When devising a running program, very few running coaches (at the amateur level, at least) will include any type of strengthening program. Partly because it's not their job, partly because it's beyond their scope of practice, and in some cases, unfortunately, they believe it to be counter-productive. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Any and all professional runners will have some form of strength conditioning added to their weekly routine to bolster performance. But what if you're not a pro or even competitor? Then this article is most definitely for you.
So, how is being stronger going to help you be a better runner, with less injuries and less chance of getting injured?
Strength training isn't always about being able to lift a full grown rhino. Having a strong structure that can absorb the forces you encounter while running and redirect that force into the next stride is what will increase your performance and reduce your chance of injury. Your tendons, ligaments, faccia and joints need to be gradually exposed to greater and greater forces, with adequate recovery between sessions, in order to adapt.
Obviously you won't be much of an athlete if you are constantly stiff and tight and you run like the Tin Man. Conversely, if you have a core and limbs like wet noodles you won't be winning any trophies either. Your muscles will need to go through cycles of contracting and relaxing as you run. The ability of your body, more specifically your nervous system, to contract the right muscles at the right time, and relax at the right time, can be trained with a quality strength and conditioning program.
This doesn't refer to looking symmetrical on stage, so put away the brown body paint. What we're talking about here is balancing out overactive and underactive muscles. Through poor posture, lifestyle habits like sitting for hours and incorrect technique when exercising, we can develop muscle imbalances all over the body. This leads to ineffective sequencing during certain motor patterns. In other words, you will use the wrong muscles for the job and/or certain muscles not at all. By identifying these dysfunctions and weak points, we can begin to build a program that brings the body into a more harmonious state.
Whether you are an ultramarathon runner, or you play softball and want to round the bases and get back to your beer before it gets warm, power output is your friend. Running is, essentially, jumping from one foot to the other. The more power you can jump or push with, the further and faster you can travel over a given distance or time. Strength is the foundation of power. Training the muscles and nervous system to produce more strength and power through the same motor pattern will improve running economy.
As we just learned, the muscles are active in a few different ways while running. As fatigue sets in, the ability for them to do their job effectively drops exponentially. To see this, all you need to do is observe the upright, flowing postures at the beginning of a marathon compared to the walking dead at the end. A study done in 1988* in Illinois, another done in 2005**, and another in 2008*** all show similar results in how combining strength and conditioning with running training improves the participants times with reduced injuries, delayed fatigue, and increased cardiac output. That's science!
As we know, muscle is more dense than fat. A lot of runners are concerned that having more muscle mass will weigh them down. This is true if they don't use that muscle effectively. Remember the Tin Man. But it you train correctly, every gram of muscle you put on will improve your athleticism. Additionally, you don't need to get bigger to get stronger. Strength is a function of the nervous system more so than the muscles, and most of us, especially those of us who are not already strength training, do not use the muscles we have already to their full potential. Incidentally, fat is a non-contractile tissue. Meaning, that it is useless for force production. So it will wear you down without adding anything. And bonus, you'll be gorgeous. All that as it is, monitoring and controlling nutrition in conjunction with strength and conditioning is the way to drop body fat while increasing muscle force production.
Now, the problem is that most runners are not training strength, or are doing it incorrectly. According to Active.com, 65 to 80% of runners get injured due to a mix of poor running mechanics, muscle imbalances, low levels of muscle endurance, overtraining and a weak structure.
So what's a non-gender-specific individual to do?
Fret not, I have your 5 Step Strength Training Program right here.
Step 1:Functional movement screening: Identify dysfunctions, imbalances, weaknesses, etc. and use the info as a guideline to build a strength conditioning program.
Step 2:Establish a Baseline: Do strength conditioning assessments to find out where you are starting from, so that you know where to prioritize your training, gauge progress, and know what is or isn't working.
Step 3:Set outcome based goals: Eg. squat 150 lbs with good form for 5 reps. Drop 5% body fat. Set process-based goals: Eg. lift weights twice a week. Consume minus 300 calories per day.
Step 4:Get an individualized strength conditioning program that takes into account baseline measurements. Work smart by building the correct foundation first, and go from there. This must work in harmony with your running program. Continually assess and alter to keep making progress and avoid injuries.
Stat 5:Show off. Impress your running group, partner, or yourself with how good your running feels let them know the benefits of strength and conditioning. Too many people are struggling through their own weaknesses and mechanics, and trying to break through plateaus. It doesn't have to be this way.
* 1988 November; 65 (5): 2285-90 PubMed.
** 2005 August; 39 (8): 555-560.
*** 2008 June - volume 40 - issue 6 - pp 1087-1092.