Strength training for runners Agile Therapy

Strength Training for Runners

Traditionally, strength training has not formed part of distance runners’ training programmes. This is usually from fear that it’ll interfere with running training itself. It’s assumed that strength training will increase muscle bulk, affect aerobic fitness and reduce muscle endurance. But research into combining strength and running training has found the opposite to be true.

How does strength training benefit runners?

Studies show that strength training can help improve running economy and, as a result, running performance. Running economy is a measure of how much oxygen a runner uses to maintain a given pace, i.e. how efficient a runner is. It’s influenced by biomechanical and physiological factors and strength training can improve both.

Strength or resistance training improves running biomechanics in three different ways. It increases the force produced by a muscle, increases muscle and tendon stiffness and increases joint stability. Together, this helps the runner to maintain good form when fatigued so they waste less energy through excessive body movement. Increased muscle and tendon stiffness also helps to enhance forward and upward momentum when running. By improving the muscles’ ability to store and release energy, less gets wasted when the foot hits the ground. Improvements in strength also increase a runner’s ability to run uphill and speed up for a sprint finish or to overtake a fellow athlete.

As well improving performance, strength training can also help prevent injuries while running. Many runners lack basic functional strength, making them susceptible to injury. Injury incidence among marathon runners ranges from 26% to a huge 92%, with knee injuries being the most common. Strength training strengthens tissues, making them less susceptible to damage and can reduce the rate of overuse injuries by up to 50%.

What type of strength training is most beneficial for runners?

Multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts and kettlebell swings tend to be more effective than single joint exercises like knee extensions or hamstring curls. Multi-joint exercises improve muscle co-ordination and mimic muscle patterns adopted throughout the running cycle so these type of strengthening exercises should result in greater performance gains.

Studies have also found that heavy strength training using higher loads and lower reps is most effective in enhancing running economy. High load, low repetition strength training enhances strength via neural changes in muscle activation rather than through increasing muscle bulk.

Dumbbells, kettlebells or a barbell will provide adequate stimulus to enhance muscle strength but do make sure that you’re practicing good form during exercises before increasing load.

Wondering where to get started? Below is an example of a strengthening circuit with exercises that have been shown to improve running form and performance.

Strengthening Circuit

  • Back squat
  • Goblet front squat
  • Split Squat
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Single leg Deadlift
  • Single leg squat
  • Straight leg/bent leg calf raise

If you’re new to strength training, complete these exercises at lower loads, with higher repetitions first. This will help you build strength endurance before gradually increasing weight and decreasing repetitions.

Contrary to what you may think, strength training can actually play a vital role in your distance running programme. It will help you run more efficiently and help to prevent injury too. If you’re looking for advice on how to use strength training to help you reach your goals or how it can help you recover from injury, make sure you book an appointment with one of our physiotherapists today.

Further reading

Guglielmo, L. G. A. et al. 2009. Effects of strength training on running economy. International Journal of Sports Medicine 30(01), pp. 27-32.

Johnson, R. E. et al. 1997. Strength training in female distance runners: impact on running economy. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 11(4), pp. 224-229.

Jones, P. and Bampouras, T. M. 2007. Resistance training for distance running: a brief update. Strength and Conditioning Journal 29(1), p. 28.

Jung, A. P. 2003. The impact of resistance training on distance running performance. Sports Medicine 33(7), pp. 539-552.

Paavolainen, L. et al. 1999. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of applied physiology 86(5), pp. 1527-1533.

StØRen, Ø. et al. 2008. Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 40(6), pp. 1087-1092.

Written by Niamh Wynne, Physiotherapist

Niamh graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a BSc (Hons) in Physiotherapy in 2007.

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