Keeping the Runner Strong; Advanced Strength Exercises
Strength training has great benefits for all levels of runner. Strength training, particularly heavy resistance training and explosive training have been shown to improve many running related variables; including improved running economy, increased time to exhaustion, increased strength, increased speed at VO2Max and reduction in injury risk. Here we outline a more challenging program than the previously posted a simple effective gym program for runners so you can see more of the benefits of strength training for your running.
We have previously blogged about the evidence for strength training for runners here . It is no secret that a key to great running is running consistently and strength training can be a great adjunct to this. The addition of two to three supervised ST sessions per week is likely to provide a sufficient stimulus to be beneficial without having adverse effects on development of aerobic capacity. Other important parameters include first getting technique correct and comfortable before progressing towards weights rep 80% of 1RM (repetition maximum or maximal amount lifted in 1 rep). Most studies on resistance training for runners initially used 1–2 sets and progressed to 3–6 sets over the course of the program. Participants were often instructed to move the weights as rapidly as possible when performing the concentric phase (muscle shortening phase), which increases the likelihood of maximising neuromuscular adaptations and slow 2-3 seconds during the eccentric phase. Typically repetitions are between 6-10 per set and were not performed to failure (4).
Level 2 Program
Exercise 1: Bulgarian Split Squat
A bulgarian split squat is a great exercise to work single leg strength and stability. It can be performed without weight initially to practice technique, before adding a dumbbell or barbell. Here we have smith machine variation. Place your back foot on a bench or step, this foot is only taking a small amount of weight, needed to stabilise. The front leg is positioned a comfortable step forward. The back knee is lowered down towards the ground, a mild stretch should be felt in the back thigh and pressure in the front quad and or glute. Aim to keep the torso close to vertical and knee positioned so that it doesn’t travel inwards or forwards past the big toe. Note try to keep back from arching excessively and keep arch of front foot strong. Shifting the torso into more forward lean and front shin more vertical will increase load on glutes (rather than quads) as shown below.
Exercise 2: Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is a great exercise to work the posterior chain (hamstrings and glutes) as well as the ‘core’ muscles. Begin by standing tall, gripping the kettlebell with a neutral wrist and shoulder blades set back. Soften the knees, keeping weight in the heels, push hips backwards into a hip hinge, with a straight back and neck (not a squat). Drive the hips back to the starting position using your glutes, as you do swing the kettlebell to shoulder height. Let the kettlebell descend, control the movement by being tight through your abdominals, let the bell move back between your legs as you move into a hip hinge, then fluidly repeat into the next rep. On the final rep place the bell on the ground after it passes between your legs. Begin by practising with a light kettlebell. If you are unfamiliar with a hip hinge then this movement will need to be practised first.
Exercise 3: Weighted Step Up
To perform a weighted step up, you need a sturdy box or bench. With a dumbbell in your hands or a barbell on your shoulders step up onto a bench using only your front leg for propulsion. Push quickly up into standing, as you do bring your other leg up as though you were to complete the same movement onto another box from this position. Slowly lower to the start position, repeat to finish a set before completing with the other leg. To progress add weight, reps or focus on being more explosive with the leg stepping up. Additionally you can start at the bottom of a lunge before stepping up onto the box.
Exercise 4: Conventional Deadlift
The deadlift is a staple strength exercise for any lower limb strength program. It is great for runners to strengthen through the posterior chain, particularly glutes and hamstrings. It utilises the same hip hinge action from the kettlebell swing above. Using dumbbells or a barbell. Slide the weights down the from of your thigh, your bottom should move backwards and by bending at the hips, your back should remain straight. When a strong tightness develops in your hamstring pause then return to the start position by driving up and forwards with your hips. This can be a difficult exercise to develop technique, however some simple camera feedback can be helpful. Start with light weights and work on technique before progressing to heavier weight and fewer repetitions.
Exercise 5: Standing Calf Raises
A standing straight leg calf raise will work one of the prime movers of running propulsion; the calf (gastrocnemius). Heavy calf raises can be performed again with the smith machine or alternatively with a single dumbbell/kettlebell or even a bag full of assorted weighted items. Single or double leg options can be used. Standing on a small step with the (padded) barbell across your shoulders, push through your first and second toe raising your heels as high as you can, then lower slowly below the height of the step, then repeat. This exercise can be very helpful for those with midportion Achilles pain, caution for those with acute Achilles pain, particularly at the insertion. Here are some tips on getting the most out of your calf raises.
An alternative is to use a seated leg press machine as shown below:
Exercise 6: Seated Calf Raises
Seated calf raises target the soleus muscle, one of the calf muscle complex. I have previously discussed the importance of this muscle here. It takes loads 6-8x body weight when running, has a major role in achilles pain/tendinopathy and calf pain (particularly in the aging runner). Sitting on a bench positioned in front of the smith machine. Feet placed on a small step if possible. Perform a calf raise by pushing up into padded bar (extra padding may be needed for some), the smith machine bar will need to be rotated to ‘unrack’ the bar, then lower your heels below the level of the step. Perform repetitions then re-rack the bar at the top of the final repetition. Ensure you don’t try lift up the bar with your arms as the weight necessary to load the calf sufficiently will be quite heavy.
Above we have a simple strength program for runners. If you need extra guidance on technique, loading variables, progressions or regressions please don’t hesitate to ask. If you have looked at a previous post on strength training for runners, you might have found the last two exercises are the same, this is not by mistake. The gastrocnemius and soleus are really important muscle for runners and these exercises should be a staple in your program.
Happy running, happy lifting.
Lewis Craig (APAM)
Masters of Physiotherapy
Featured in the Top 50 Physical Therapy Blog
- STØREN, Ø., Helgerud, J. A. N., Støa, E. M., & Hoff, J. A. N. (2008). Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 40(6), 1087-1092.
- Mikkola, J., Vesterinen, V., Taipale, R., Capostagno, B., Häkkinen, K., & Nummela, A. (2011). Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular performance in recreational endurance runners. Journal of Sports Sciences, 29(13), 1359-1371.
- Beattie, K, Carson, BP, Lyons, M, Rossiter, A, and Kenny, IC (2017). The effect of strength training on performance indicators in distance runners. J Strength Cond Res 31(1): 9–23.
- Blagrove, R.C., Howatson, G. & Hayes, P.R. (2017). Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review
- Berryman, N., Mujika, I., Arvisais, D., Roubeix, M., Binet, C., & Bosquet, L. (2018). Strength Training for Middle- and Long-Distance Performance: A Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 13(1), 57–63. doi:10.1123/ijspp.2017-0032