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Strength Training for Runners: Why, What & How to Phase

Why?

We all add longer runs, interval work and tempo runs into our training to help build speed and endurance, however, strength training for runners is a vital piece of the training journey too. Here are 5 reasons why:

1. Strength training can help reduce the risk of injury. When we run, we roughly land 1400-1500 steps/mile, absorbing a force equal to 2-4 times our body weight with each and every step, so being stronger and more powerful helps to mitigate impact risks. Unfortunately, as we get older we start to lose muscle mass and the only way to counteract this change is to strength train on a regular basis. 

2. Strength training can improve running economy and stride efficiency by building stronger neuromuscular connections. The brain gets better at recruiting and coordinating the muscle fibres to contract and this can translate to better running economy (Blagrove et al, 2018). As your running economy increases, you can run faster and further before fatiguing.

3. Strength training can improve running form and biomechanics by increasing stability in your body. This ensures a good posture and technique can be maintained throughout a run which reduces the effort required to move forward. 

4. Strength training can increase overall running performance by improving aerobic capacity/VO2 max and sub-maximal endurance performance due to the neuromuscular adaptations that develop from it (Vikmoen et al, 2017). 

5. Strength training increases bone density which is vital for healthy longevity (especially in menopausal women). Research shows that strength training increases bone density because bones adapt to the stress that strength workouts place on them which signals them to lay down more bone matrix thus optimising density (Watson et al, 2017). 

What?

A combination of targeted body weight and weighted exercises can increase strength. It’s important to focus on gaining strength and power, not on raising the heart rate as runners are pre-programmed to want to do. 

It can be done in a gym or at home. 

Body weight workouts are exercises that use your body as the resistance. Examples include glute bridges, planks, side planks and single leg squats. These examples target areas, such as glutes, hips and trunk where weaknesses could lead to other areas taking on too much load and subsequently getting injured. 

Body weight workouts should include your whole body and single legged where appropriate to represent running.

Body weight exercises are a great starting point and also convenient because they can be done anywhere without any equipment. They are very effective, however, if you really want to be make gains then progressing to weighted workouts are key. 

Weighted exercises can range from progressing your body weight routine to holding a weight whilst you do it, to using resistance bands, to going to a gym and lifting bars in bigger compound movements. Don’t be afraid to add in some bigger compound movements, such as squats and deadlifts, although initially seeking out some technique guidance from a gym instructor is advisable. These weighted exercises do not add muscle mass but intensify the gains mentioned in the why list. 

How?

A strength-training programme should be periodised like running. Initially, focus on body weight exercises, for example start with 3 sets of 10 repetitions, to allow yourself to build up confidence, endurance and good technique. 

Then, you can add weight or resistance bands to them increasing the sets and reducing the repetitions, for example 5 sets of 6 reps to challenge you and build strength. 

Once you’re happy with weighted body weight or resistance band body weight workouts you could progress to the gym to start lifting heavier. Here are some guidelines to follow: 

  • Begin with a weight that you know will be too easy.
  • Perform three sets of 10 reps.
  • See how you feel and slowly add more weight from there gradually over the coming weeks. 
  • When the last few reps of the third set start to feel really tough, start with that weight. 
  • You can increase the weight gradually, similar to the way you increase your running mileage. By month 2-3, you should be performing fewer reps and more sets, with heavier weights.

When?

The optimal recommendation is 2-3 workouts a week and this can be a mix of body weight workouts at home and going to the gym. If you’re really pushed for time, there’s some evidence to suggest just one 20 minute strength training session per week can be effective in building and then maintaining strength (Steele et al, 2021). 

If you need to run on the day you do a strength workout, then run first. 

However, the best routine is the one that works for you. 

If you want to make running feeling easier and be less injury prone then make strength training part of your running journey. Enjoy!

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