Even Runners need to Strength Train: The ‘WHY?’…

One misconception that floats around the fitness world is that runners shouldn’t strength train. I don’t want to say I hear it all the time, but I’ve had many conversations with people who think running is the be-all and end-all.

Like other forms of exercise, running is great for you, BUT even people who run need the adaptations that strength training imposes if they want to increase their running ability.

Correctly prescribed exercises will not make you bulk up excessively, slow your times down, or waste your time. In fact, a well-programmed resistance training routine will increase running economy by better mechanics, stronger and more controlled contractions (force production), and decrease the risk of possible injuries that are common in the repetitive cyclical movement of habitual runners (National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2011).

Why strength for runners?

The idea is that aerobic athletes or the general population who are stronger, will be able to outperform their weaker counterparts due to an increased level of performance; specifically, the last leg at the end of the race or run when participants kick in the “afterburners” (National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2011).

While endurance training increases aerobic capabilities, it does not account for a significant portion of physical adaptations that are brought about by resistance training such as increased neuromuscular control (motor unit recruitment and synchronization) and anaerobic capabilities. On the flipside, while resistance training does carry very noticeable changes in the elements of heart contractibility, if your goal is aerobic conditioning, resistance training is not the end-all either.

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Many times, it has been thought that the addition of resistance training hindered aerobic performance, and this could be due to the lack of control of the increased volume of training and therefore associated fatigue, decreased performance and injury rate, specifically from overuse (National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2013).

Due to this, it seems to be very beneficial to add resistance training, but at the same time decrease the volume of running throughout the week. This can be done all the while keeping running ability as the priority through a well-structured program.

When in doubt, go back to the basics

There is only a very small percentage of the running population that needs high tech, intricate programming. For the rest of us, using basic principles of strength and conditioning is more than enough to elicit the physiological responses stated previously.

Two of the most important principles that cannot be overlooked are the SAID principle and Progressive Overload.

The SAID principle states that there will be Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands meaning that the training one performs needs to mimic the movements that the training is meant to improve. For example, benching will not be a priority in a program with the goal of improving running economy because that does not translate over to the motion of running. Split squats however, would be a fantastic option to include in running programs based on the split stance and lower extremity activation pattern which is seen in the gait cycle during locomotion.

Progressive Overload is the concept of continuous progressive loading through exercise variables such as weight, volume or rest periods.

This does not allow your body to become complacent, but rather adapt to new loads and therefore continue to get stronger and more resilient. Each principle needs to be programmed correctly however, with the correct deload and recovery models implemented to allow for ideal benefits. This is where the skill of periodization comes into play.

Using the SAID principle, resistance training must mimic what it is intended to improve. In this case, the movements must mimic the cyclical, repetitive, and continuous contractions that running entails. That being said, it has generally been accepted to train into the muscular endurance range; high repetitions, low intensity, short rest periods and a few reps (12-15 repetitions, <67% one rep max, 30-90 seconds rest, and 2-3 sets) (National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2008).

However, research has also shown the benefits of higher intensity and velocity training such as plyometrics and their importance on increasing strength, power and running economy (Yamamoto, et al., 2008). Yamamoto, et al., used a systematic approach and combined many studies that used plyometrics such as squat jump, and single and double leg hops, as well as heavy strength training that used 3-5 repetitions until failure. This would correspond to around 85-95% of one’s one rep max (1RM).

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Additionally, heavy strength training and high power production has been shown to decrease 3 km performance times without changing running economy (Mikkola, et al., 2011). Although future research is needed, as always, it would seem as though the best way to maximize benefits of resistance training for runners is a combination of all these types in a well thought out periodized program, which will be discussed further in this article.

Injury prevention

In addition to increasing performance, resistance training may also decrease the likelihood of associated injuries that runners commonly experience. Before going further, it is important to note that the information stated in this article is not meant to be a medical diagnosis or instructions on rehabilitation. If you are experiencing these symptoms, please consult your doctor or physical therapist on how to construct a personalized program.

The information in this article is meant as a prevention strategy to common dysfunctional movement patterns that may arise after or during a running program. Running is a very beneficial form of exercise but it does predispose participants to a variety of commonly seen “running” injuries.

Balancing the volume of training is the primary intervention of injury prevention in runners as 80% of these injuries are likely due to overuse. A meta-analysis showed that strength training could reduce sports injury risk to less than a third, and decrease overuse injuries by almost 50% (Lauersen, Bertelsen, & Anderson, 2014).

Tendonitis or tendinopathies of the patella, hamstring and Achilles tendon along with strains, patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS), iliotibial (IT) band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, and medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS aka. shin splints), are some of the most common running-related injuries one will experience (Arnold & Moody, 2018).

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Soldiers study

In a 2018 study of active USA military members, Grier, et al. found that soldiers who included at least three days of resistance training seemed to be at a decreased risk of injury from their physical training than their counterparts who did not.

Seeing as so many running-related injuries are due to overuse, this makes sense in that it is going to take more volume and stress to injure a tissue that has already been trained to be resilient.

Hamstring strains are also very prevalent during running. This is typically due to the low knee flexor concentric and eccentric strength and short fascicle length of the muscles. This can be improved with eccentric training through the Nordic hamstring curls that have been shown to reduce the risk of hamstring injury (Pollard, Opar, Williams, Bourne &Timmins, 2019, van der Horst, Smits, Petersen, Goedhart & Backx, 2015).

This being the case, it is also fair to consider that due to the same eccentric adaptations, the quadriceps group may also benefit from reverse Nordic curls (eccentric contraction of the quadriceps group) to prevent quadriceps injury.

The nature of running is a one direction (forward) sagittal plane activity that really ignores the other planes of motion beyond stabilization. When the hip cannot, or will not stabilize in the frontal plane, this can lead to malalignments (altered neuromuscular control and joint arthrokinematics, and varied length tension relationships), and injuries such as what was previously discussed including PFPS, IT band syndrome, strains, and tendinopathies (Clark, Lucett, & Sutton, 2014).

In saying this, it is important to lengthen (stretch) the potentially overactive and shortened (“tight”) muscle groups, but also strengthen them in that new range of motion, and activate other muscle groups that may not be used as much during running leading to malalignments and dysfunctions such as the hip abductors.

With all that being said, a correct exercise program for running will not only include exercises to maximize performance, but also alleviate the risk of potential commonly seen injuries.

This article will conclude with Part 2 of Even Runners Need To Strength Train.

(References cited in Even Runners Need to Strength Train: Part Two ‘the HOW’)

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