Jon-Erik Kawamoto—You’ll do anything to run faster. You’ll read the latest book on distance training or the newest article on your favorite blog on how to add variety to your tempo workouts, but you keep doing the same body weight exercises that you’ve been doing for years.
Your strength hasn’t changed much and you constantly suffer from the usual aches and pains from pounding the pavement. It might be a new concept for some, but supplementing your running program with an effective and well laid out strength training program can be advantageous in making you a faster and more durable runner.
Unfortunately, with the vast amount of information available online, runners can get a little stir-crazy when choosing effective strength training methods. Improving strength, explosive power and core stability is a science and requires appropriate programming, just as it does when looking to improve VO2 max or lactate threshold.
Certain training methods have better transference to running and are therefore more effective at improving running performance and reducing injury risk. Here are five reasons why your strength and conditioning program is not making you stronger:
Your Intensity Is Too Low
When referring to strength training, it’s common to refer to the intensity of an exercise as a percentage of the maximum load you can lift. Your maximum strength for a particular exercise is referred to your one repetition maximum or 1RM for short. Therefore, if you can squat with 100 pounds on your back for only one repetition, your 1RM for the back squat would be 100 pounds.
In order to develop your overall strength, it’s recommended that you perform exercises in the 3-5-repetition range. This corresponds to working with loads greater than 85 percent of your 1RM. Therefore, going back to our 100-pound back squat example, in order to build leg and hip strength you would have to perform sets of 3-5-repetitions with roughly 85 pounds.
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A review paper in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports concluded that heavy-resistance strength training enhanced long-term (greater than 30-minutes) and short-term (less than 15-minutes) endurance capacity in top-level endurance athletes.
Take Home Message
Remove the bodybuilder physique from your mind. Lifting heavy weights while doing the correct exercises will not add unwanted muscle bulk to your body. Rather, heavy strength training will improve your overall strength and likely improve your race performance.
You Don’t Have A Plan Or Purpose
Each year, your coach maps out your training with changes in running volume and intensity to complement your racing schedule so that your peak or ability to perform at your best occurs during the most important races. These fluctuations in training are part of a process called periodization. Programming strength training is no different. Without a plan in place, your progress will be minimal and you’ll likely get frustrated.
Choosing the most appropriate exercises based on your current abilities that have the most transference to improving your running efficiency is key to improving running specific strength. For example, a squat would be a better option than a seated leg press because the squat challenges you to keep your balance whereas the leg press has you seated, and we know you can’t run sitting down. Your strength training workouts should be progressed throughout the year to make you the strongest and most explosive during racing season.
Take Home Message
Randomized training is inferior to a well-planned exercise program. Take the time to map out your year so that you peak for your most important races. Keep a running and strength training log to document your progress throughout the year.
You’re Training For The Pump
Continuing from the previous point, choosing the most appropriate exercises is important for developing strength where you need it most. Training to induce a pump or burning sensation is actually a bodybuilding technique used to induce more muscle growth. As a runner, you want to train your nervous system.
Without being too “inside science,” strength is determined by two factors: overall muscle size and the efficiency of your nervous system. If your brain can recruit all of your muscle fibers during a contraction, you’ll have more strength. This is how runners need to build strength because this form of strength is associated with minimal weight gain, which, if it occurs, can be detrimental to performance. Jump and plyometric training are prime examples of nervous system development training.
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Choose multi-joint jumping variations to improve explosive power and neuromuscular efficiency. Runners can benefit from performing repeated vertical jumping, lunge jumps and bounding. Additional options are available but you do not have to get too fancy. Sprinting and fast hill running are actually forms of explosive training that should also be added to a runner’s strength training program.
Take Home Message
Certain exercises are better for runners than others, so choose exercises that improve full body coordination and strength. Don’t go after the burn and focus on free weight-type exercises and body weight jumping exercises.
You Train On Unstable Surfaces
Performing exercises while standing on an unstable surface (e.g. BOSU balance trainer or balance board) has shown promise when applied in a rehabilitative setting. Those with lower limb injuries can benefit from the unstable nature of the exercise and will improve balance, proprioception and strength.
However, this type of training was introduced to the world of strength and conditioning with the hopes of having similar training benefits. The infatuation with training the core has also played a role in this form of training. However, the benefits of this type of training have fallen short.
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In a review paper from the journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism, it was concluded that unstable surface training is “not recommended as the primary [form of exercise] for hypertrophy, absolute strength, or power, especially in trained athletes.” In addition, the authors added that athletes will benefit the most from ground-based free weight training with minimal instability.
Take Home Message
Building strength and improving athletic performance requires that lower body exercises be performed on stable ground. Unstable surface training has its place but should not be the go-to form of improving strength in a runner’s strength training program.
You Focus On Muscle Isolation, Not Full Body Integration
Since the growth of weight lifting and bodybuilding in the early 1900s, several traditions have stood the test of time and are still readily applied today. You’ll notice from reading magazines, fitness websites and blogs there is a lot of conflicting information and the “best method” of training.
One of the most common recommendations when starting a strength training program is to start with machines. They’re supposedly easy to use, safe on your joints and basically fool proof. You’ll be able to “feel the burn” which gives immediate feedback saying you’re probably performing the exercise correctly. However, not all exercises are created equal.
Training for muscle isolation like a bodybuilder does has little to no transfer to improving your running economy or race performance because you don’t run by only contracting one muscle at a time. Your body works as an integrated system and you definitely don’t run sitting down (as most exercise machines place you in the seated position).
To make the most of your time and effort in the gym, you must chose exercises that challenge your muscles to work in synergy. Having squats, deadlifts and single leg exercises as your go-to strength exercises will ensure you’re making the most out of your program. The basic strength exercises have been around for years as go-to exercises for all athletes, of any sport because they work. They might not be fancy, but they get the job done.
Take Home Message
Train your muscles with full body exercises and minimal machines. Learn how to lunge, squat and deadlift and you’ll be ahead of most runners in your quest for strength and faster racing times.