When it comes to a run training program there are so many components that make it successful:
● An effective training plan with the right timings of runs, throughout the week
● A variety of runs and exercise i.e. absorption runs, fartlek sessions, hill work, cross training and long runs.
● Recovery in the form of foam rolling, stretching, proper rest and deloading.
● Nutrition and hydration
Just to name a few!
But one component that I personally believe is essential, is the inclusion of strength, mobility and stability training.
Am I talking about hitting the gym, grunting and lifting twice your bodyweight? No! I am talking about exercises designed to get the best running performance from your body. A program that will strengthen what needs to be strengthened and stretch what needs to be stretched. What we want to ultimately achieve is a body that is balanced, stable, strong and at lower risk of injury.
It’s not only me who believes this, when it comes to strength training for runners, there is plenty of research to support it. Literally dozens of studies exist all giving the same findings - that following a period of specifically designed resistance training, running economy is found to improve. That's when the body is stronger and more stable we see lateral movement decrease, ground contact time decrease and power generation increase. All of these lead to better running efficiency which is what we want if we are chasing that new PB!
Let’s dig a bit deeper...
Most of the same fundamental principles apply whether you are an elite marathoner or a recreational runner. However, for some runners who have years of training and gym work behind them, heavy lifts, power exercises, and plyometrics might be just what they need, but for the majority of recreational runners, they will respond best to simple body weight resisted exercises and band work. Stuff that is easily done at home with the help of some cheap resistance bands from Kmart, a mat and maybe even some dumbells. That’s all.
I was recently listening to Sam Willoughby on the ‘Howie Games’ podcast and he was reflecting on the fact that he was squatting 250kg only 10 days before the London Olympics. Why as a BMX rider would he do that? In his words, “Because strength is the foundation for everything. If we want power and speed we need strength.” Running is just the same.
Efficiency in running is largely dependent on stability - the more stable your body the better you will run. The better a foundation you have created in the form of stability and strength through the hips, glutes and core in particular, the better the gait and patterning of the run.
Dedicated strength sessions can give you an increased ability to generate power with stronger muscles and stable structures. Not only that, there is a decreased risk of injury by strengthening connective tissues (tendons and ligaments), which are often the areas at risk. Finally, we can improve stability through the core that will help improve running efficiency by stabilising through the hips, decreasing lateral movement and keeping the body solid and upright.
Even though as runners we are constantly loading our legs and glutes with our running, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be strong enough. Sure, some muscles might be, but not all. The body is smart and as one area becomes tired or overworked, other muscles take over, leading to imbalances. The body will do what it can to protect itself and it’s not likely to use all of our stabilising and intrinsic muscles without us prompting them through specific training, as they take more effort to ‘activate.’
So, now we know that strength is important for us recreational runners and why….When should we be including these sessions?
The ideal scenario to get the best muscle recruitment from your run would be to spend 10 mins on a mobility workup before your run. This could be 10-15 mins on stability and activation exercises and then your running session. However, when life is busy fitting in work, family and social lives as well as our training, this is rarely the schedule we follow so I recommend the next best option of:
- Strength & Stability Session: 2-4 sessions of 20-40 mins
- Mobility & Flexibility Session: 3-4 sessions of 10-20 mins
Also it is important to note that when the body is tired during the biggest phase of our training block, this is not the time to drop off your supplementary sessions, it's the time to keep them going but be mindful of how the fatigue is occurring and what the effect is on your muscles and your running. This is why communicating and adapting with your coach is so important.
What types of exercises can we do to help improve our running strength? It’s actually surprisingly simple and most will be exercises that you have heard of before. I am a big fan of:
- Body weight resisted exercises such as squats, step back lunges, push ups and planks
- Theraband / mini band work for the hip stabilisers, glutes and upper back muscles
- Then, if you have a long history of strength training weighted reps and power lifts may be what gets you to the next level
Note: ALWAYS ensure you get the right advice from your coach, exercise physiologist or personal trainer to ensure you are training in the right way for your body. Every one of them is different!
So that’s my ‘who, what, when and why of strength training for runners.’ In our next blog, I’ll share my own personal experience of strength training for my last two marathons.