Strength Training for Runners & Walkers
Chelsea Hall PT, DPT
Fit For Life Physical Therapy
If you are like most runners and walkers, you would rather spend two hours outside regardless of the weather, running uphill than spending 20 to 30 minutes in a gym. Many think that the best way to become a stronger runner is simply to run more. However, a recent study reviewed the effects of strength training on distance runners. The big take away from this study: adding 2-3 strength workouts a week to your routine can improve your running economy, time trial/race times, and sprint speeds.
The addition of strength training to your weekly program is a safe way to optimize performance without having to increase mileage or intensity of your running workouts. In turn, this can help prevent injury or overtraining. With so many different strengthening exercises available online and at the gym, it can be difficult to know where to begin.
Well, free weight exercises (dumbbells, kettlebells) are usually more beneficial than machines as they require you to recruit stabilizing muscles that are needed for running. Keep it simple by focusing on the following different strengthening movements:
- Squats: There are so many different variations of squats including front squats, back squats, sumo squats, etc. For squats, and each of the following exercises, choose the method that works best for you, focus on form first, and gradually increase weight & repetitions.
- Hip hinge movements: These are important to strengthen the posterior chain that is especially important for running. Examples are Romanian deadlifts, single leg Romanian deadlifts, and kettlebell swings. Again, choose one, focus on form, and gradually increase weight & repetitions.
- Step ups: Gradually increase height of step and weight. Holding one weight in the hand on the opposite side of the leg that is stepping up will incrementally challenge hip and core strength.
- Lunge: There are a few different lunge choices including forward lunge, reverse lunge, side lunge, walking lunges, curtsy lunges, split squats. Notice the theme…select one, focus on form, and gradually increase weight & repetitions.
- Calf raises: The calf complex is important in running as it produces 50-60% of force production in running. There is more than one way to strengthen the calves including straight leg calf raise, bent knee calf raise, single leg calf raise, eccentric calf raise, wall sit heel raise. Performing both straight leg and bent knee calf raises are important to target both calf muscles: the gastrocnemius and soleus muscle.
- Upper body: You do not need big biceps to run a marathon or half marathon. However, if you do nothing to strengthen your upper body, you will have low tolerance to everyday activities (lifting items overhead, lifting children, etc.) that require you to use your upper body, putting you at increased risk for injury in the upper back/shoulder/neck and possibility of missing a running or walking training session. Rows, pushups, and overhead presses are good upper body exercises for runners and walkers.
Should you lift heavy weights or go for a higher number of repetitions? With strength training, we want to challenge the body in a different way than running.
- Performing lighter weights with a higher number of repetitions is going to challenge our body the same way that running does.
- Instead, you may want to focus on higher weights with lower number of repetitions, like 3 sets of 8 repetitions.
- You should choose a weight intensity that is at an intensity level of, say, 7 to 8 out of 10 (5 being easy, 10 meaning you cannot lift the weight) the last couple of repetitions in a set.
If you are new to strength training, focus on form before increasing weight. For beginners, it would be more beneficial to perform several sets of 10-12 repetitions with good form.
How many days a week should you strength train? This new research suggests 2-3 times a week as most beneficial. However, as we all have busy schedules, balancing work, home life, and training 3 times a week can sometimes be tough to accommodate. If you currently are not doing strength training, start by adding one session a week. Once that becomes manageable, build up to twice a week. If that is your limit while balancing other parts of your life, keep it twice a week. If you feel that you can accommodate one more session, add it in to get to 3 times a week.
The offseason is a good time to do higher volume or more days of strength training. As you approach peak racing and training, taper off to 1 to 2 maximal days of strengthening. Additionally, it is best to keep your easy days easy and your hard days hard…so, performing your strength workouts on a tempo run or interval day is best as it allows your body to fully recover on your easy run days.
If strength training is not the most entertaining activity for you, try taking your dumbbells outside, if the weather permits. You can also break up the exercises into a circuit by alternating through exercises instead of doing three sets straight through. Or, even better, grab a friend to keep you accountable.
Strength training can be beneficial to optimize your running performance. However, if you are new to strength training or unsure if you have good form with the exercises, it is particularly important to consult with a professional to not injure yourself. Feel free to contact us at: Info@FitForLifePhysicalTherapy.com or 614-981-1979 with questions or comments. And keep moving!
Blagrove, R.C., Howatson, G. & Hayes, P.R. Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Med 48, 1117–1149 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-017-0835-7
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