Whether or not you consider yourself an athlete, in my opinion, once you sign up for a race and put the date in the calendar and begin training for it you have undertaken an athletic pursuit. You have an end date to a training cycle in which you are expected to perform. Even if you are a mid pack or back of the pack recreational runner, you have committed to completing a distance ranging from 3.1, 6.2, 13.1, or 26.2 miles (or more for some folks). Whether its your first road or trail race or 100th, accomplishing this feat requires you to train in a periodized manner. Aerobic endurance sports are very highly specific. For the most part, we know what to expect whether you are running a race or competing in a triathlon, we know what the physical demands are as opposed to a football player or soccer player who will be required to assume different positions, change directions rapidly, and employ strength and intense efforts of varying degrees during competition.
Despite the lack of variance of movement in running, strength training is still incredibly important and most often overlooked. Many of the one size fits all training programs online address strength training by leaving one day aside during the week for "cross training." Online coaches tell folks that strength training is important but give very little guidance on how to do it. This gives new runners the impression that strength training isn't that important for runners, because after all, if it was important wouldn't the training programs online all give direction on how to do it?
Many runners are intimidated to begin strength training because many of them A) don't know where to begin, B) are afraid of developing too much hypertrophy (muscle growth). The purpose of this article is to lay the foundation for strength training for runners while dismissing the myth of too much muscle building.
Like I said before, training towards running your first or 100th race is an athletic pursuit. Running is much different than field and court sports in that the task being performed is very predictable and may not require the same explosive strength and speed as those sports, this however does not mean that running is void of a requirement of any kind of requisite strength. To understand why this is we have to look at the different movement patterns involved in running.
Running in a straight line may seem simple enough until you break down the components of the movement. Despite the fact that your body is simply moving in a straight line relying primarily on flexion and extension of the hips and knees, your hips and pelvis are working together to maintain stability around the Y and Z axis' of rotation. Think about someone finishing a long run. As they become more fatigued you may notice a great deal of rotation in their hips. Ever see someone running and notice a lot of translational movement in their hips like over rotation and a lot of up and down movement? That drains a great deal of energy from the runner and places a lot of undue stress on the pelvis and low back. Strength training for runners helps to stabilize that movement pattern.
Next, when we are running we are essentially "jumping" from one foot to the other in succession for many miles. When the foot lands, the leg is required to absorb that energy (eccentric movement), stabilize the runner's stride, and push off into the next stride (concentric movement). This is a very dynamic movement which requires motor unit recruitment from the calf muscles, quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, and stabilization from the core muscle groups. Strength training those areas allows the body to recruit more muscle fibers and limits the amount of fatigue occurring in those groups. Increasing the body's ability to recruit more muscle fibers should be one of the main goals of a strength program for runners.
Last, we have to destroy the myth of becoming too "bulky" from strength training. There are 2 main ways to increase strength of a muscle. Number 1, we increase the muscle's ability to recruit motor units and muscle fibers. This is largely a neuromuscular phenomenon and is the first aspect of strength to be developed (and is why novice weight lifters see such rapid increases in strength when they first start strength training). The second way to increase strength is through myofibril hypertrophy or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which are fancy ways of saying "making muscles bigger." Running strength training programs should be geared towards the first aspect of strength. The best way we have found to do this is through periodizing and prioritizing strength training throughout the entire year. As a runner, you should have a dedicated off season, pre season, and in season. Yes, there should be periods of time during the year when you are not running at all. This is the perfect time to focus on strength training and maintaining conditioning via other activities that you enjoy like cross country skiing, rowing, cycling etc. But this is the period where we focus on making primary strength gains in the weight room as well. Pre season and in season strength training should be geared primarily towards maintaining the neurological changes you accomplished in the off season. For example, I am currently training for my rim to rim to rim grand canyon run, and I will have a half marathon in September which I will use as a warm up race for the canyon (and to qualify for my main race next year which will be the pike's peak ascent). I am in my "pre season" for 2 more weeks. I am currently strength training 2-3 days per week at just high enough of an intensity to maintain the movement patterns. When I get to my 18 week "in season" training, I will strength train 2 days a week at a similar intensity but making sure that it does not interfere with the primary goal of preparing for my 2 races.
The fear of hypertrophy (adding too much bulk to a runner's body) is very far fetched. In the past I have work very hard at becoming bulky. Gaining weight in the weight room requires 4-6 days of heavy weightlifting, and eating like a horse to gain size and mass. It requires a caloric surplus (eating way more calories than you burn), and a lifestyle dedicated to building mass. Lifting 2-3 days a week at a moderate intensity is not sufficient for building mass. I promise you. What I am saying is that building muscle to an appreciable degree does not happen by accident. It requires a substantial amount of effort to gain large amounts of muscle size, and it certainly doesn't happen overnight. Periodizing training throughout the year allows you to avoid this from happening, and when the mileage increases in your endurance training you will see that it is very difficult to see hypertrophy gains.
In the next article, we will discuss the factors that running strength training should be geared towards and how to build a baseline of foundational strength and function.