The Power of Strength Training for Distance Runners, Part 2
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Published on October 01, 2019

low section of woman picking up kettle weight at gym

The Power of Strength Training for Distance Runners, Part 2

This is the second of two blogs on this topic.

Let’s take a closer look at the physics that go into every runner’s stride.

Each time your foot hits the ground while running, the ground “hits” back. This is called a “ground-reaction force,” and in every person who is trotting along at their easy pace, the average impact at foot strike is about two times your body weight … two times!

And the stronger the muscle — in particular the calves, quads and glutes — the less “up and down” movement of your center of mass as you push off from one foot and land on the other. This is important because the more up and down movement, i.e. center of mass displacement, the more wasted energy there is and the less efficient you are. Believe it or not, excessive center of mass displacement actually causes greater oxygen consumption when running at submaximal speeds.

Are there other benefits of strength training on running performance other than limiting center of mass displacement? Why, yes, there are.

In particular, if you perform what’s called “explosive strength training,” which basically means using a lighter weight and trying to move it quickly, you can impact a neurological phenomenon known as rate of force development (ROFD). Whereas muscle strength refers to how much force a muscle produces, ROFD describes how quickly that force can be produced. These are two very distinct, yet massively important features of your muscular and neuromuscular system that are collectively known as muscle power factors, and which have been shown to be significant contributors to running performance, especially in elite runners.

So at the end of the day (in this scenario, at the end of the summer), be sure to include strength training in your workout routine. It’ll improve your efficiency, which in turn will improve your running performance. And if you’re looking for strength training suggestions, I recommend the following:

  • Use “compound” exercises—exercises that involved multiple joint simultaneously such as squat, lunges, chest presses and rows. Other exercises such as leg extensions and bicep curls are single joint exercises and overall, less effective
  • Use a weight that leaves you working hard to hit 8-10 repetitions. Lots of runners believe in using a really light weight and doing 15-20 repetitions. The research clearly shows this to be a less effective approach — and DOES NOT lead to gains in body mass.
  • Complete 3-4 sets of an exercise and rest for 1.5 to 2 minutes between sets.
  • Design or follow a lifting routine that includes no more than three to six exercises. A strength training program involving more than seven exercises starts to take too long and is easily put aside on a day you feel like you just don’t have time to lift.
  • During a typical week, try to get in two strength training sessions.

Here’s a sample program:

  1. Start with a 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up, i.e. easy running, elliptical or rowing, along with additional movement exercises such as high knees, butt kicks, carioca, toy soldiers, walking RDLs, etc.
  2. Barbell or dumbbell deadlift: 4 x 5 (do these first three in a circuit)
  3. Chest or bench press: 3 x 8-10
  4. Seated or bent over row: 3 x 8-10
  5. Kettlebell or dumbbell front swing: 3 x 5 (do these last two in a circuit as well)
  6. Glute-ham bridges: 3 x 10

Any runner can put together a strength-training program to improve your performance, but remember: it’s not enough to just hit the gym and crank out the reps. You really want to make your time in the gym count and get this biggest bang for your buck. Working with professionals can bring quicker results, and a few quick assessments can get a runner off and running (pun intended) to their best performances yet.

By Derek Ferley, PhD, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, Certified Distance Running Coach with Avera Sports.

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