Figure out the right strength exercises for runners and you can avoid injury, decrease time, and feel better.
Strengh exercises for runners can be quite tricky to program. They are essentially, different animals and training simultaneously for both, will result in a compromised adaptation response, compared to training for each individually (Hickson, 1980). But runners need strength exercises to avoid running-related injuries so they can get the most out of their running program and develop a stronger more powerful stride.
However, you’ll hear runners saying that running and running alone is all they need. It’s difficult to get a die-hard runner in the gym as they commonly fear becoming slower or becoming too “muscley.” They have a right to think this because of two things: 1) mitochondrial dilution and 2) increased weight.
Depending on the program, hypertrophy or the increase in muscle size can be a wanted result, say in a body builder or a dude in their 20’s trying to look like Captain America. For an endurance runner – this can be detrimental to performance.
Muscle fibers increase in size with hypertrophic resistance training. What’s inside the cells does not increase at the same rate (and may not increase at all) – meaning the “stuff” inside, like the mitochondria, become fewer per unit area – this is known as mitochondrial dilution. Because there are fewer mitochondria per unit area, less energy can be produced to power the larger muscle(s) meaning that fatigue sets in much quicker.
Increased weight, on the other hand, means carrying more weight around the track or on the road when racing. It’s self-explanatory why this would require more energy and be less efficient compared to running at a lower body weight. Think of wearing a very bulky running shoe. The oxygen cost of wearing a shoe of this nature compared to a lower profile lighter shoe is much greater and obviously negatively effects running performance.
Let’s have a quick look at the science to see if runners should be running away from the gym.
The concept of training for endurance and strength in the same program is known as concurrent training. The interference effect describes the compromised adaptation to training when including both of these methods of training into the same program (Hickson, 1980).
Think about the S.A.I.D. Principle – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demand and it will make sense. Strength exercises has the goal of improving strength (duh!) usually measured as rate of force development or as a maximum voluntary contraction. Endurance training on the other hand has a totally different goal – to improve the ability to sustain a repeated task (e.g. running) or the ability to maintain a certain level of muscle contraction (e.g. front plank or grappling when wrestling etc.).
So, you can see, both goals of training are very different from each other and they are obtained via performing strength exercises on opposite ends of the intensity spectrum; however, does combining the two different training programs improve endurance performance or inhibit it? The concern goes the other way as well – aerobic training added to strength training may reduce anaerobic performance qualities and reduce high strength and power performance (but since we are worried about our client’s running fast, we’ll just consider adding strength training to an existing running routine).
Endurance training effects (Hawley, 2009):
-increase in mitochondrial density
-increase in peripheral capillary density
-increase in oxidative enzyme density
-increase in stroke volume and cardiac output
-reduces peripheral resistance
-better utilization of lipid for fuel at lower intensities with the conservation of glycogen
Strength exercise effects (Hawley, 2009):
-increased in movement coordination and neuromuscular efficiency
-increased in muscle cross sectional area (hypertrophy)
-enhanced relative and absolute strength properties
Explosive strength training and plyometric traing effects:
-enhanced elastic and reactive properties
-increased rate of force development
-increased power production
-increased musculo-tendon stiffness
At the genetic and molecular level, the mechanisms of adaptation to resistance training and endurance training, appears to involve the activation or repression of specific genes and cellular signaling pathways (Hawley, 2009).
The review paper titled Effects of Strength Training on Endurance Capacity in Top-Level Endurance Athletes, discusses concurrent strength and endurance training in highly trained endurance athletes (Aagaard & Andersen, 2010). Previous research in this area is equivocal. Some studies show improvement in endurance performance while others have found an attenuated cardiovascular response.
Aagaard and Andersen (2010) concluded that the benefits of endurance training and the benefits of strength exercises for runners were both seen without any negative effects to endurance running performance in moderately-trained to elite top-level athletes. The muscle size did not change and capillary density was not affected.
What worked was a heavy resistance strength training protocol. This is what they found:
- Improved neuromuscular communication (rate of force development and maximal voluntary contraction),
- Increased tendon stiffness,
- Increased the percentage of Type IIA muscle fibers.
“…strength training can lead to enhanced long-term (>30 min) and short-term (<15 min) endurance capacity both in well-trained individuals and highly trained top-level endurance athletes, especially with the use of high-volume, heavy-resistance strength training protocols.” -Aagaard & Andersen (2010)
Other articles have found that adding plyometric training to a running program improved running economy with no negative effects to the cardiovascular system (Paavolainen, et al., 1999; Saunders, et al., 2006; Turner, et al., 2003). For those that may not know, running economy is defined as the energy demand for a given pace based on oxygen consumption and the respiratory exchange ratio (RER) (Jones & Bampouras, 2007).
Lastly, a study involving female cross country runners, supplemented their running with strength training (not plyometrics) and also found improvements in running economy (Johnston, Quinn, Kertzer, & Vroman, 1997).
So, it seems that adding strength or plyometric training can benefit running performance with no or minimal negative impact on the cardiovascular system. But before you can just throw jumps and squats at your client, you must take a thorough needs analyses.
When starting with a client who runs, it’s important to note the following:
- how many runs/week and weekly mileage
- race distance and future schedule
- current issues/areas of pain
- running injury history
- current muscle imbalances (length or activation issues)
- FMS (Functional Movement Screen) score
- Any other relevant information
Runners will typically suffer from overuse (AKA repetitive strain) injuries that develop over time. It’s common to feel little nags here and there, but sometimes, these nags can turn into more serious nags that place the runner on the sidelines. Careful steps must be taken to ensure optimal health and recovery between runs and workouts to fully optimize race performance. Extrinsic factors such as running surface, shoe type, running distance and running intensity are factors that influence injury risk and should be addressed in the running program design. Intrinsic factors such as genetics, anatomy, biomechanics and physiology are less controllable but still important to consider.
Remember, the bottom line for the runner is to run faster and stay injury free. It’s your job as a fitness professional to minimize this risk to optimize race performance to get the most progress from your workouts.
Let’s have a quick look at typical issues runners may face in their career:
Distance runners typically develop weakness of the iliopsoas and gluteus maximus muscles, while overdeveloping the tensor fascia lata, rectus femoris and hamstring muscles because of the nature and repetition of their running stride (Sahrmann, 2002). This can lead to other problems known as lower cross syndrome, which was made popular by Vladimir Janda.
Basically, these muscle imbalances (e.g. weak glutes, tight hip flexors, weak spine stabilizers and tight paraspinals) (Page, Frank, & Lardner, 2010) can result in an anteriorly rotated pelvis and hyperlordosis of the low back, negatively affecting the running gait. An anterior rotated pelvis will decrease the amount of knee drive (hip flexion) and reduce stride length.
A phenomenon known as synergistic dominance describes the over development of the hamstrings and weakening of the gluteus maximus. Essentially, the hamstrings take over hip extension, leaving the gluteus maximus to weaken. This is known as “gluteal amnesia“ otherwise known as dormant glutes. In addition, weakness of the glute max can increase compensatory stress to the lumbar spine, leading to over-activity of the erector spinae and low back pain (Page, Frank, & Lardner, 2010).
The gluteus medius, another hip muscle, is important for stabilizing the hips during single leg stance. This muscle doesn’t get strengthened when running and if weak, will allow the hips to sway laterally with each foot strike (known as the Trendelenburg gait). This adds tension along the IT Band and can result in friction, irritation and inflammation lateral to the knee.
Rigid ankles from previous ankle sprain injuries can place stress to the knee joints resulting in knee irritation and inflammation. In contrast, hypermobile arches will allow for excess pronation with each foot strike, causing a chain of events up the joints. Pronation is needed for shock absorption, but too much of it can result in pain anywhere up the chain.
Other common issues include Plantar Fasciitis, Shin Splints, Runner’s Knee, SI Joint disorders and the list goes on. You can see now why it’s imperative to perform a thorough assessment.
Putting It All Together
Note from Jon Goodman: I thought this next section was a must-have for trainers so I re-formatted it and made it available for download via .pdf. Click the link to automatically download the reference list to keep with you at your gym and refer back to when programming.
When designing the exercise program, there are some things you still need to consider:
-how many workouts/week
-what day to have the workouts (based on the running workout schedule)
-what exercises to choose (corrective, strength or plyometric)
Here is what I have found to work:
- Strength and plyo workouts are best on non-running workout days (running workouts consist of intervals, fartleks, and long runs)
- Space aerobic run and strength workout 6-8 hours apart (AM and PM session)
- 1-3 resistance/plyo sessions/week depending on time of year (off season vs racing season)
- An adjustment in running volume is imperative to “make room” for strength/plyo training (this allows for better recovery between workouts)
- Non-periodized scheme involving plyos/power/strength and core exercises in the same program works well if you only have a short time to work with the runner (e.g. varsity level)
- Linear periodized plan can work well too
- Strength exercises involving free weights work best
- A variation of low and high amplitude plyometrics
- 2-5 sets of 5 reps or less with 2-3 minute breaks is a rough template to follow
- Single leg work is imperative to improve single leg hip stability and balance
- Lots of posterior chain work to bring up the glutes
- Explosive exercises such as overhead medicine ball throws, high clean pulls or kettlebell swings are amazing at improving rate of force development and maximal power
- Minimal upper body exercises but enough to improve posture and arm carriage (e.g. row variations, chins, pushup variations, push presses, rotator cuff work, thoracic extension and rotation mobility work etc.)
- Core exercises should focus on creating stability and progressing to minimize movement – I’m not a fan of sit-ups or crunches for runners
- The only machine at the gym you need is the runner – knee extensions and hamstring curls have minimal athletic transferability to running
- Unstable surface training is great for rehab but shouldn’t be the primary method of training the lower body
Strength and endurance training combines both methods of training into the same program. Adding strength exercises and plyometric-type exercises to a running specific program is advantageous for a runner to improve strength and running economy. Choose your exercises wisely to ensure you’re being effective in the gym with your client. Good luck and RUN STRONG.
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