DOES STRENGTH TRAINING IMPROVE RUNNING?
Written by Dave Thomas
Performance360 is a Pacific Beach Gym
Estimated Time to Read: 15 Minutes
“I believe it’s pronounced ‘yogg-ing’. Apparently you just run for an extended period of time. It’s supposed to be wild”.
A lot strength and conditioning professionals like to trash running. Hell, there was even a time when I liked to tease and poke fun at it from an aesthetics and performance perspective. But now, I have a beard, it’s grey and well, you could say I am a little wiser.
We’ve certainly time traveled quite a bit from when Americans first took to the pavement during the running boom of the 70s. Running science has improved, as has the strength training methodology to make endurance athletes faster.
I will leave the running coaching to the experts out there, but today I want to talk you about the strength element and how crucial it is to your goals as a competitive runner or runner looking to get substantially faster. I will also make a compelling case for you to to swap a day or two of pavement pounding on your joints and trade it for beneficial strength training, that’s going shave minutes off your time and keep you healthier.
Now, before you freak out, we’re not talking about 1-rep maxes or even super heavy weight when it comes to strength training. We’re talking about progressive overload with tools like bands and medicine balls, with a few kettlebells and barbells mixed in.
Take this from P360 athlete Abby Crotteau who recently qualified for the Boston Marathon.
“My marathon career took off in the past 6 months when I started strength training. It wasn’t logging more miles that lead me to a Boston qualifying time in October and another PR by an additional 6 minutes in November. It was adopting my 6 am strength and conditioning program at Performance360.
As a distance runner that logs no more than 2 (maybe 3 on a motivated week) dedicated runs a week, my recent race success has been from movements like squats and building my cardiovascular endurance in Shred classes. Even more important than faster times, I have been fortunate to be completely injury free.
As my focus has turned from running to developing both overall strength and the structural balance of my body the result was a few big race PRs.”
I am no runner, and I am no running coach, however we have helped athletes like Abby qualify for the Boston Marathon, produced medals in local and national races and helped average Joes and Janes set PRs in their marathon, half marathon and ultra marathons for the past five years. The success of our athletes has nothing to do with our knowledge of running and everything to do with our application of functional strength.
Grab a cup of coffee and let’s get you faster.
Strength Improves Running Economy
Running economy is a very important concept for athletes and is defined by the amount of steady state oxygen we consume for a standardized running speed. Basically, how hard your body has to work running at your maintained pace. Think of this in the exact same manner as you would fuel economy for your car. The car and distance racer with the better gas mileage per gallon will go further. So the key is training your body to expend as little energy as possible. If you require more oxygen running at eight miles per hour than your counterpart, they have a superior running economy, will fatigue slower and they will have a competitive advantage over you.
It’s that simple.
By improving your running economy, you will be able to cover a distance in a less time. So, how can you improve your running economy?
Well first, the obvious. You run more and you get better at the task at hand. This can be improved through dialing in proper stride technique and logging miles to build your VO2 Max. Again, I leave this to the running coaches.
Think of strength training as building a Hemi engine to run in a Prius. A stronger, faster engine that can also last longer.
In an article by Alex Huthinson for Runner’s World, he cites a meta-analysis performed by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. A meta-analysis is basically a study that totals the result of all studies in a given subject. In examining nearly 700 studies that attempted to find out if strength helps running, the meta-analysis scientists were able to find five studies that met the following qualifications:
- Peer Reviewed.
- Participants were competitive, middle to long distance runners.
- Had a starting VO2 Max level deemed “high level”.
- Examined strength training programs for longer than four weeks.
- Running economy was measured both before and after.
The research found that there were five studies that met these qualifications, with 93 total high level runners and concluded that, “Strength training program including low to high intensity resistance exercises and plyometric exercises performed 2-3 times per week for 8-12 weeks is an appropriate strategy to improve running economy in highly trained middle- and long-distance runners.”
Scientists don’t really say things like, “Hell yes, do squats, runners”. They say things like, “Resistance exercises is an appropriate strategy to improve running economy”.
How to Strength Train For Running
A lot of runners have a very bad concept of what strength training truly encompasses. We are creatures of extreme and like to channel our thoughts to polar ends of the spectrum. For example, when I hear someone say they like to run, I think that automatically means they must be training for a marathon. When I say that I like to power and Olympic lift, runners probably take that to mean I put the maximum amount of weight on the bar and do sets of 1-rep maxes every day.
Both assumptions are terrible.
We don’t have to operate on the extreme end of the spectrum in order to get benefit out of something.
It’s not about maximizing, it’s about eliciting benefit in the appropriate ranges to improve your sport. Most productive strength training occurs around 60-75% of the maximum amount of weight you can perform. So, let’s say that if you really pushed yourself you could squat 175 pounds. This means that good strength training for you would be in working weight of about 125 pounds.
Here is P360 athlete and Boston qualifier, Maria Alcoke.
There are a few main areas of the body where the runner can see huge benefit in strength training, and we’re going to start with one in particular that doesn’t get much discussion in the running community.
The interesting data point in a lot of the studies that showed strength training to improve running economy, is that many showed no actual improvement in VO2 Max, long considered the most important data point when trying to determine if a runner will be good. So, how is it possible to become better at running if you’re not improving your V02 Max or “cardio”?
The answer to this question lies in your body’s ability to better channel forward force.
Running is a series of force trade offs between your upper body and lower body, that travels through your core. Your legs and arms work together to propel your forward in a coordinated manner. Pretty simple. However, if your core is weak then a lot of the force transmission between the upper and lower body will be leaked outward, and lost.
In athletic motion, including distance running, the core is responsible for transfer of force between upper and lower body. Running with a weak core is like driving with a leak in your gas line. You’re quite literally leaking fuel as you move. The good news is that we can plug the leak by improving the strength of the core. It’s important that you don’t think about core training as doing a bunch of sit-ups. As we recently explained in a detailed article on core training, these muscles do not want to be trained in that manner. While they have the capacity to flex and rotate, the core is best trained by resisting motion, not creating it. Our core is a stabilizer, it is not a primary mover.
Here are some of our favorite sport-general and running-specific core movements. These movements include the very important anti-rotation, anti-extension and anti-flexion aspects of athletic core training.
Planks are ground zero for your core training, but keep your sets short and focus on volume. Anything over a minute is highly unnecessary, and likely not done properly. Perform with long, deep exhales through the belly. Squeeze everything together, push the floor away. Make sure your feet are together.
These should be reserved for athletes with a solid baseline of core strength. If you collapse, or you immediately feel it in your low back it’s an indicator that your abdominal muscles need work, so stick to planks. Once ready, make sure to move slow and controlled and only go as far out as you can bring yourself back in.
DB Renegade Rows
This is where we start to get into the benefits of anti-rotation. Select a weight that is difficult enough to challenge you to keep your hips stable, but easy enough to allow you to do it. As soon as you rotate the hips open and upward, the benefit is lost. Lighter weight and slower motion is king, here.
Kettlebell Lunge Pass Throughs
This is a great movement that again involves the posterior chain which we’ll get into a minute, but the act of passing the kettlebell under your legs while you are lunging teaches our core to engage and prevent rotation while our lower body is actually in forward motion, like running.
Turkish Get-Ups have long been in our arsenal for every gender, age, athlete and gen pop member that we have. This movement is without drawback. Performing a complete TGU rep is going to activate everything from your ankle to your neck, but the main benefit for runners will be drive off the ground (posterior chain) and keeping a stable, strong core. Moderate to heavy weight once you learn technique, but just performing it with a shoe at first will provide challenge.
Medicine Ball Slams
This is a tough sell to athletes because it does not isolate the core and it feels much more like a lower body movement and upper body plyometric movement. However, the force of the downward slam and upward extension overhead of a medicine ball slam both have to travel through the core. It is summation of force at its finest, the total body creating and transferring energy to result in a high power output.
We’re not going to spend a lot of time on this section because getting the muscles of your knee and hips stronger falls under the category of Captain Obvious. Can we agree that as a runner you need strong legs?
We’re instead going to focus on the best methods for creating that strength most appropriate to the unilateral aspect of running. Because running is your total body in locomotion, to isolate the muscles of your posterior chain on a machine would not do you much good. In fact, it wouldn’t do you a lick of good. You want to train the body and the muscles in the functional anatomical sense, using your interrelated groups of joints and muscles to work together to perform the task, not in isolation. So, it is imperative that you stay off the machines and pick up some free weights.
Here are our favorites for runners.
Front Loaded Barbell Split Squats
The split squat is a great choice for developing single leg strength in the runner because running is, well, single leg. When performing, just make sure that you drive the back knee down, not forward. Start at body weight and as you get stronger, progress to a kettlebell, then a barbell in a front loaded position. This front loaded position will provide the added benefit of developing the core, and we love 2-for-1s!
Russian Kettlebell Swing
Easy to learn and arguably more bang for your buck than any movement, the kettlebell swing is pure hamstring, glute and low back strengthening at it’s finest. Focus on deep hip movement with minimal knee bend. It’s a hinge, not a squat.
Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts (SLRDL)
SLRDLs need to be a staple of any athlete, especially those with unilateral transfer of force needs like the runner. It is going to develop the muscles of the posterior chain in an isolated manner, but with the added benefit of athletic balance and transfer of force through your core. Follow the same hip hinge mechanics of the kettlebell swing and focus on keeping a flat back. Start by performing toe touches and work your way up to weighted SLRDLs.
You may notice the absence of the conventional deadlift, lunge and back squat. These are excellent movements and if you are in a gym that can teach you properly, do them and make them foundation for your program. But they take time to learn and I don’t want to convey technique in a ten second video, so I am not going to send you off doing something that will probably set you back more than it will move you forward.
One final note on the glutes. Sitting on them all day is a surefire way to develop gluteal amnesia, a condition in which your glutes literally forget how to work. When your glutes forget how to work, you are dead in the water as an effective athlete.
As beneficial as all of the movements we just reviewed are, they do not include the highly important, oft overlooked glute medius. The unfortunate aspect of running is that it’s exclusively a forward only movement. Until I see an athlete perform a marathon in a side shuffle, the result is going to be a lot of runners overtraining the muscles that work in the forward plane, and undertraining the lateral muscles.
The glute medius (your side butt muscle) is totally ignored, yet essential for healthy and efficient running performance because it’s responsible for keeping your pelvis stable, and absorb force of ground impact when you land.
Running efficiency is all about keeping our force linear and not letting it bleed out laterally as we run, and just as the core is important to tie the upper body and lower body together, the glutes are responsible for our lower body’s contribution to this task. The glute medius is hugely responsible for your running economy and health, but you don’t train it when you run.
Here are some movements that will train it.
Banded Lateral/Monster Walks (above)
On the banded walks, just be sure that when you stride, your toe and knee are straight ahead. A good cue is to “drive with the heel”. The glute medius’ purpose is to resist inversion of the knee, so make sure it doesn’t collapse inward as you stride laterally.
Banded Skater Walks
Similar benefits to lateral walks, but with a forward motion to better mimic running demands.
Less is more with the glute medius. We don’t need an arsenal of movements, just a few drills at high volume. By sticking to bands in a lateral plane of movement, you’ll know with certainty the glute medius is being targeted.
GLUTE MEDIUS IN REGARDS TO RUNNER’S KNEE
Having weak glute medius is a main contributor to knee pain in your running due to the fact is passing it’s responsibility of shock absorption to the knee. When the glute medius is weak it causes the hip be hypermobile, and when a joint is hypermobile it is poor at shock absorption. When a joint can’t handle its responsibility, it often passes the buck to the next closest joint, and in the case of pavement pounding, it is the knee. The knee does not like that.
So unfortunately, cutting back mileage and icing is not going to fix your cranky runner’s knee. That’s just a band aid on a bullet hole. You need to strengthen the glute medius.
As we learned in the meta-analysis above, plyometrics play a big role in the strengthening process and improvement of running economy, but what are they?
Put in layman’s terms, plyometrics are when we store energy and completely release off the ground, most notably in jumping, bounding and hand release upper body movements.
When you break down running to its most simple element, it’s basically small forward jumps over and over again. However, it’s a very muted version of plyometrics since distance running involves slow-twitch, Type-I muscle fibers. The plyometric training that will benefit your mileage is the explosive, fast-twitch , Type-II fibers that will allow you to turn your strides over faster and exert more force off of the ground.
These movements include:
- Box Jumps
- Split Lunge Jumps
- High Knees in Place
A 2006 study published in the Journal of Strength of Conditioning examined 15 highly trained runners. The entire group followed the same running protocol, but half of the group added 30 minute plyometric training sessions three days per week.
Once again, VO2 Max was not improved in any significant way for either group, but the half who performed plyometrics saw their running economy increase, likely do to the effect the plyometrics had on Type-II muscle power off the ground and/or improved technique as the study concluded.
Tying It All Together
When you analyze the science of it all, it’s very obvious that strength training makes you a faster runner, a runner that can go longer, and a healthier runner that has improved gait due to the body’s ability to better stabilize itself.
In closing, P360 IronMan 70.3 athlete Eric Hansen eloquently summarizes his strength training.
“There are zero running goals out there that won’t benefit from a healthy dose of strength training. I’ve traded mile after mile of steady state cardio for squats, sled pulls, swings, cleans, and everything in between. With less than 14 miles/week of actual running, I’ve been able to drop to my fastest mile time, finish my first half ironman, and see marked improvements in my running stamina.
Runners who trade a few less miles for some time in the gym and focus on building a strong core, strengthening the smaller stabilizing muscles, and building up their overall leg strength are really going to do themselves a favor. They’ll be able to keep better form over longer distances (better efficiency), they’ll have a more powerful stride, reduce the chance of injury, and have a body much more capable of pursuits outside of running.”
Running is not all about your VO2 Max. It’s also about having a strong core, glutes and development of certain Type-II fibers to help with your drive and engine.
Try swapping two days of pavement pounding for two days in the gym and we bet your legs feel rejuvenated, your body stronger and most importantly, PRs in your next race.
Performance360 is the #1 Rated and Reviewed Gym in Pacific Beach, and one of the top Strength & Conditioning Gyms in the country.
Balsalobre. “Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Aug. 2016. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
Saunders, Philo. “SHORT-TERM PLYOMETRIC TRAINING IMPROVES RUNNING ECONOMY IN H… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.” Http://journals.lww.com. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 1 Aug. 2016. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.