying to make is that running is an aerobic exercise, not a strength exercise. The whole point of running is to be as efficient as possible so you don’t conk out half way through your run. When you run you rely on the elastic energy in your tendons for propulsion, not muscle contractions. The muscles job is to provide adequate tension in your tendons so the elastic energy can be utilised properly (Figure 1).
What is strength training?
Strength can be defined as the maximum weight you can lift once. This is often referred to as your 1 repetition maximum (1RM). To Build strength, it is recommended that you train at 65-75% of your 1RM, or >80% if you’re a trained individual. When you are working at this intensity, you should only be able to perform 8-12 repetitions before stopping due to fatigue.
For those who are interested, there are ways of estimating your 1RM that don’t involve performing a one rep-max test. The are plenty of phone apps that you can download which are pretty accurate. But at the end of the day, its not essential to know your 1RM to perform effective strength training. Just find a weight that you can lift 8-12 times but no more. If you can lift it more than 12 times, make it heavier!
Does this mean you need to join a gym?
Well, unless you have access to weights at home or at work, you probably should. Body weight exercises such as squats, lunges, bridges, calf raises without added resistance just aren’t heavy enough to produce the adaptations that strength training provides. These types of exercises, which can be performed more than 20 repetitions before fatiguing and are classified as activation exercises. They can be useful as part of a warm up or in the early stages of a rehabilitation program, however they are generally not hard enough to produce significant strength gains and you’ll plateau pretty quickly.
How does strength training help you run faster?
Strength training for running isn’t about getting massive, its about increasing the stiffness of the muscle-tendon unit so it can utilise elastic energy more effectively. This is done by:
Improving the contraction capabilities of the muscle – The tendons in your legs act like springs, stronger muscle can create tighter springs which are more effective at propelling you forwards.
Increasing tendon stiffness and cross-sectional area – Once again, stiffer springs lead to better performance.
Greater neuro-muscular activation – Even when you lift really heavy weights, your body only activates a portion of the muscle at once. Strength training increases the muscle’s ‘neural drive’. This improves the coordination and timing of muscle contractions and allows you recruit more muscle per rep. Effectively, your teaching your body to ‘switch on’ more muscle. This helps to make you more resistant to fatigue and reduces the strain on your bones and joints when you run.
The increased neural drive explains the strength improvements that are seen in the first 2-4 weeks of training, which is well before any physiological muscle adaptations have had time to occur.
Reduce time lay-off due to injury – I know this is technically not an adaptation of strength training, but I’m a physio so I had to throw in something about injury prevention. Coincidentally, the most effective treatment for tendinopathies such as Achilles tendinopathy, patella tendinopathy etc is heavy, slow strength training.
The only way you get these adaptations is with heavy strength training!
So the take home message is: Strength training will improve your running, but it’s got to be heavy enough!
If you would like more information about strength training for runners, please give us a call on 03 5721 4162.
Balsalobre-Fernadez et.al. (2016). Effects of strength training on running economy in highly trained runners: A systematic review and meta-analysis of controlled trials. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(8), 2361-2368.
Bohm et.al. (2015). Human tendon adaption in response to mechanical loading: A systematic review and meta-analysis of exercise intervention studies on healthy adults. Sports Medicine.
Kraemer, W. et.al. (2002). Progression models for resistance training in healthy adults. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 34(2), 364-380