Up-'lift' Your Clients Running Performance
“To run faster I need to run more often”. This adage has long been entrenched in endurance running and many runners have been cautious to devote much time to anything other than running, particularly strength training. Perhaps it’s been a lack of knowledge of how to perform strength exercises, their potential benefits or fear of it detracting from running. It is no wonder the archetypical running body exhibits long slender legs and a bony torso with little musculature. Indeed, such a physique has worked wonders for the few who appear to have been ‘Born to Run’ (think East-Africans), whose genetics, upbringing and biomechanics facilitate remarkable running ability and resilience to injury. However, most recreational runners are not so well endowed and they experience a very high prevalence of overuse injuries: up to 90% of marathoners are injured every year. What if running further is in fact not better? Scientific literature appears to suggest that foregoing some bone-crunching mileage for appropriate strength training may provide your client with that extra kick of muscle power to excel in the long run.
Multiple studies over the past two decades have shown the clear performance benefits of ‘concurrent training’[2-4]: combining endurance training with either heavy-strength training (focus on maximal muscle force e.g. 1-12 RM of back squat), explosive-strength training (focus on maximum concentric power and speed e.g. bodyweight box jumps to 0 - 60% 1 RM squat jumps) or reactive- strength training (focus on elastic energy storage and use during the stretch-shortening-cycle e.g. plyometric hops, sprints) or a combination thereof. Two reviews published in 2014[3-4] concluded that strength training interventions are effective at improving time-trial performance and multiple predictors of endurance performance in well-trained runners: running economy (energy cost at a given submaximal intensity), running velocity at VO2max(vVO2max), and maximal anaerobic running velocity (vMART). The latter, determined by incremental 20s sprints, represents anaerobic capacity, or the ability to produce force after a sustained period of high-intensity activity, as in a ‘sprint finish’. Amongst runners of homogenous aerobic capacity (VO2max), such improvements become important in determining success. Research has shown concurrent training with heavy-strength and/or reactive-strength training are most effective at improving running economy, whereas explosive-strength with/without reactive-strength training has proven most effective in improving maximal running speed (vVO2max and vMART)[4-6]. However, high-volume heavy-strength training appears important to achieving maximal strength gains and improved time-trial performance. Overall strength training in runners appears to be one scientific intervention that has reliably positive effects.
The mechanisms for these widespread benefits are largely theoretical. Many improvements are seen in neuromuscular capacity, which may not accrue from running alone, due to the comparatively low force production and fewer muscle fibres activated[3-4]. Strength training significantly improves running economy by a.) improving the eccentric muscle’s capacity to rapidly absorb and utilise elastic energy each step and b.) increasing lower-body musculotendinous stiffness, which together translate into reduced ground-contact-time and ATP demand. Strength work also improves the muscle’s maximum strength and force capabilities, and the rate of force development via improved neural activation, motor unit recruitment and muscle coordination. Essentially the trained muscle’s force-velocity relationship is improved by an altered fibre recruitment pattern: increased type I (slow-twitch) fibre strength delays type I fibre exhaustion and the need to activate less efficient type II (fast-twitch) fibres. This slows fuel (glycogen) depletion, reduces muscle fatigue and enhances the capacity for a high-intensity race finish. Strength training may also induce a ‘switch’ in type IIx fibres to more fatigue-resistant type IIa fibres, and reduce activated muscle mass required at a submaximal absolute power - leaving ‘fresh’ muscle to use later in a race. These neuromuscular and anaerobic adaptations translate into enhanced ‘muscle power’, which enable an athlete to maintain a higher relative velocity over the course of a race. Detractors of strength-training may argue it causes unwanted muscle hypertrophy and body mass gain – theoretically compromising muscle capillarization and relative VO2max. However, no study has reported these negative outcomes.
The benefits of strength training are not purely performance-related but also injury-related. Muscle weakness, particularly of the hip musculature (hip flexors, abductors and adductors, external hip rotators), has been found to be a major contributing factor to chronic injuries plaguing runners[1,8] e.g. iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) and patellofemoral joint pain. One study sent the ITBS-injured cases to a body-weight hip strengthening programme, using isolated exercises such as side leg raises and bridges, and within 6 weeks, 92% of them were back running injury-free. Indeed, it is likely that strength training reduces injury risk in a number of ways (e.g. reduced muscle imbalances, improved neural activation, muscle power, running posture, mobility, biomechanics), which together improve the overall athleticism and resilience of the runner.
Practically speaking, strength-training should incorporate running-specific muscle groups and movements. This will provide the greatest opportunity for the neural and structural adaptations from strength-training to transfer to running performance. Therefore, closed-chain, multi-joint, heavy-strength exercises (e.g. squats, deadlifts), explosive exercises (e.g. jump squats, power cleans) and reactive-strength exercises (e.g. sprints, drop jumps) should take priority. Importantly, strength training should be tailored to the current strength and technical ability of the runner and progressively evolve in line with their capacity. Weaker runners will benefit most from an initial heavy-strength focus (e.g. 2-3 sessions/week at 4-12 RM) that will provide the necessary foundation of strength and neuromuscular efficiency, whereas stronger runners may place a greater emphasis on specific explosive and reactive strength exercises. Regardless, strength-training introduced in a variety of forms will be sure to have a positive effect on your client’s running form, speed and sustainability.
1. Fredericson, M., & Misra, A.K. (2007) Epidemiology and aetiology of marathon running injuries. Sports Medicine. 37(4-5), 437-439.
2. Yamamoto, L.M., Lopez, R.M., Klau, J.F., Casa, D.J., Kraemer, W.J., Maresh, C.M. (2008) The effects of resistance training on endurance distance running performance among highly trained runners: a systematic review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 22(6), 2036-2044.
3. Beattie, K., Kenny, I.C., Lyons, M., Carson, B.P. (2014) The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Medicine. 44(6), 845-865.
4. Rønnestad, B.R., & Mujika, I. (2014) Optimising strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 24(4), 603-612.
5. Mikkola, J.S., Rusko, H., Nummela, A, Pollari, T., Häkkinen, K. (2007) Concurrent endurance and explosive type strength training improves neuromuscular and anaerobic characteristics in young distance runners. International Journal of Sports Medicine. 28(7), 602-611.
6. Paavolainen, L., Häkkinen, K., Hämäläinen, I., Nummela, A., Rusko, H. (1999) Explosive strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology. 86(5), 1527-1533.
7. Noakes, T. D. (1988) Implications of exercise testing for prediction of athletic performance: a contemporary perspective. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 20, 319–330.
8. Fredericson, M., Cookingham, C.L., Chaudhari, A.M., Dowdell, B.C., Oestreicher, N., Sahrmann, S.A. (2000) Hip abductor weakness in distance runners with iliotibial band syndrome. Clincial Journal of Sport Medicine. 10(3), 169-175.