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  • Mar

Strength Training fro Runners

The article below was written for a local running club audience in their Winter newsletters. Coach Tom has written for their "Coaches corners" column since 2012.

Strength Training and Running

Hopefully, everyone had a spectacular fall of racing! Here in the Midwest, we had some near-perfect race day conditions for marathons and half marathons this fall. Both Chicago and Monumental Marathons were just ideal days! With the Minneapolis Marathon being the outlier. Hopefully, those who were signed up for that one had a backup race like Monumental. I know three of my athletes had to do that exact thing and were rewarded with another near perfect race day weather and PR days in Indy!

So, now that the race season is over, what is next? Well, if you saw last year's article on assessing your year, I encourage you to reread it and use it to reflect on this season and to guide you in setting goals for next year. However, to build off that information, I will revisit a topic from six to eight years ago when I wrote about the importance of strength training for runners. 

Strength training has long played an important role in running as it can help with longevity, injury prevention, and achieving optimal performance. If we were to divide up key running components into a pie chart, strength training would only make up five percent, but its impact would be far larger. (Side note: the other components of that pie chart include total mileage, speed, recovery, long runs, nutrition, and sleep, with the latter two also creating a much bigger impact on running performance.)

In fact, I would argue that strength training is the foundation for achieving the best performance an athlete could wish for. However, those benefits can only be truly maximized when strength training is combined with consistency. If you can’t stay consistent, then you can’t see your continued progress as you add durability to your body which allows it to better handle the impacts and demands of running.  

If you have an extensive background in sports or a balanced physique from gymnastics, swimming, etc., then it may be somewhat less important to focus on strength training. However, for those of us without this background, it is best to remember that the strengths of our youth don’t last forever. A well-rounded training program that includes strength training--which we follow consistently throughout the year--can do wonders to keep us performing at our best. In addition, full body strength training prevents our structures from moving around excessively and creating unnatural loads on the lower body (foundational muscles). What's more, having a strong core and upper body certainly helps with proper posture. This can, in turn, help with our running form, especially late in the race, uphill, or during strong winds. Meanwhile, a strong hip complex and lower body can help prevent injuries and make us more powerful runners. 

There are plenty of boilerplate strength plans out there that may look easy to use. Alternatively, you may feel that you “know how to lift” from your sports years in high school or college. Unfortunately, that knowledge is likely outdated and, at best, was tailored to an age group of developing adolescents/young adults and/or a specific sport. Instead of relying on incorrect information, I would encourage you to get an assessment from a trained professional. A tailored quality routine can address any imbalances or weak areas. Getting quality advice from someone with a trained eye will allow you to optimize your time in the weight room and maximize your benefits. 

You may wonder who that trained professional is. Many Chiropractic Physicians, DPT & PTs, Strength and Conditioning coaches, and seasoned Personal Trainers are good for this assessment, especially if they work with runners and running injuries frequently. These professionals should be able to help address the running-specific muscles along with identifying issues with supportive structural muscles. They can help you identify issues in the filling areas. Maybe you have weak lower abdominals from a combination of carrying extra weight or sitting too much. These can make a big difference in your running. Perhaps your gluteus medius, piriformis, and gluteus maximus are weak causing both knee pain (a strong glute medius and piriformis help stabilize and protect the knee) and causing the quadriceps to be tight. Lastly, maybe you need help with your calf and peroneal muscles, or even the ankles and feet! These muscles are crucial to runners and won't necessarily get stronger by doing a few calf raises. 

A professional can come up with a plan that allows for the use of free weights as well as bands, body weight, and cable machines. By using different equipment and various techniques and exercises, you can target specific areas while stabilizing the entire body at the same time. Those functional exercises can actually help when you run! Let me give you a quick example. You might think that doing a lat pull-down, inclined dumbbell press, and a leg press in a sequence is a good idea since it's a push, a pull, and a leg exercise. However, a more dynamic functional group that addresses more running-specific needs might be: a pull-up (or an assisted pull-up) which engages the lats, arms, and demands core strength and stabilization; a kneeling over-head press where you have to maintain core stabilization while kneeling and pressing up (much like you need when running); and a lunge where you are stabilizing the core and strengthening the glutes, hamstrings, and quads. If the professional deems you capable and is savvy, you may even end up with a kneeling overhead press while performing a lunge. This set of exercises is very dynamic and allows for stabilization all while moving through each rep. 

A professional should make sure you move in different planes of movement rather than just the sagittal plane you normally move in while running. Most importantly, the professional should also be able to address ankle movement and foot arch strength, not to mention toe strength. If your ankle doesn’t move well and your arch isn’t strong and moveable, then a bunch of load is pushed up the chain to the knees and hips. This is usually the root cause of athletes not only being injured but also either stopping running or quitting running and move to cycling or just in activity altogether.

I already mentioned the importance of improving foot and toe strength, but I feel like I need to really stress it. Your big toe is a huge part of the force generation in running. In addition, all toes also provide stability and power when running. One way to increase toe strength is to practice running on hills. Hill repeats not only help load the feet and toes but also the Achilles, quads, and hip flexors. All those muscle groups get stronger which helps with the coordination of force generation between the upper and lower body, plus the core (hips and abdominal area). With that being said I still can’t stress enough how just doing hills repeats is not enough for most people if they have weakness or lack proper range of motion in their ankle, Achilles, arch, and toes! So having the right program and exercises are not only more effective, they are necessary for improvement.

Running form is super important for longevity and performance, so how do we make the biggest gains in running form? Well, strength training and even mobility work is the key to this! If you focus one day a week on quality strength training and maybe even a second day on lower body “runner's” strength (such as feet, ankles, hips, calves, quads, and hamstrings), you can improve your running form in one of the quickest ways! 

In my 30+ years of coaching, I've always pushed to include strength training for my runners. And, as it becomes more targeted and science-based, strength training is only becoming a more vital component of a well-rounded training program. The athletes, who are diligent with strength training, have always run the last half of the marathons better and stronger. They have stayed injury-free longer and when an injury happens (usually from just living life… waterskiing, skiing, cycling, falling, etc.), they always come back faster and tend to have less severe injuries. I currently coach five 70+ year-olds who all do strength training and continue to enjoy running! 

So, throughout the winter and as spring approaches, spend some meaningful time on those less-than-desirable outdoor running days building up a good solid muscular foundation. With a strong foundation, your body can handle increases in total mileage, long run mileage, as well as stress from speed work or hill repeats. You will probably not only note a great difference as these loads increase but you should also notice late in races--from 5k to the marathon--that you can call upon your upper body to help motor you through the last part with more power and better form while your lower body also avoids losing form and power longer too! Consequently, I recommend that during winter, you try doing a short one- to two-mile run warm-up and then some strength training two to three days per week. That simple routine will speed things up a bunch in the spring and set you up for a more successful next year! As the year goes on, you can switch to a weekly maintenance routine, but remember to be consistent year-round. Ideally you should include one day of full body strength and one shorter day of lower body runners’ strength exercises after a run.

I wish you Happy Holidays and a Healthy and Happy New Year!

Coach TOM

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