Distance Running and Strength Training (Part 1)
By Michael Bailey
Forward Fitness & Performance
Distance running and strength training are rarely heard in the same sentence.
Many people believe that strength training hinders aerobic development, packs on unnecessary muscle mass, or is a waste of time and energy for a distance runner. While this may be true if the strength training is programed incorrectly, however when programmed correctly, strength training can provide many benefits to both health and overall performance.
As a runner, the best way to improve is to -shocker here - run more. So, in writing this article, my goal isn’t to advocate that strength training should replace running.
Rather, it’s to show you the benefits of strength training, and help you understand that strength and endurance training CAN coexist.
Every runner hates being injured.
Seriously, sitting around feeling sorry for yourself because you increased your mileage too quick and/or ran too many intense intervals?
On that same note, injuries can occur via a TON of mechanisms that aren’t necessarily under your control.
Most notably – developing muscular imbalances may occur when running is your ONLY method of training.
Distance running is a repetitive activity primarily done in the sagittal plane, which means that running mostly consists of the body moving forwards or backwards.
Why does this matter?
Because if all you do is run, the muscles designed to move the body laterally receive very little stimulation, and – as a result – you develop a lot of large and potentially serious imbalances.
Other imbalances are often found in runners as well. A dangerous dominance of the quadriceps to the hamstrings is typically found due to the constant loading of the anterior (front) chain during running.
This is a problem because weak hamstrings are a major cause of many running injuries, specifically knee and hip injuries.
So, this is where strength training comes in – it allows you to target specific muscles and movement patterns that may be neglected while running, therefore alleviating the imbalances and allowing you to continue to run injury free.
What if I said you could improve your running economy, top end speed, and lactate threshold without decreasing your VO2 max?– all of which impact performance.
Sounds like a pretty good deal, right?
Well you can, and here is how it is done.
The type of strength training best suited for endurance athletes is maximal strength training.
What is “maximal?”
Heavy loads (85-100% of your 1RM) for very few repetitions (1-5).
This type of training causes neuromuscular adaptations and an increase in strength, rather than hypertrophy and a growth in muscle size and mass.
On that same note, maximal strength training improves the nervous system’s ability to call upon more motor units – which leads to more muscle fibers being innervated. This improves endurance performance by lowering the demands of the percentage of motor units that are recruited in each stride.
Also, by increasing the ability to call upon more motor units, force production is increased. This increases the elastic elements of the muscle, which shortens the muscle contraction time to produce the same force, and in return allows more time for the muscle to relax with each stride.
To give you an example of this, think about your leg as a spring.
The stronger the spring, the less you need to pull it back to get the same force production.
The stronger your muscles are, the less effort you have to put into each stride, and the shorter the amount of time your foot is in contact with the ground.
What does all of this mean?
In simple terms, an improved running economy!
An improved running economy is important because you use less energy (oxygen consumption) while running at submaximal speeds, which directly leads to improved performance.
Now, it is important to understand that strength training should not ALWAYS be done heavy.
Lactate threshold can be improved using light to moderate weight, and higher rep ranges (15+).
What is lactate threshold?
Lactate threshold refers to the running intensity in which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the bloodstream.
High repetition strength training performed to near exhaustion will flood the blood with lactate as carbohydrates are continually used. Multiple sets of this training will allow you to flood your blood with lactate and then convert lactate to be used for energy. This in turn, allows a runner to improve their lactate threshold outside of just running.
Finally, the last thing I want to mention is how training your fast twitch fibers via strength training will improve your sprint speed.
Type II fibers, or fast twitch fibers, are not worked to a great extent during typical distance running mileage, although intervals, speed training, and extended long runs do activate these fibers.
However, as previously mentioned maximal strength training directly targets your fast-twitch fibers and improves force production.
When force production is increased relative to your bodyweight, top end speed is increased.
When top end speed is increased, it not only helps with a stronger kick during the final stages of a race, but also allows you to run more efficiently at slower speeds.
Properly programmed strength training as a supplement to your running routine will go a long way in helping you to become more economical, faster, and running at a higher lactate threshold.
Plus, strength training may help fix muscular imbalances, helps to prevent injury, which all-in-all helps you run more and run longer (the single best way to improve running performance).
That is about it for now guys.
Be on the lookout for Distance Running and Strength Training Part 2 – where we go into more detail on how to properly program the two together – in the next couple of weeks.
Noakes, Timothy. Lore of Running. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2003. Print.