Strength training for endurance runners (part 3)

Parts 1 and 2 of this series explain why strength is beneficial for runners – if this isn’t immediately obvious have a read here, part 1, part 2. In the current article, I’ll give you a start point for your own strength training and some examples of what works and why. That said, there is no replacement for good, personalised strength coaching which in my opinion (I may be slightly bias) is the most under utilised aspect of training for running performance. Running technically well and often makes you better at running. If however, you only ever run, your body has an untapped potential in strength. This strength comes in many forms – strength endurance, maximal strength, power, tissue robustness to name a few. Good athletes will work through phases that emphasise one or two of these qualities at a time – there are many ways to do this which I’ll discuss in a later post. Trying to improve many or all of these qualities simultaneously can lead to seeing little change at best and improving none at worst.

Once you’ve identified which of the qualities you require most, a certain portion of your training should be dedicated to this for at least a couple of weeks if not longer – 6 weeks would be my upper limit so that other things don’t get neglected too long. In doing so you must understand how to improve this quality and this is where a professional strength and conditioning coach saves you a lot of time. A good coach will know how many reps, sets, workouts per week, length of rest periods, tempo and technique of exercises are required and be able to plan these aspects into a longer term schedule along side your running training. Remember, to get better at running, you need to run BUT not only run.

There are however, some recommendations that will apply to most if not all runners. No matter the distance or discipline, being stronger and more coordinated in the legs, trunk and even arms can make you run better and faster.

Whole body strength: Exercises like squats and deadlifts work the entire body when done correctly (correctly being the key point!). Both exercises require a certain amount of mobility and flexibility and actually performing the exercises themselves can help you gain it. See this link on squat form. There are tons of variations on the squat exercise (see this front squat variation here and this goblet squat variation here) and finding the ones that you can perform well would be where a strength coach can point you in the right direction. Alone it's more a case of trial and error – just be sensible about using additional weight if it’s the first time you are performing an exercise!

Good deadlift technique is similar in that it requires whole body strength but requires adequate range of motion to be safe. If the lower back arches over (i.e. rounds instead of staying arched) then you are at greater risk of injury. Doing it correctly will make your lower back, hamstrings and glutes stronger. As a runner you should care about this! Like the squat, there are numerous variations on the deadlift – have a look at how to perform a Romanian deadlift here.

Trunk training (also annoyingly referred to as ‘core stability’) has been an overcomplicated area in the last decade. The key role of the lower trunk in running is to allow efficient transfer of force from the legs to move the body forwards. It does this by staying pretty stiff and still. The limbs rotate around it. If the muscles of the trunk are too weak or lack enough endurance, the whole system moves around too much. This is a problem because it doesn’t effectively transfer force so wastes energy, but importantly also is the reason for many back and hip injuries. Note that while some injuries show up in the trunk/spine region, the cause is not always local. If certain areas are restricted or even hyper-mobile, other areas can compensate causing problems.

Knowing that the lower part of the trunk is not really designed to move a huge amount, exercises should be aimed at improving the rigidity and stability of this region. This is where the whole ‘core stability’ thing originated. Exercises like planks, side planks, supermans and anti-rotation holds or woodchops all provide a stimulus to increase the endurance of the trunk musculature. This really doesn’t need to be overcomplicated with unstable surfaces like bosu’s and swiss balls which have their place in rehab but don’t transfer well to improving performance.

Regardless of the exercise or body part, to get stronger or improve endurance, you must continually increase the demands on the body. Progression should be small and consistent to ensure continued success and prevent cheating exercises or poor form.

Although I still thoroughly recommend everyone who reads this goes and gets assessed by a professional and coached through every stage of their strength training, I know it's not likely everyone can or will. So make use of the resources out there and hunt down reputable sources of information of which there are many. Above all else, remember: Stronger is faster.


Guest Author: Alex Adams BSc, ASCC, CSCS

Alex has worked in the fitness industry for 11 years, working with clients ranging from elite athletes to general population. Currently based at Performance Pro in London, Alex coaches olympic weightlifting and strength and conditioning as well as presenting and tutoring on both subjects.