Strength training routines

Most runners think that strength training routines are something carried out in a weight room or gym utilising various pieces of equipment (barbells, dumbbells, weight machines)

Most runners think that strength training routines are something carried out in a weight room or gym utilising various pieces of equipment (barbells, dumbbells, weight machines, etc.). However, the truth is that strength training is any physical activity that emphasises the application of resistance to the muscular system. For runners, these activities include conventional exercises (presses, squats, pull-ups, etc.), running-specific strength exercises such as step-ups and one-leg squats, plyometric or ‘jump’ training, calisthenics, injury-preventing gymnastic exercises (walking on toes or heels), and throwing, twisting, and swinging activities with a medicine ball.

 Are these activities really beneficial for runners? Scientific research strongly suggests that conventional strength workouts can decrease the risk of injury in endurance athletes. This can promote higher performances by fostering more consistent training. In addition, work carried out by celebrated Finnish researcher Paavo Komi indicates that strength training routines can heighten maximal running speed, and more recent studies indicate that strength training routines can enhance running economy by about 3 per cent, enough to shave about a minute from 10-K times. We know also that plyometric training can help strong runners become faster, e.g., utilise the strength in their legs more quickly. Finally, strength training routines help some runners add a few muscular contours to their bodies and emerge from their ‘skinny-stick’ physiques.

Many runners fear that strength training has a ‘down side’ – large, undesirable gains in muscle mass, which create more ‘dead weight’ to be lugged around during running. This fear is based more on myth than reality. The truth is that significant increases in muscle mass require specialised training methods and a huge commitment of time and energy – far more than most runners are able to spend on strength training routines alone.

A programme to develop leg strength
Of course, the way to benefit from strength activities is to increase their difficulty and specificity over time. For example, you could start developing more leg strength for running by doing basic two-legged squats – with only body weight for resistance – for two to three weeks. Then, you could progressively increase the difficulty and specificity of the exercises in the following manner: during weeks 4-6, you could carry out two-legged squats with greater resistance (while holding a barbell or dumbbells). For weeks 6-8, you could complete one-leg squats with light to moderate resistance (doing one-leg squats is more specific to running than two-legged squats, since full weight is on only one foot at a time, as it is during running). During weeks 9-12, you could move on to uphill runs while wearing a weighted vest to strengthen the ‘push-off’ phase of your running strides. During weeks 11-13 (overlapping the weight-vest period), you could add in two-legged forward hopping, to enhance power production while landing/ rebounding during running. For weeks 13-15, you could move on to one-leg forward hops (since you would be landing on only one foot at a time, the specificity would increase and the intensity (difficulty) would double). During weeks 15-17, you could emphasise downhill running to learn to control and enhance the rebound phase of footstrike.

A simple programme like this will add some strength and power to your legs, but a key problem is that there are nearly an infinite number of strength training exercises and almost as many workout programmes. How do you select the exercises and programme which are perfect for you? How do you coordinate your strength programme with your running routine?

Pinpointing your weak links
Those are difficult questions to answer, because the truth is that there is not a single set of strength training exercises which is best for all runners; instead, there are a few best strength-training exercises for YOU. That’s because – if you’re like most runners – you have unique strengths and weaknesses. For each of your weaknesses, there is a handful of strength training exercises that will make you stronger. Your job is to identify your weaknesses and strengthen them.

But how do you pinpoint your weak links? Certainly, if you’re recurrently injured in one part of your body, that area is unnecessarily weak and needs to be bolstered. Or, if you find that you have decent foot speed but you’re always breaking down with a variety of different injuries, then you may need to develop basic overall strength (and/or flexibility). On the other hand, if you’re seldom injured and have good endurance but little speed, your need is for a resistance programme which will ‘teach’ those strong muscles of yours to function more quickly (eg, your programme needs to emphasise power training). Sometimes, working with a knowledgeable coach or trainer will help you identify things you should stress during strength training.

And it helps to know that there are really just four basic types of strength training for runners, each of which can assist you in accomplishing a specific goal. The four types are described below:
1) General Strength and Conditioning Exercises: These activities include many of the conventional weight training exercises such as presses, squats, pull-ups, push-ups, abdominal crunches, bar dips, various rowing movements, and the like. Also included in this category are some of the less conventional exercises like medicine ball throws and twists and various activities for the ‘core’ muscles (abdominals and low back). These conventional exercises provide ‘generalised’ strength – strength throughout your body to protect your muscles and connective tissues from the repetitive stresses and impacts of running.

2) Running Specific Strength Training: This category includes exercises that more closely imitate the biomechanics and motor patterns required for running. The exercises include step-ups, speed squats, one-leg squats, jumping lunges, hill running, weighted runs (while wearing a weight vest) and resistance runs (with rubber tubing, a parachute, or a weight sledge providing the resistance). This specific type of strength training, less familiar than general strength training to many athletes, is becoming increasingly popular in the sports-training community because it provides ‘specific strength’ – more strength to carry out the actual movements needed in a particular sport. When you carry out running-specific strength training, you get stronger while running – not just while seated at a weight machine.

3) Reactive or Speed-Strength Training: This type of training, often referred to as plyometrics, includes various types of hopping, bounding, and jumping exercises which teach your muscles to generate more force and generate the force more quickly. The goal, of course, is to develop more powerful ‘push-offs’ when you are running. Reactive training fosters a high degree of strength in the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones, since the impact forces are usually higher than they are during regular running workouts. Reactive training also stretches muscles, tendons, and ligaments vigorously, promoting greater elasticity and efficiency of movement. A key point to remember, though, is that reactive training can’t simply be plopped into your training routine without preparation; it’s built on a foundation of general and running specific strength training and must start slowly with low-level hopping and jumping. Otherwise, the forces generated during reactive training will create injured – not more powerful – parts of your body.

4) Preventive Gymnastics Exercises: This is no doubt a new area of training for you. When most Americans hear the term gymnastics, they think of gymnasts performing dangerous flips, twists, and stunts on the balance beam, parallel bars, or rings. In the European training community, however, the term gymnastics is synonymous with strengthening, rehabilitative, or restorative exercise or therapy. For runners, the function of preventive gymnastics is to strengthen the feet and lower parts of the legs in order to minimise the risk of injury in those areas. Gymnastics exercises differ from general and running-specific strength exercises in that their effects are more localised, their intensity is lower, and they are actually carried out more frequently than other forms of strength training. A number of gymnastics exercises, including walking on toes and heels, skipping on toes forward and backward, ‘toe pulls,’ zig-zag bounding on the toes, and running barefooted on sand, grass, or hills, can be carried out nearly every training day, often as part of your warm-up or cool-down.

Coordinate your training
Obviously, it’s not enough to throw a few exercises together, slap some weight on a bar, and start lifting. A comprehensive, optimal strength programme will include work in each of the four categories described above, with an emphasis on your weak points. At the same time, your strength programme needs to be coordinated with all of the other training that you do, and it must complement – not detract from – your running. After all, you are training to run better, not lift weights better.

For example, let’s say that you plan to start serious strength training this March and that your most important races of the year will take place in September. In March and April, you can simply focus on general strength and conditioning exercises. In mid-April you would begin to add in some running-specific strength training, which would continue through mid-June. In early June, you would start up your reactive (speed-strength) training as the racing season gets into full swing, and in mid-June you would make your running-specific work more difficult. This combination of running-specific and speed-strength work would continue through the end of July. In August, you would ‘fine-tune’ your strength training, bolster any remaining weak links, and continue to focus on the speed-strength work which will help ‘sharpen’ you for your key September races. Throughout this period, from March to September, you would carry out your injury-preventing ‘gymnastic’ exercises. In future issues, we’ll show you exactly how to put together top-quality running and strength workouts in order to bring you to your peak of running fitness at exactly the right time.

Walt Reynolds

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