Runners are always in search of ways to get faster. Whether you’re a new runner or an experienced one, setting PRs and challenging yourself at a variety of distances is rewarding.
While running workouts such as intervals and tempos are critical to your speed development, runners often neglect another essential component to developing speed: strength work.
THE CASE FOR STRENGTH TRAINING
There’s a collective groan that arises when you tell runners they need to do something other than run if they want to get faster. But the time and effort required to add strength training to your routine is less than you think and well worth the effort.
With consistent strength training, runners will see improvement in three critical areas:
Avoiding injury should be one of every runner’s top goals. If you’re injured, you can’t train consistently, and if you can’t train consistently, you won’t improve.
Strength training benefits your muscles, tendons and ligaments by developing the structural foundation that supports your running. If you’re not strong enough, other body areas have to compensate and will often break down under duress.
GREATER STRENGTH AND ATHLETICISM
While running is an incredible way to develop endurance, running alone won’t make you a well-rounded athlete. Running only develops your ability to move in one plane of motion and contributes little to your foundational strength. Core strength and general athleticism support a consistent effort when you get fatigued during a long run or race.
IMPROVED RUNNING ECONOMY
Running is really just a series of one-legged squats, repeated over and over again. If you can’t control your movements efficiently through this range of motion, you may end up injured.
Strength training benefits your running economy, which is your ability to move efficiently and reduce your oxygen demand. Improved efficiency allows you to race harder and faster over longer distances (at the same effort).
MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT STRENGTH TRAINING
Runners often have a number of misconceptions about strength training, especially when it comes to lifting heavier weights.
- Strength training doesn’t require endless hours in the gym. While a gym is useful, most training can be completed at home with minimal equipment. The routines can (and should!) be short and efficient.
- You won’t “bulk up.” Bodybuilders target specific muscles and drastically modify their diet and calorie consumption to look the way they do. Runners are training for strength, not muscle hypertrophy (enlargement). When you’re running and not targeting muscle size, you’ll rarely see a significant change.
- Strength training follows a progression and isn’t a static routine. Just like with running, you need a new stimulus to continue to improve. If you’re new to strength work, start with a bodyweight routine at home and progress to heavier weights as you improve.
- Don’t lift for endurance. Running is already your stimulus for endurance. When you are supplementing your running you should be training for strength, which eventually means fewer reps and heavier weights.
THE VALUE OF BODYWEIGHT TRAINING
If strength training hasn’t previously been part of your routine, bodyweight workouts allow you to experience the benefits of strength training with minimal risk. Always start conservatively — you can easily add more reps and sets to your routine once your body acclimates.
While there are endless options for exercises, those that replicate the movements required for running will be most beneficial. A series of varied exercises helps runners build strength, movement fluency and resilience to injury.
A few to focus on include the following:
Lunges: Lunges are a wonderful exercise because of how much variety and range of movement they can encompass. Front and reverse lunges, side lunges and walking lunges are all great places to start.
Squats: One of the most valuable strength exercises for runners, this classic strength movement builds strength and enhances proper range of motion.
Single-leg squats: This is fairly advanced, so make sure you are comfortable with regular squats before attempting. Practice improves your squat depth and range of motion.
Single-leg deadlifts: These are challenging too. Focus on form and start with just one set until you are comfortable with the movement.
WEIGHTLIFTING: THE IMPORTANCE OF PROGRESSION
Strength training is most effective when it follows a progression. You risk limiting your progress if you don’t push beyond bodyweight strength when you’re ready. Start by adding weight to the exercises you have mastered with bodyweight alone. Once these become easy for you, it’s time to try some new movements.
Unlike bodybuilding, strength training for running is training for movement, not just isolated muscles. The best exercises are, therefore, compound movements that use the same variety of muscles you will use while running.
These include deadlifts, squats, cleans, jerks, bench presses and overhead presses. If these are new to you, make sure you have a trainer or knowledgeable coach show you the proper form so you avoid injury.
While it may take some time to make strength training part of your routine, the effort will pay off in your body’s ability to train hard with a lower risk of injury. Start at a level that’s appropriate for you, and remember consistency and frequency always trump length. Continue to vary your routine and add new exercises and weight as you improve.
As consistent strength training reduces your injury risk and improves your speed and running economy, you’ll be better able to handle the training volume that paves the way to new PRs.