Mention the words strength work to a runner and images of bulging biceps and watermelons under the arms come to mind… but none of us can picture ourselves dragging around that much extra muscle baggage on the run. For endurance runners, strength is one of the important motor skills, but you certainly won’t look like Anold Schwarzenegger anytime soon just by incorporating strength work into your training. (For that, you’re going to have to spend hours on end each week in the gym, with no long distance training at all!) – BY RAY ORCHISON
There are a number of reasons why runners need to incorporate elements of strength work into our training weeks. For starters, our western lifestyles do not lend themselves to keeping us strong and our muscles engaged. Just get yourself a pedometer and you’ll be shocked at how little you walk in a day. Our lifestyles are extremely sedentary. We drive to work, spend eight to nine hours sitting in a chair hunched over a computer, then drive back home to spend the evening in front of the TV. This lack of activity results in the weakening and shortening of key muscles as well as developing biomechanical imbalances.
Secondly, and this builds on from the first point, because running is a continuous repetitive motion sport, it is a great exploiter of imbalances and weaknesses. For example, if you have an imbalance in the strength between your left and right glute, you will be favouring one side over the other with every stride you take. This will result in an overuse injury on the stronger side and could rear its ugly head in any of the muscles from the glute down to the foot. It may also result in strained muscles on the weaker side of the body, as subconsciously our brain tries to match the stride length of the stronger side.
Thirdly, in order to run as fast as we can for as long as we can, we need muscles which have been developed and strengthened in order to do so. Kicking in the last 300m of a 1500m race requires sound strength endurance. Maintaining some sort of decent pace and body posture in the final quarter of a marathon requires core, strength endurance and functional strength.
Not all strength work is equal
There are a number of different types of strength work for different purposes, such as:
• Absolute strength (increasing total maximum strength),
• Relative strength (increasing strength relative to body size),
• Power (increasing work output over time),
• Elastic strength (potential for energy through the muscles and tendons),
• Strength endurance (capacity to continue exerting force during fatigue),
• Core (stability muscles of the trunk), and
• Functional strength (movement patterns of specific muscles required in motion).
Focusing on or doing the wrong type of strength will bring about a different training outcome than what you might expect. For example, absolute strength would be a primary focus in events requiring strength, speed and power, such as sprinting or jumping. A distance runner would not be too concerned with absolute strength. Relative strength can be seen as the base work of strength training through which we rid ourselves of any muscle weaknesses and imbalances before moving on to event specific strength work.
Where do we start?
The most important strength elements for runners would be relative and core strength. The importance of identifying your muscle weaknesses and imbalances cannot be overemphasised. In order to enjoy injury-free running we must start here and strengthen those areas which will result in overuse and strained muscles. Our focus must be on the bigger muscles crucial to the running biomechanics. These include the glutes, hamstrings, calves and quads. If these big muscles are not firing, then we end up overusing the smaller muscles and developing all sorts of niggles and injuries. The core is also extremely important and assists us in maintaining an efficient body posture throughout our event.
Once we’ve addressed our base weaknesses we can then move on to the specific strength work which will bring about additional benefits and improvements in our race times. These would be elastic strength, strength endurance and functional strength. Elastic strength is developed through bounding, Olympic lifting, uphill and downhill running and plyometrics. Strength endurance is typically developed in the weight room. Weights should be based on 50-70% of the maximum weight you could lift for a single, all-out repetition. Functional strength is accomplished through weight training as well as through running itself. This type of strength work should include different terrain, inclines and varying speeds.
The golden rule with introducing anything new is always to start slowly and gradually build from there. When incorporating strength work involving weights, start with light weights and first master the movement of the exercise, and then slowly start increasing the weight.
What exercises can I do?
Here are some examples of exercises for the different types of strength. You can find images and videos for these exercises on the internet explaining how they should be done.
1. Core Strength
3 x 30-60sec Alternating leg planks
3 x 15 Stability ball bridges with alternate leg extension
3 x 30secs Straight leg bridge on stability ball
3 x 15 BOSU side crunches
3 x 30sec BOSU side planks
3 x 10 Stability ball back extension
2. Elastic Strength and Functional Strength
Includes running sessions of bounding, uphill and downhill running, and plyometric exercises.
3 x 10 Box jumps
4 x 40m alternating leg bounds
3 x 30sec Mountain climbers with BOSU
4 x 20-30m Carioca quick-step
3 x 30sec Jumping Jacks
3 x 30sec Square hop
3. Strength Endurance
Consists of various weight exercises based on 50-70% of your one repetition maximum lift.
3-4 x 15-20 Single leg press
3-4 x 20-50 Explosive BOSU squats (progress to single leg)
3-4 x 15-20 Single leg deadlift
3-4 x 15-20 Single leg hamstring curl (lift with both legs, resist with one)
3-4 x 15-20 Backward lunge (add weight gradually)
3-4 x 15-20 Bench steps-ups
The new running season is here, so invest the time now in improving your muscle strength. This will go a long way to ensuring injury-free running as you start incorporating higher intensity workouts and more distance.