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Strength training for runners

By Clem | In Personal Training | on June 28, 2015

I work with a few runners as a personal trainer which at times has led to an awkward question that I seem to inadvertently bring up from time to time. “How are the runs going?” I ask. The reaction is usually one of puzzlement from the client and curious sympathy from passer-by’s wondering how my training routine has led to a client’s diarrhoea.  I have since changed my questioning style to something a bit more appropriate and less embarrassing for all involved.

My topic today focuses on the benefits strength training may have for a runner be they of the casual or performance variety. Personally I believe the benefits are numerous but personal opinion is not enough for me to accept usually and I shouldn’t expect that from you either. Let’s have a look at the evidence to back my musings up.

Reduction of injury

One of the main reasons I believe so much in strength training for runners is the potential it has to reduce injury risk.  The most recent paper on the topic of strength training reducing injury risk was from Lauersen et al. (2013). This was a systematic review including 25 studies and over 25,000 subjects and found that  “strength training reduced sports injuries to less than one third and overuse injuries could almost be halved”. Very promising and very encouraging but…of the 25 studies looked at by the authors, none of those studies involved runners so we cannot jump to a conclusion for runners unfortunately.

In spite of this large limitation, in my opinion it gives us an indication that strength training can enable to better bullet proof our bodies against injuries associated with great movement demands. Strength training helps increase muscle tissues ability to manage load and so may help runners in force absorption with so many strides involved in distance running.

Running Economy

Running economy is how efficiently a person uses oxygen whilst running at a given pace. This is very similar to fuel economy when assessing a car. The research around running economy and resistance training is even more promising. Jones and Bampouras (2007) found a strong association between resistance training and running economy in distance runners. The thinking behind it is improved muscle strength results in greater “stiffness” in muscle tissue resulting in more efficient use of energy associated with each footfall.

Other areas

VO2 Max as some might know is the maximal rate at which heart, lungs and muscles can effectively use oxygen during exercise. This measure is often used as an outcome measure in physical fitness tests. The idea thatresistance training could improve VO2 Max is not supported by evidence as yet but it does not decrease it (Jung 2003). Lactate threshold is also a topic which is commonly associated with runners. This can generally be described as the fastest pace you can run without generating more lactic acid than your body can utilize for energy. Essentially it is the fastest pace you can run before your legs start to feel on fire. Research supporting improved lactate threshold is again not very strong but again, resistance training does not worsen LT. Both of these findings are understandable since resistance training does not place a huge demand on your cardiovascular system (unless you spend every waking hour in a gym pumping iron).

..improved muscle strength results in greater “stiffness” in muscle tissue resulting in more efficient use of energy associated with each footfall..

Summary

Resistance training has a lot of promise according to research for injury prevention and improved running economy. It will not however improve your fitness but will not make it worse.

Recommendations for runners

  1. Start incorporating a well-designed and balanced strength training program into your weekly routine. If you are just starting out, it would be best to find a professional who can provide you with some advice. Start slowly and gradually build up load and frequency of resistance training but you should aim for at least twice weekly sessions of full body workouts.
  2. In terms of sets and reps, I find a higher intensity approach is the goal but obviously this requires a gradual introduction over a number of weeks. Kristensen and Franklyn-Miller (2012) found that resistance training at an intensity of 70% or more of a one rep max is more effective than a low intensity approach when looking at rehabilitation of muscle injuries and I find this works better for strength training with runners too. Higher rep ranges are usually associated with hypertrophy ranges and this, in my opinion, is not suitable for running efficiency (sorry Arnie but you aint a runner).
  3. The programs I give to runners involves quite a lot of single leg work. Most of the population are stronger on one leg but I find that regular runners take this to a new level and almost run on one leg sub consciously. Single leg work using movements like a split squat, Bulgarian split squat and single leg RDL movements work a treat in not only improving strength in that limb but also improving stability in a single leg stance.
  4. Regular runners will agree that running can lead to tight hips. Keeping on top of your mobility is important for all populations and runners are certainly not an exception. Following sequences like this one I posted up a few months ago are extremely important to incorporate into your pre run routine. Gaining improved mobility gives you a greater spectrum of movement available to you. You may need it if there comes an unexpected time when you are required to move outside of your restricted movement spectrum.
  5. It may sound counter intuitive but a lot of the time, less is more. Keep on top of recovery strategies to ensure you avoid over training and putting yourself into an increased injury risk bracket. Get adequate sleep. Get regular soft tissue work (massage) and take regular deload weeks where you bring the intensity and volume down. People sometimes forget that we do not make improvements to our body when we exercise; we challenge and stress our body during exercise. It is in those fleeting moments of recovery (sleep, taking walks, chilling with your friends/family/dog/goldfish) when the benefits are reaped.

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