You’re a runner, so surely pounding on your legs for miles a week constitutes as strength training, right? Nuh-uh, afraid not! Strength training for endurance athletes can help prevent injury, correct imbalances, and can enhance your movement economy plus there are also studies that show strength training can improve time-trial performances and even your VO2 max, so there’s definite benefits to adding in specific strength work to your training.
Yes, I could give you a list of exercises, what weight to do them at and how long to do them for, but most articles I’ve read about strength training for runners give a generic list of exercises to perform that don’t offer any progression throughout your running season. I’m hoping by providing these tips that you’ll be empowered to create your own strength programme with progressions, rather than just doing the same exercises from now up until race day and beyond.
Periodise your training
Athletes go through off-season training, usually involving low rep, heavy weight work; to hypertrophy training, with mid rep, mid weights; to a muscular endurance phase, with high reps and low weight. Building strength during the first phase means you can lift heavier during both the hypertrophy and endurance phases, and whilst you may not think growing your muscles is important for endurance sports, what is important is the increase in strength of your tendons and ligaments: the volume and rest periods in hypertrophy training are conducive to building strength in those.
To periodise your strength training, look at your year of running events (your macrocycle) and decide which the key ones are for you, then design your programme in the run-up to those. For example, if you have a half marathon coming up in 18 weeks, you might do a 6 week strength block (mesocycle), a 6 week hypertrophy block, and a 6 week endurance block in the run-up, adjusting your weights and volume in line with your taper for your event.
You want to be lifting heavy in your strength block – that is 1-5 reps of a movement, with a weight that’s at least 80% of your current 1-rep max. You may experience some muscle growth during this phase if you haven’t strength trained before, but lifting heavy for this amount of reps and sets doesn’t necessarily stimulate hypertrophy, but will make you stronger, which are different things.
Studies have shown that heavy weightlifting is an effective way to increase leg stiffness therefore improve running economy, and one study showed that a regimen of 4 sets of 4 heavy half-squats performed 4 times per week produced large improvements in running economy and time trial performance, so it’s well worth loading up the bar.
Do single leg work
Ever feel like one leg is working harder than the other? Most of your running time you’re likely to be in the air, but the rest of it you’ll be landing on a single leg so it makes sense to train them individually, and this will help address imbalances. Unilateral leg work includes lunges, split squats (I’m doing the Bulgarian version with raised back foot in the main photo of this article), single leg deadlifts, step ups, single leg machine extension/curl/presses – almost everything you can do with both legs, you can do with one! It’s tough work but so, so worth it.
Include rotation and anti-rotation core work
Your core works to keep you upright and maintain your posture while you run, and also assist with energy transfer around the body. Loosely translated that translates to anti-rotation and rotation work respectively, so it makes sense to include these within your strength training. Anti-rotation work includes deadbugs, Pallof presses (above), and farmers’ walks, with rotation exercises being woodchops, Russian twists, and window wipers. You can safely add these into your strength training 3 times per week.
Utilise all energy systems
If you’re a long-distance runner, then it’s your aerobic system you will be using for the majority of the time through your runs, but truly energy systems are not as on-and-off as we think they are – it’s likely your energy systems will layer over each other throughout your runs. Another important reason for eriodising your strength training is help cover all of these elements, as strength uses the creatine phosphate system, hypertrophy the anaerobic, and muscular endurance uses the aerobic system.
Fun fact: despite being a marathon runner, therefore competing in the aerobic energy system, Paula Radcliffe utilised the anaerobic system a lot in her training in order to help increase her anaerobic threshold.
Work your glutes
The glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus – yes, the bum muscles) help power you along in running and also work to keep your legs in alignment as you run. This is especially important as you start to fatigue in a longer run and your form breaks down! A lot of your single leg work will cover your glutes, but another great move is the hip thrust. Load up a barbell, add a pad over your hips, and thrust heavy during your strength phase, then when you’re feeling strong separate the move out to single leg with a dumbbell on your hip.
Lateral hip work will help strengthen the glute med, so grab a band, stick it around the top of your knees, and do some sideways crab walks, monster walks, and clamshells.
… And hamstrings!
The main function of the hamstring is to flex your knee and also extend the hip, and strong hamstrings will create a strong hip extension, driving you forward in your running. Deadlifts and their variants as mentioned will help train hip extension, but flexing at the knee is a different movement pattern. You can train these on the hamstring curl machine (you know the drill by now – unilaterally if you can) or by doing bridge hamstring walk-outs, as in the photo above.
Don’t neglect your upper body
It’s your lower body that does the bulk of the work for sure, but training your upper body will ensure your body is balanced, will improve your posture and therefore your running efficiency, and thanks to that core work you’ve been doing, a strong upper body will transfer energy to the lower body when running. You still want to be doing compound moves on top as opposed to bicep curls – think rows, bench press, lat pull-downs, and pull-ups. Ensure you’re hitting lateral push and pull movements as well as vertical push and pull, plus maintain that balance you’ve built in your lower body by working unilaterally.
Remember these oft-ignored muscles
Whilst we mainly want to be training big muscle groups to get the most bang for our buck, there are some smaller muscles that if neglected can cause postural issues, possibly leading to injury. These can include, but are not limited to, the gluteus medius, the rotator cuff and its related muscles plus the tibialis anterior. We’ve covered the glute med, but the rotators cuffs help keep your shoulders functioning well, which includes maintaining posture and pumping your arms when you run. Strengthen your shoulders with scapular push and pulls, using bands and the floor.
The tibialis anterior is part of the shin so yep, weaknesses in this area can cause those dreaded shin splints. One way to strengthen this area is by sitting on a high box, holding a dumbbell between your big toes, then pointing and flexing your feet so you feel it in your shins.
This wasn’t a strict programme for you to follow, but hopefully you now have the resources to begin your own strength programme for running, and get strong for your races this year!