Strength Training for Runners Part 2 – Overcoming the Barriers
Strength training for runners has clear benefits, so let’s overcome the reasons not to get strong. Many runners, coaches, physiotherapists, strength and conditioning coaches can see the value of strength training. Yet there are many runners (social or competitive) and coaches who don’t implement or encourage runners to partake in strength training. Despite the evidence based benefits of strength training outlined in the previous blog (see here for improvements in running economy, performance, strength and injury risk reduction) there are many barriers or reasons that one might not strength train. In this blog I comprehensively dive into these reasons, so you can find out how to navigate the barriers and run strong.
- My Coach Doesn’t Recommend Strength Training
- I do hill workouts which gets me strong instead
- Where do I include it in my program?
- I don’t have the time!
- I’m not gym trained (Technique and Membership)
- The gym hurts my…I have this other injury…
- What exercises I do?
1. My Coach Doesn’t Recommend Strength Training
Not all running coaches recommend strength training. There is no denying that to be a better runner you need to build a big aerobic base, the bigger the better. To do this requires lots of easy running and well-structured hard running. Therefore running is the priority for coaches and runners alike. As previously described in the last blog, strength training combined with running can improve running economy (compared to other individuals completing the same running training without the strength training). Hence it can add to the benefit of an aerobic base, by improving running economy. Additionally, although running is the priority the addition of strength can be of added benefit. Other than priority there can be many reasons why strength training may not be recommended or scheduled. Including:
- Don’t see the value – to this I’d challenge this thinking and refer back to a summary of some of the evidence based benefits of strength training (link above).
- Hills – hill workouts are prescribed instead as a method of training strength and for that please see number 2 below.
- Expertise and Injury Risk- Running coaches are experts in targeted running training to improve technique, performance and minimise injury risk. Not all coaches will have a background in strength and conditioning, with the level of knowledge among coaches varying to different degrees. Additionally by asking an athlete to perform certain exercises you open the door to other variables that need control and monitoring; such as technique, weights, reps, sets, tempo, rest, exercise selection, progressions and other injuries (we cover this further in 5, 6). Thus they may opt not to prescribe a gym program as they are unable to program a safe, quality individualised strength program for each of their athletes.
- Time – even equipped with the ability to program an athletes strength program, coaching numerous athletes and overseeing this progress is another time commitment to a coach.
- Adversely affecting other workouts – heavy strength sessions can leave runners feeling fatigued and thus coaches may not wish to adversely affect the next workout. A 2017 (1) study on runners performing plyometric and heavy resistance training found that running less than 30 minutes after the strength session adversely affected running performance (higher oxygen demand). However the attenuation lasts less than 24 hours in duration, so moderate intensity exercise the next day was not affected. To minimise the effect of a heavy strength session, training plans can be modified to follow strength sessions with a recovery run (see 3 below), weights can be progressed gradually and other recovery tips utilised (stretching, rolling, massage, nutrition), to minimise soreness. If this isn’t enough to convince you then surely you’ve heard your coach say ‘sometimes it’s good to train on tired legs’ (like every last 1/4 of a race). Additionally research on strength training has shown that it doesn’t adversely affect the development of aerobic parameters (VO2max) (2).
2. I do hill workouts which gets me strong instead
Uphill training has long been used by runners as part of a comprehensive training program. Reporting on its use in well-trained runners, Kurz et al. (3) showed that those NCAA Division I teams incorporating uphill training during the 3–6 months before the Men’s National Championships out-performed those teams not using hill training. However, at present, few proven recommendations exist for prescribing individualised uphill running workouts. To date, few studies have actually examined the benefits of uphill running on muscle strength or power, and none have compared it to strength training, so there is no evidence to say one is better than the other. Barnes et al. (5) reported twice-weekly uphill running for 6 weeks using training intensities, bout duration’s, and treadmill grades ranging 90–120%Vmax, 8 seconds to 5 minutes, and 7–18%, respectively, are strongly associated with increased 5-km time trial performance, measures of maximal and submaximal aerobic characteristics. A study by Ferley (3) in 2014 concluded incline treadmill training effective for improving the components of running economy, but insufficient as a resistance-to-movement exercise for enhancing muscle power output. So whilst there are clear aerobic benefits, the effect on muscle strength and power are unclear. Uphill running however does lead to a significant increase in muscular loading in both the hip flexors and extensors throughout the swing phase of sprinting (6). Running hills may be a great option and essential for those who race on hills, yet supplementing additional strength training can provide additional strength, power benefits, economical benefits and target more comprehensively all lower limb muscle groups.
3. Where do I include it in my program?
One barrier that stops people from using strength training is knowing when and where to include it in their training week (or cycle). Poor scheduling of strength training can lead to individuals being unable to give best efforts in tough workouts and lead to feeling of fatigue and soreness. Firstly the current best evidence suggests that 2 or 3, 30 minute strength training sessions are likely sufficient to provide the comprehensive benefits mentioned above in previously.
There is very little evidence that the dosage of strength training prescribed impairs any endurance-related adaptations, although recent work has highlighted that acute bouts of resistance training may cause fatigue sufficient to impair subsequent running performance, which long term may result in sub-optimal adaptation. To minimise interference between strength and running sessions, so these can both be performed at your best it is therefore recommended that a recovery period of greater than 3 hours is provided following high-intensity running training before strength training takes place. Additionally, it is recommended that 24 hours rest occur following a strength training session and an intensive running session (2). Personally I aim to do my strength training with an easy run or recovery run scheduled the next day.
4. I don’t have the time!
Time, we all need more of it. In the very busy lives we lead, it is easy to find the excuse of not having enough time, if we let ourselves. As described above we can work on the minimum requirement of 2 sessions, 30 minutes to gain the benefits of increased strength and power. That’s only 1-2 hours of the week. This can be substituted for an easy run if you run most days of the week or my preference is to examine people’s schedules and add it in where possible. Regular routines work best. The strength exercises can be modified to be home program based (where next to no equipment is needed) or in a gym, so simply not getting to the gym will not limit your ability to do strength training. There is a lot you can do with 1 or 2 kettlebells or dumbbells.
5. I’m not gym trained (Technique and Membership)
Two important variables with strength training include technique and supervision. Studies without supervision have shown less favourable or no improvement in results for strength training than programs that have supervision. This indicates that a suitably qualified coach is an important feature of an strength programme for a distance runner who lacks experience. That said there are exercises for strength training that require little coaching and cueing rather than more complex movements such as a deadlift or squat. Stay tuned for part 3 for a sample of exercises options. So if you aren’t a gym goer, A) consider joining and partnering with a trainer, see an exercise physiologist or physiotherapist to set you up and guide you, B) pick simple movements that you are competent in and if you don’t know ask for help.
6. The gym hurts my…I have this other injury…
If this is you, chances are you are doing the wrong exercises for you (right now) or are performing them incorrectly. The benefits of strength training are clear and this is perhaps even more important for someone with pain or injury. There are always options to start a strength training program that minimises pain and soreness, it is a combination of the right exercise with the correct technique, weight, sets, reps, speed of movement, rest and progression. Pain or soreness may be the result of just having one or two of these variables off target. If you an injury is stopping you from training, see a Physio, chances are its strength training that will get you past that very injury.
7. What exercises I do?
For non-strength trained individuals, exercise prescription and gradual progression is important to avoid injury and overtraining. Most studies 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 maximizing neuromuscular adaptations. This is only once correct technique is being utilised. Typically repetitions are between 6-10 per set. As for specific exercises, your program is best to be individualised to improve your weaknesses and imbalances. In part 3 on strength training we will go over 2 simple strength programs, 1 of which can be done with minimal gym equipment.
Strength training for runners has clear benefits, so let’s overcome the reasons not to get strong. If any of these are reasons you use to avoid doing strength training, perhaps its time to get strong and enjoy improvements in running economy, performance, strength and injury risk reduction.
Lewis Craig (APAM)
Masters of Physiotherapy
Featured in the Top 50 Physical Therapy Blog
- Marcello, RT, Greer, BK, and Greer, AE. (2017).Acute effects of plyometric and resistance training on running economy in trained runners. J Strength Cond Res 31(9): 2432–2437.
- 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. Sports Med. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0835-7
- Kurz MJ, Berg K, Latin R, de Graw W. The relationship of training methods in NCAA division I cross-country runners and 10,000-meter performance. J Strength Cond Res 14: 196–201, 2000. Serials Solutions [Context Link]
- Ferley D, Osborn R, Vukovich M. The effects of incline and level-grade high-intensity interval treadmill training on running economy and muscle power in well-trained distance runners. J Strength Cond Res 28: 1298–1309, 2014.
- Barnes KR, Hopkins WG, McGuigan M, Kilding AE. Effects of different uphill interval-training programs on running economy and performance. Int J Sports Physiol Perform 8: 639–647, 2013.