Strength training for distance running
While most runners will incorporate some kind of strength training into their fitness programme, both distance runners and personal trainers tend to have varying opinions about how much strength training is required. This blog looks as strength training for distance runners and how it relates to a runner’s ultimate performance.
Running coaches and strength training
A fitness professional working with a distance runner will often start by looking at a specific event that the runner is competing in and devise a training programme to bring the optimum results for that race. However, running coaches often hold very different opinions on how much strength training is necessary and what sort of exercises should be followed.
This can range from any of the following:
- very little or no strength training
- high-intensity power training
- high-volume strength endurance training, such as circuits.
The fitness professional’s recommendations can also vary depending on the distance involved, for example they may recommend some strength training for a fast middle-distance event such as a 1,500m race, but not for a marathon.
Each trainer is likely to base their opinions on their own personal views and experiences of strength training, which can vary significantly from person to person, rather than on scientific research, whether evidence-based or theoretical.
How can strength training help distance runners?
There are two aspects of distance running that can be improved by strength training:
- Increasing maximum speed
- Improving running economy
Improving sprint ability through strength training
Although there isn’t much research available on the best combination of exercises for long-distance runners, there is evidence that sprinting can be improved by strength training. Fitness professionals training elite sprinters will usually combine a programme of sprint training with one off maximal strength training, including explosive weight training at maximal power loads.
Middle distance races, such as 800m or 1,500m, are run at a relatively fast pace and so athletes competing at these distances can also benefit from improving their maximum speed through strength training.
However, when training an athlete for longer races, a running coach will not always see strength training as an essential part of the training regime. Nonetheless, there has been research to indicate that sprint ability is relevant over long distances too, both during the main part of the race and for the sprint finish.
If a runner’s top speed is 15 miles an hour and their long-distance speed is 80% of this, they will average 12 miles an hour when distance running. However, if they can increase their top speed to 20 miles an hour, their long-distance speed at 80% will now be 16 miles an hour.
In conclusion, both middle-distance and long-distance runners can benefit from improving their maximum speed through strength training. However, while they may perform the same kind of strength training exercises as a sprinter, they will not need to perform them as often.
Strength training to improve running economy
While VO2 max levels tend to be high across all distance runners, the variation between winners and losers is often down to how economically they run.
All runners need to propel their body upwards as well as forwards, but studies have shown that some runners waste energy by lifting their centre of mass up further with each stride than other runners– in some cases as much as 4cm higher. Runners who have a higher horizontal braking force when their feet hit the ground also tend to run less economically.
Running technique is clearly an important factor for a fitness professional to consider when coaching a long-distance runner. The biomechanics of running will naturally include the co-contraction of the leg muscles as a runner’s foot hits the ground and the use of the hip extensors to propel the runner forward again. Increased leg spring stiffness, developed through strength training, has also been found to be beneficial.
In other words, running economy is predicted not only on an athlete’s aerobic power but also on their neuromuscular efficiency. This suggests that strength training can play an important part for the major leg muscles by improving muscle strength and co-ordination.
What kind of strength training can benefit long-distance runners?
Fitness instructors and coaches working with long-distance runners are likely to focus on strength training for the lower body, including maximal strength, explosive strength and plyometric training methods.
This can include compound exercises such as:
- step ups
as well as some whole body training.
A fitness instructor should remember that the aim of strength training for long distance runners is to influence the neuromuscular system rather than to build muscle mass. While maximal strength training can be used to recruit a large number of motor units, plyometrics should only be introduced once the individual being trained has built up their strength levels (see our blogs on Resistance exercise: How to avoid overtraining and Going to failure in strength training).
By increasing their maximum speed and improving their running economy, an athlete can develop that all-important edge over their competitors – and the right kind and level of strength training can help them do both. As with any training method, a fitness instructor should introduce new techniques gradually to avoid injury and base them around the athlete’s current fitness levels, abilities and goals.