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Published on September 24, 2019

rear view of woman running outdoors during fall

The Power of Strength Training for Distance Runners

This is part one of a two-part blog.

Daytime highs struggle to hit 80s. Overnight lows dip into the 40s. Yep, fall is on its way. And with it begins the transition from working out in the oppressive heat and humidity-laden elements of the outdoors to the more comfy confines of indoor training. What’s more, after a summer of hundreds of intervals, dozens of hills, hours spent at tempo pace and the weekly long run, fall is the time of year many runners look to trade miles for strength training and one-repetition maximums. But does strength training help or improve running performance?

Answering The Big Question

Let’s start with the main question: does strength training improve running performance? Thankfully, the research is pretty cut and dried: yes, indeed, strength training does help with running. It helps the novice, the experienced and everyone in between. But how? Why? After all, sport science research has demonstrated there are three main variables, measures, determinants—call them whatever you like—that explain the big and small differences among runners, and at first glance none seem like they would be impacted or influenced by strength training.

What are these three key areas, these money-makers of new personal records? Well, here you go:

  • Maximum oxygen consumption, i.e. VO2max
  • The running velocity at which your lactate threshold occurs, i.e. VLT
  • Running Economy, i.e. RE

VO2max refers to the maximum amount oxygen that you can take in and deliver to the working muscle during running. Obviously, the more oxygen you can take in and utilize at the cellular level, the better you’ll perform. Meanwhile, VLT is defined as the speed at which a systematic rise in blood lactate begins.

Lactate is a byproduct of intense exercise (roughly, 75% of maximum effort and above) and gives you that feel of burning in your muscles when you’re working at the upper limits of your capacity. You try running any faster than your VLT and you’ll find yourself limited by the minutes, if not seconds, for how long you can last. Lastly, while RE also refers to the amount of oxygen consumption associated with running, it instead describes how little oxygen you consume at a submaximal effort—in other words, how efficient are you when running at easy paces.

Where Weights Do Their Work

So does strength training impact any of these three measures? Hmm, let’s see. Does lifting weights do anything to impact VO2max? Yeah, not so much.

See, the way to deliver more oxygen to the working muscle is to have more a) roads to deliver the oxygen, i.e. capillaries; and b) machines to produce the oxygen, i.e. mitochondria. While running in and of itself leads to increased capillarization and mitochondrial density, strength training hasn’t been shown to significantly impact these two features.

OK, how about VLT, does strength training do anything to increase the speed at which you can run before building up all that nasty lactate that in the end leads you to crash and burn? Yes, you guessed right…no. Turns out if you want to increase your VLT then the best way to go about doing so involves heading to the track and churning out those above-race pace 400s, 800s and mile repeats with just the right amount of rest between sets—but not too little and not too much. Shoot, not even doing a bunch of tempo training at your lactate threshold (the speed at which your tempo training should be done) improves your VLT.

Well, I guess by process of elimination that leaves RE.

Ding, ding, ding! Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

So how does strength training help with consuming less oxygen at submaximal running speeds and allowing a runner to be more efficient at churning out the miles? Though many things like clothing, shoes and your running mechanics can enhance RE, muscle strength (defined as a muscle’s ability to produce maximum force) has been shown to significantly enhance efficiency of movement? OK, how? Well, think back to your high school physics class: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Huh?

For now, that’s it. In Part 2 of this blog we’ll further explain how these key areas work together as well as offer some suggestions for getting involved with strength training.

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

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