Why is Strength Training Important for Runners?

The saying “Use it or Lose It” is nowhere as relevant as with muscles. For our overall fitness and good health, we are advised to exercise the major muscle groups. When it comes to running, we employ the same set of muscles over and over again due to the repetitive nature of this activity, resulting in neglecting other muscle groups in the body.

Many runners think that they do not need to work their lower body for example, because running works the legs. In reality, though, during running legs are trained for endurance rather than strength. Strength training will help improve leg strength, so that runners can generate more force with each stride, and as a result, they will become more efficient runners.

As we age, loss of skeletal muscle mass is part of the natural process (in fact, athrophy occurs at a rate of 0.5-1% loss per year after the age of 25) therefore it is very important that we incorporate strength exercises into our workout regime.

When it comes to runners, there are a number of considerations that we need to take into account when it comes to devising a strength training plan (more information can be found in a book I am currently reading – it is called Run Less, Run Faster written by Bill Pierce, Scott Murr and Ray Moss):

  • Strengthening the core muscles is vital for maintaining good running form – this is especially important when fatigue sets in and we start to lose our good form. A strong core can help us maintain good form throughout the run.
  • Strengthening the muscles which stabilise the hips and knees is paramount for injury prevention.
  • Muscular imbalances are likely to lead to injuries – we all tend to have imbalances between opposing muscles groups to a certain degree and even looking at the same muscle group on the right and left side, we all have a dominant side, however these imbalances can be kept to the minimum or eliminated through strenghtening weaker muscles.

When selecting exercises, the following principles should be applied for runners:

  • Exercises should be specific to the movements of running (e.g. tricep extensions on their own may not be as beneficial as squats, for example…)
  • Compound exercises are best (i.e. movements that engage multiple joints and multiple muscle groups). Ones that isolate muscles and do not mimic the movement of the activity result in less functional improvement. (For example, squats will have a greater effect on improving your ability to run than doing knee extensions on the machine).
  • Running is done on one leg at a time therefore it would make sense to select a number of single leg exercises (E.g. one legged squats as opposed to two legged squats).
  • In terms of numbers, it is recommended that we perform 8-10 different functional exercises, 2-3 times a week for about 30 mins.
  • Within the strength training circuit, it is best to start with exercises that target larger muscle groups first – the smaller muscles support the bigger ones and if these are fatigued first, they will not help much as you stress the larger muscle groups. This will put you at an increased risk for injury.

Below is a running specific strength training routine which I have designed by accessorising traditional strength moves to make them a bit more challenging and interesting:

I perform this circuit as a HIIT to kill two birds with one stone, i.e. perform functional strenghtening moves whilst setting high intensity intervals with shorter rest periods to add a cardiovascular challenges as well. The real beauty of this circuit is that it requires zero equipment, you only use your own body weight therefore these can be performed any time and anywhere.

I set my Gymboss for 50 sec work and 10 sec recovery and do 3 rounds:

1. Downdog pushupsFor core, triceps and shoulders. I wanted to inlcude at least one upper body exercise to mix things up a bit.

2. Single leg dips/squats (left leg) – If you go with the dips, use swinging arm movements to mimic running. If you choose to go with the squats, try to touch the floor with your fingers. – To strengthen the quads eccentrically (as they lengthen) and work the muscles which prevent the knees rolling in during running. Good for pelvic stability and balance

3. Single leg dips/squats (right leg)

4. Knee drives  (left leg) – Find a chair/bench or steps. – To strengthen the running muscles (the quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves) through a similar range of motion but with added resistance (gravity).

5. Knee drives (right leg)

6. Alternating forward lunges with arms extended to the side and doing a torso twist at the top by touching your opposite knee to the elbow. – To strengthen the quads, hamstrings and glutes.

7. Rotating side plank (left side)Helps improve running posture by strengthening the deep abdominals and lower back with the body fully extended.

8. Rotating side plank (right side)

9. Lying glute bridge raises with angle on opposite knee (left side)To strengthen the glutes and lower back and improve pelvic stability. Prevents ‘sitting in bucket’ running form.

10. Same (right side)

11. High plank with alternating elbow-knee touches (“Supermans”). – Helps improve running posture by strengthening the deep abdominals and lower back.

12. Standing calf raises with arms extended to the side – I aim to do 12 on each leg as I find my calves cannot tolerate too much, I won’t be able to walk the next day! – To improve lower leg muscle balance and strengthen the calf through the lowering phase, when it works hardest during running.

13. Elasticity bouncesTo get a feel for feet landing below hip and to improve elasticity of lower leg tendons for better ‘elastic recoil’.

14. Dynamic squats – To address posture, strengthen glutes, hamstrings and quads and improve ankle flexibility and Achilles tendon elasticity.

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