The importance of strength training for runners

This article was written by one of The Food Medic team; personal trainer and fitness writer – Adam Willis

If you’re a runner, or thinking about pursuing a running goal, strength training should be an important part of your weekly training programme. Strength training is vitally important as it prepares your body for the rigours of your current running training, and your future runs. It’s what can and will keep you in the game, so to speak.

Now, most runners know the important of strength training, yet a lot of them still aren’t implementing it, or implementing it incorrectly, so they’re missing out on the huge benefits it brings.

Strength Training will…

  • Strengthen your muscles, bones, and connective tissues
  • Decrease injury risk
  • Help increase your running efficiency and economy
  • Help increase your running speed
  • Help increase your VO2 Max, increasing your endurance capabilities 

…all of which will help you run faster, run further, run more often, and decrease your race times.

So, it’s kind of a no-brainer, right?

Yet so many runners don’t incorporate strength training for fear of having to decrease the amount of running sessions a week they do to incorporate it; they are worried about being sore for their runs and not being able to run as fast, or they incorporate strength training incorrectly using circuits or exercise classes that don’t bring about the benefits they’re after.

If you’re a runner and want strength training to increase your running performance you only need 1-2 sessions a week to do so, and these sessions only need to be around 45-60 minutes in length. 

The sessions should be viewed as an investment, rather than a detraction from doing more running sessions as the investment will help you run faster in the long-term and keep you running for longer due to increased resilience against the rigours of running and potential injury risk. 

Surely that reward is worth 1-2 hours a week, right?

An effective strength training programme for runners should also work in harmony with a running plan as well, it shouldn’t detract from it. The strength days should be positioned in the week so they work with the running sessions and the strength programme should be reasonable as well, ensuring that progress is made, but not at the expense of too much muscle soreness.

Now, before I get to the areas and exercises runners should be focused on in their strength programme there are 5 key things all runners need to remember when it comes to strength training.

  1. This may sound obvious but I’m going to say it anyway, your strength training must focus on getting you stronger. That means performing exercises, for the most part, in the 3-8 rep range. 
  2. Minimise exercises and methods that could add non-functional muscle to your body. As a runner you are carrying your body weight with every stride, so your training needs to ensure that any muscle you do gain is going to help your performance, not just create more mass for you to carry.
  3. Don’t chase “the burn” or tiredness during your strength training sessions. Runners love endurance training. They love doing hard things that leave them tired. However, taking that approach with strength training won’t get the results you want.
  4. This goes together with number 3. Use appropriate rest periods during your exercise sets. Endurance athletes find rest periods uncomfortable for some reason and seem to want to turn everything into a circuit. Don’t get caught in this trap. You won’t maximise your strength training if you only give yourself 30s rest between sets of deadlifts. To gain the rewards of strength training you need to respect the rest it requires.
  5. You must pursue progressive overload to get stronger, even if it’s for running. To get stronger you will, over time, need to lift heavier and more challenging weights. Always picking up the same set of dumbbells because you’re comfortable and confident with them unfortunately won’t see you progress how you wish to.

When it comes to key exercises most runners should be doing the lower body is going to be the primary focus, and for good reason, the lower body is the powerhouse when it comes to running. However, this doesn’t mean upper body training or core work gets neglected. These both need focus during the training week, but not so much as the lower body.

Key Lower Body Exercises for Runners:

Staggered stance trap bar deadlifts:

Like all deadlifts these are going to focus on developing strong glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. However, by adopting the staggered stance for this variation it allows you to focus more attention on one leg instead of both like a standard deadlift variation. The key thing to remember with them is to keep your weight distributed more to the lead leg, than the rear [think 80%/20% weight distribution]. The rear leg is positioned more for balance and stability rather than to help lift the weight. 

Rear foot elevated split squat:

Ah the dreaded Bulgarian Split Squat as it is otherwise known. These are the exercise a lot of people love to hate, but this exercise gives you a huge return for your investment. It’s a great option for strengthening the quads, hamstrings, and glutes and due to its balance and stability demand it will also help strengthen and stabilise the knee and hip along with increased core stability and strength.

Suspension trainer glute-hamstring raise:

Hamstrings are a key muscle to train for all runners. The hamstrings have 2 functions, hip extension, and knee flexion, and both are required to run. Now you can train each function separately. You can do deadlift variations for hip extension and hamstring curls for knee flexion, however when running, both functions happen at the same time so ideally you want to train them using an exercise that trains both hip extension and knee flexion at the same time. This is where glute-hamstring raise variations come in.

Lateral lunge

A lot of gym exercises focus primarily on what is referred to as the sagittal plane. What is often missing from a training programme is some form of front plane exercise and when it comes to running, the lateral lunge is great frontal plane exercise to focus on. The lateral lunge helps develop adductor strength, lateral stability and hip strength and stability as well.

Training the lower leg muscles like the calves, soleus and anterior tibialis is crucial for runners. It allows you to develop the strength and resilience required to absorb the impact of every stride taken and can help decrease the risk for injury issues such as shin splints.

3 key lower leg exercises to focus on are:

Standing single leg calf raise

Seated calf raise w/ dumbbells on knees

Wall leaning anterior tibialis raise

With the primary powerhouse exercises covered let’s look at exercises you should consider for the core and upper body.

Core exercises:

For your core work you want to focus primarily on the “anti” movements. Anti-extension exercises, anti-lateral flexion exercises and anti-rotation exercises. These will help develop a truly strong and stable core whilst also increasing running performance. 

[for a deeper dive on training your core this way checkout my article – ‘A smarter approach to core training’] 

Key core exercise to focus on:

Anti-extension exercises:

Ab wheel rollout
Dead bugs

Anti-lateral flexion exercises:

Bent knee copenhagen side plank
Suitcase carry

Anti-rotation exercise:

Half kneeling pallof press
Split squat hold pallof press

Upper Body Exercises:

Now although I’ve listed the upper body exercises last it doesn’t mean they should be an afterthought, or not approached with the same effort and intent as the lower body work, they absolutely should, you’ll just likely be doing less upper body work than lower body work during your strength training each week.

When it comes to upper body training for runners, a simple approach that ticks all the boxes is the best method to adopt. Hitting one vertical push, one horizontal push, one vertical pull and one horizontal pull during your training week will provide enough upper body stimulus to gain results, without detracting from lower body training or creating unnecessary training stress to recover from.

Here are great upper body options runners should consider:

  • Vertical push options:
    dumbbell Z-presses, tall kneeling dumbbell presses and half kneeling dumbbell presses, landmine presses
  • Horizontal push options:
    bench presses, dumbbell bench presses, push-ups, and floor presses
  • Vertical push options:
    lat pulldowns, chin-ups, and pull-ups
  • horizontal push options:
    chest supported dumbbell rows, inverted rows, single arm dumbbell rows, and seated cable rows

So, runners, strength training can, and will, make a huge difference to your performance in both the short and long-term. It will help you run faster, run further, and will develop an increased level of resilience that will allow you to train harder, train more often and reduce the risk of injury.

If you’re a runner, don’t overlook this powerful training tool. 

Strength training is possibly the best investment you can make in yourself to increase performance and keep yourself running for many years to come.

The importance of strength training for runners was last modified: April 16th, 2022 by Adam Willis

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