Strength training for runners… Why is it Important?
By Carrie Mussbacher, Certified Athletic Therapist & Personal Trainer
Whether you’re new to running or have been running for a while, if you aren’t incorporating strength training into your program, you may be missing a key component to your injury prevention and performance enhancement. As a middle to a long-distance runner, there is good evidence that when you incorporate strength training into your training program you can improve your running efficiency and your overall time performance. It has also been shown to improve a runner’s maximum sprint speed, so think of that last push to the finish line! But what is a middle or long-distance runner? Middle distances are distances longer than a sprint, like 800m, 1500m and 3000m. Long-distance running is a larger range that refers to distances longer than 3km.
It used to be a common thought process that for endurance athletes, the ideal sets and repetitions for strength exercises would be higher repetitions at a lower weight. For example, 2-3 sets of 15-18 repetitions, which targets muscular endurance, would be more beneficial for endurance athletes historically. However, in recent years more research has been looking at the benefits of strength training at higher weights and lower repetitions, for example, 3-4sets of 9 or fewer repetitions, or about 80% of your maximum.
From an injury perspective, one of the most common ways runners end up with injuries is from an increase in training frequency or duration and often done too quickly. This typically results in a situation of overtraining from too much mileage and inadequate recovery. From an injury prevention perspective, one great way to offset the problem of overtraining is to incorporate a strength training session 1-2 times per week instead of another running day. Ideally, a strength program should target the muscle groups used in running (hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves in particular). It should have a core stability component and an upper body focus that targets postural muscles. A runner would benefit largely from a strength training program that specifically focuses on single-leg strength exercises, and should also vary in the tempo of the exercise in order to address and target the type of muscle contraction. We refer to this as a concentric contraction (when the muscle is shortening) or eccentric contraction (when the muscle is lengthening). Running requires both types of these muscle contractions. When we break down the muscular demands of running, we need to understand the phases of running so we can select exercises that target and mimic those muscles and movements to improve specificity.