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#TherapyThursday: Strength Training for the Runner

By Jon Habeshy, BS, PTA, CSCS, 09/13/18, 9:15PM EDT

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Strength training is often something runners often avoid as part of their workouts. This idea comes from old school thinking of muscle men becoming “bound up”, “immobile”, and “slow.” When strength training principles are properly applied within the context of the athlete’s goals, it will actually enhance their performance and buffer them from injury.

 

I hate to break it you runners, but as a health care provider and trainer, you should not be running to get in shape! Rather, you need to get in shape so you can run! The ability to run is a motor skill, and that motor skill will be lost if it’s not continued throughout life. If you are starting to run again after not running for several years, you may be setting yourself up for a host of orthopedic problems down the road. Strength training is part of the general physical preparation needed to run safely.

 

What can a runner accomplish through strength training? There are several qualities that will carry over into more effective and safer running:

 

  1. Muscle Strength: All movement that we do starts with strength—from rolling over to getting out of bed. You certainly need muscle strength to run. Running can get you stronger, but it won’t be as efficient as combining strength training with your running program.
  2. Muscular Power: If you are racing then you need to be able to exert some muscular power as you get towards the finish line, especially in a close race. It would benefit you to be able to exert some power when it’s needed.
  3. Local Muscular Endurance: Everything starts with strength. Beyond that, your muscles need to be able to tolerate a lot of contractions through a short range of motion (e.g. short compared to weight lifting exercises). The shorter the race, the more likely your strides will be longer and you exert more power. I recommend challenging your muscles in a higher rep-range (15 to 20) and full range-of-motion.
  4. Muscular hypertrophy: this may or may not be a big deal to some runners but let’s be honest, most of us got into fitness because we wanted to look better. Running is great exercise but it does very little to improve your appearance and the reasons for that are beyond the scope of this article.

 

Here are some guidelines that I recommend strength training if your primary activity is running:

 

  1. Full-body workouts: A runner’s goal isn’t to maximize muscle hypertrophy or to get “huge biceps and delts, bro!” A simple general strength training routine that covers all of your 6 foundational movement patterns in each workout should do. Adding adding a little bit of direct ab work or arm work is okay, but not necessary. Also consider that you don’t want to start spending all of your time exercise to strength training. A runner most likely will not have time for an “arm day.” You want to be able to spend maybe 30 to 45 minutes on strength training, then the rest on running, if that’s your main goal. Here is a sample full-body workout for a runner that can be done 3 times a week. After a general warm-up (e.g. light running) and specific warm-up with full-body dynamic stretches, you can do this workout:

Exercise

Sets (1 warm-up set)

Repetitions

Rest Intervals

KB Goblet Squat

1 to 3

15 to 20

60 seconds

DB Flat Bench Press

1 to 3

15 to 20

60 seconds

Pull-ups

1 to 3

AMRAP

60 seconds

Step-ups w/ DB’s

1 to 3

10 to 12 each

30 seconds between limbs

KB swing or Romanian Deadlift

1 to 3

20

30 seconds

DB Farmer’s Carry

1 to 3

Up to 100 feet

60 seconds

Side-steps w/ bands

1 to 3

100 from each side

60 seconds

Feel free to substitute variations of each exercise. Notice, however, that 3 of these exercises utilize dumbbells and 2 utilize kettlebells. The idea is the use of simple equipment so you can get in and go and get back to running! Make sure that the loads you choose are still challenging within that rep-range. If you’re getting to 20 reps without much effort then it’s time to up the weight!

You may also notice that the final exercise is a side-stepping variation. It’s important to include movements that are outside the plane of movement within the activity we are doing. Running is performed in the sagittal plane (imagine running through a blade going down your midline splitting your body into symmetrical sides, that’s the sagittal plane). By strengthening your body in multiple planes, you strengthen yourself from overuse injuries.

  1. Separate your running workouts from your strength training if possible. If you combine running and strength all in one sitting, one of those activities will impede the other. A suggestion is to warm-up with 10 to 15 minutes of running, perform your strength training workout, and finish your running workout at the end. This sequence is based on the body’s use of different substrates for different activities. Your body is primed to use muscle glycogen, which will serve you better when training for resistance. If you can keep your long runs separate from lifting, that is the best option.
     
  2. Higher repetitions are best. Another reason runners often shy away from strength training is the assumption that they may have to lift heavy weights using low repetitions. This fear of using heavy weights comes from the idea their muscles ability to endure contractions for long periods of time while diminish. Our muscles adapt to whatever stimulus thrown at them. If you’re training for maximal strength, which would be low repetitions generally, your muscles will adapt to that. Your body can even undergo muscle fiber-type conversions to some extent based on the type of training you perform. You can certainly increase your strength even when training in a higher range of repetitions. Higher repetitions lend themselves best to developing local muscular endurance, which is what runners are after.

Periodize your running and your strength training. In almost every other sport, the athlete will taper down on their strength training during their competitive season. During the offseason, the athlete spends more time strength training and less time practicing in their chosen sport. This is the basic premise of periodization. If you are racing in 1 to 2 weeks, it may be a good idea just to take a break from resistance training altogether.

I recommend periodizing your strength training workouts around your running workouts. Most runners I know follow some sort of training plan that involves gradually ramping up the volume of running from week to week. This is either done in a linear or a non-linear fashion (2 steps up, 1 step back, etc…). If this is the case for you, then gradually decrease the volume and frequency of your strength training sessions. This involves going from 3 sessions per week at 3 working sets per exercise to 1 or no sessions per week with 1 set per exercise. Essentially your training emphasis will be inverted as you get closer to the race to focus more of your time (and recovery ability) on running!

 

The following program is a 16-week strength training periodization plan that runs concurrently with an 18 week runner’s training plan. This program was designed for a client who runs full marathons. You can certainly adapt it to your own needs. Here it is:

 

PHASE I - 8 weeks

3 strength training sessions per week; 35 miles per week (8-9 miles on non-training days; 3-4 miles on training days; 1 day off per week)

PHASE II - 4 weeks

2 strength training sessions per week; 45 miles per week (10-12 miles on non-training days; 3-4 miles on training days)

PHASE III - 4 weeks

1 strength training session per week; 55 miles per week (12-15 miles on non-training days; 3-4 miles on training days)

PHASE I

Sets per Exercise

Goal Repetitions

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

1

2

3

3

15

15

15

15

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

Week 1

Week 2

Week 3

Week 4

2

2

3

3

20

20

20

20

PHASE II

Sets per Exercise

Goal Repetitions

Week 9

Week 10

Week 11

Week 12

Week 9

Week 10

Week 11

Week 12

1

2

3

3

15

15

15

15

PHASE III

Sets per Exercise

Goal Repetitions

Week 13

Week 14

Week 15

Week 16

Week 13

Week 14

Week 15

Week 16

3

3

2

1

20

20

20

20