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Australian National Champion Power lifter, in consultation with 2XU Ambassador Brendan Brazier.
As a two-time Canadian 50km ultra marathon champion and a former pro Ironman triathlete, 2XU’s Brendan Brazier has seen strength training go in and out of style for runners, but now the case for strength has legs.
“Decades ago, endurance athletes were encouraged to avoid ‘gym training’ for fear of developing heavy, bulky muscles,” he says. “The idea was that extra mass without function would inhibit endurance performance.
“In the early ’80s, some endurance athletes began supplementing regular endurance training with weight training in the hope of improving endurance. Results were mixed. The athletes generally gained strength, yet also gained weight, so the result hindered the endurance athletes’ most valued attribute: strength-to-weight ratio!” Brazier says.
“In some cases this dropped, in others it showed only modest improvements – not enough to justify the energy spent on the extra workout.”
We now know that it wasn’t strength training itself that was the problem, it was the workout’s applicability to running.
“Athletes were doing bodybuilding-style workouts designed to grow muscle, yet achieved little or no improvement in functional strength,” Brazier says.
With the correct choice of exercise and training style, a little strength training can go a long way to helping the runner’s efficiency.
“When muscles don’t need to work as hard, they also don’t require as much oxygen or circulating blood, and will therefore demand less on the heart,” Brazier explains. “In turn, the rate at which the heart beats will lower and a significant improvement in endurance will result.”
A runner’s strength needs is a complex topic and the specifics will differ a little depending on the distance an athlete runs, the type of surface he or she runs on, and individual variations in areas of strength and technical proficiency.
Weight training and other resistance training methods (e.g. bodyweight exercises, plyometrics, hills) also have the advantage that they will strengthen soft tissue (muscles, ligaments, tendons) and make them less prone to strain. The right exercise choice will also help coordination and balance.
Here are a few pointers on how to use strength training to make you a more efficient runner.
Your core transmits the forces generated by your limbs. In endurance running, it also becomes very important for holding posture as the body fatigues. Choose actions that imitate the way the core is used while running. These will include isometric exercises such as side planks and planks with one leg raised, and twisting exercises such as lying torso twists (often called Russian twists) where you lie on your back with your legs up, lowering the legs together to the floor each side of your hips.
Gastrocnemius (calf) strain and soreness is common in endurance runners, but Californian researchers have found that the muscle below this, the soleus, plays a large role in running efficiency if strong enough. They found that the gastrocnemius accelerates the leg to initiate its swing, but it’s the soleus that accelerates the trunk forward and provides the deceleration when the foot comes down to the ground. In other words, a stronger soleus will stop the foot collapsing, which in turn means a faster contact time with the ground. The soleus works when the knee is in a bent position. A seated calf raise or pressing through the toes while holding the leg in a stiff, but bent-at-the-knee position will get it working. Train at 20 reps per set.
Leg driving actions can help train you to activate the muscles in the buttocks to increase your propulsion (and therefore speed) and stride length. Again, go for exercises that will tend to be mechanically more similar to running. So rather than doing an action sitting down or squatting, favor things such as bounds (from a standing start, extend one leg behind you to jump as far forward as you can with the other leg), variations of lunges (forward, lateral, jumping from the bottom of a lunge and swapping leg position before you land), step-ups onto a high box and pulling a tyre or weighted sled.
For the endurance runner, plyometrics (jumping training) can help condition the connective tissue and a ‘stiffness’ (i.e. strength!) in the joints of the leg and hip – but especially the ankles, calves and feet – to have a fast, efficient foot strike and strong propulsion. Early in a training cycle, after a gradual increase in kilometres run, you might do a circuit-style series of plyometrics with high reps and short recoveries to develop low-level power, running-specific conditioning and endurance. Elsewhere in the cycle, a higher load, lower volume style of plyometrics could be used for specific strength.
Wherever you can. Instead of doing a seated row, hold a medicine ball with arms extended and lunge, twisting your arms and torso to 90 degrees to the lunge (alternating sides). Instead of squats or leg press, hold a bar or long stick overhead (like a weightlifter’s snatch position) and squat.
Short sessions of high quality training are all you need – as little as 20 minutes twice per week. Some coaches and research studies suggest that even heavy training (80% of maximum for 1 repetition) can boost running endurance performance, but this would need a solid base of prior training for technical proficiency. It would also have to be done at a time in the training cycle when kilometres are low and reps would be few (5 reps or less), plus recovery time would be high in order not to put on muscle bulk. For general training, aim to keep exercises in a 10-20 rep range (i.e. at 40-50% of 1RM).
Dom Cadden runs Running Strong seminars and is co-director of IT’S NOT THAT HARD!!! How to run a 100km trail ultramarathon.