As I prepared to write about best practices related to strength training and running, I came to the conclusion that strength training is the “third rail” of running. I had expected there to be some level of consensus on what and how much to do, only to find that there are many disagreements over the value and the impact of strength training in a running program.
Advocates tout the positives ranging from muscle and joint stability, improving stride power, and injury reduction. Whereas opponents say that you build strength by running and that strength training has little to no direct impact on running performance.
I am an advocate of strength training during any training program whether for running or just general fitness. I am not physically built like the traditional runner. I am tall, but with a large body frame, and am not as lean as many runners are. Personally, I feel that strength training has really helped me improve as I train and race. When I started racing in 2006, my main focus was just finishing the race; time goals did not enter my mind until later. As I started to have a desire to get quicker, I knew that running alone was not going to work for me. As a bigger guy, I knew I needed to strengthen my legs to get faster (by increasing my turnover rate), so I started lifting weights. I focused on squats, leg curls, leg extension, and then to address some glaring weaknesses, added hip adductions and abductions along with some upper body work to maintain fitness and weight loss.
Over the course of the next year, my half time dropped by over 14 minutes, and 4 years later my PR had dropped over 32 minutes. In the interest of full disclosure, I also incorporated some speed work into my training, such as intervals and tempo runs, but I am convinced that I could not have accomplished this without building the base strength in my legs.
I know that my experiences alone cannot be considered scientific proof, but I am convinced that strength training can help everyone. Everyone can benefit from the confidence you gain knowing you have the strength in your legs to power up a hill, or take the pounding from a downhill. I have reminded myself in a training run or even a race that I have the strength to make if up this hill, and it really helps. Upper body work can also help with form and the ability to have shoulders strong enough to carry your arms throughout a race without getting tired and sore.
I would completely miss the mark if I did not mention the importance of core strength in running. Your core muscles connect your trunk, pelvis, abs, hips, lower back, and obliques. As you strengthen these muscles you will be able to maintain posture and form throughout the run (especially at the end when fatigue tends to breakdown posture) which will then help maintain speed. The exercises below are the ones that I incorporate into my workout routine and which muscles they work:
1. Squats: quadriceps, gluteus (butt), hamstrings, spinal erectors. Grouping these muscles also work core strength. Note: Squats with a barbell can shock some of the muscles in your legs so start slow with less weight until these muscles “wake up”.
2. Leg Extensions: Quadriceps
3. Leg Curls: Hamstrings
4. Hip Abductors: Gluteus Medius & Minimum (lower outside of butt)
5. Hip Adductors: Groin
6. Lunges: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, calf, hip flexors, lower back, lower abs, gluteus
7. Planks: Core
8. Side Planks: Core, obliques
9. Dumbbell Twists: Core and Lower back
10. Fitness Ball sit ups: abs and lower back I also do some upper body work including bench, seated row, fly, and curls to work on shoulder and chest strength.
Some of these exercises are done on circuit machines which tend to have a singular focus, while lifts like squats, lunges, and planks are done with free weights or barbells which forces different muscle groups to work together to maintain balance and form.
Strength training continues to be a controversial running topic, but I have found that it works for me, and is a necessary part of my training. If nothing else it gives me confidence to maintain effort up a hill or to finish strong knowing that my legs can take it. A common theme in running is everyone is different, but if you are in a rut or want to try to push through to the next level, try adding some strength training to your running schedule, it may help.
Here’s to you reaching all of your running goals in 2012.