Strength and conditioning for distance runners

As a running coach, there are some questions I am often asked about S&C training. Should distance runners do it at all? It does not look like something specific to running, so what is the point? Isn’t it better to just run uphill?  If we do S&C how should we go about it? I want to give my view on that. (Gary Howells Run Coaching)

Many professional runners do S&C, like squats, deadlifts and lunges. 

I don’t believe S&C should be seen as something magic, which will enable you to break all your personal bests, but it can definitely contribute to being a better runner.

Why should you do S&C?

For me, there are 3 reasons for doing S&C:

        1      When we lift weights in the proper way, we recruit more muscle fibres than when we run. We call this neuromuscular stimulation: we teach the body (brain, spinal cord) to send signals to other parts of our muscles. Parts that we normally don’t use when we run. We hope/think, that stimulating these other muscle parts, will lead to us being able to ALSO recruit these muscles when we run, not only when lifting weights and of course we do other stuff, like hill running, to teach our body to continue stimulating these muscles.

        2      By putting a high load on our body, we make all structures, including tendons and joints, stronger. From my experience, runners who do regular S&C training are able to handle a higher training load, in terms of mileage. They can simply train harder without getting injured.

        3      Research shows that stretching in isolation probably does not help in making us more flexible, or in contributing to an increased range of motion whilst running. However, stretching in combination with a weight, does seem to help. So for instance, if you make a lunge, which means you basically make a large stride/step while you carry a weight, that can promote a bigger range of motion (and this will give you a bigger stride when running). 

For me, all three of these points are significant and provide a positive reason to utilise S&C training as distance runners.

One major difference between professional runners and amateur runners is stride length. Professional distance runners are able to use longer strides over a longer period of time. This is also the case when we look at professional marathon runners.

Of course, we can’t simply say that this is all because of strength, otherwise all weight lifters would be great runners.

Usain Bolt who can make very big strides, would be the best distance runner of all time. It has first and foremost to do with their lungs, heart and other muscles being able to transport and use large amounts of oxygen (which is something that is lacking in Bolt, so he can only maintain those long strides for a short moment). Secondly, it has to do with their (Achilles) tendons being able to work as an elastic band, so they use their bodies natural ‘spring’ Facia system to propel themselves forward (which can also be trained, by the way).

However, at the same time, we should not deny the strength/power component. Many runners could increase stride length and improve running form generally, if they  incorporated some strength and power work. Doing S&C is the base for that! If you combine that, or follow it up, with plyometric exercises (jumping), hill sprints, longer hill workouts and in general fast running, you teach the body to translate that strength that you built in the gym, into power. Power means that you can apply that strength very fast, which is what you need when you run. Ideally, when running, we touch the ground each step for only 0.1 seconds if we run at a cadence of 180-190 so we have to apply our strength in that 0.1 second (which is called power). So by working on strength and power, we increase your stride length (improve our running form) and learn to maintain that stride length during the race (which we call strength endurance).

Many runners ‘sit down’ a bit when they run, which means they waste energy and it impacts their performance. This can often be attributed to weak hamstrings. 

Training the hamstring by doing weight exercises, can therefore be the first step in helping them to improve their running form.

So this is why I give many of my runners S&C / Weight training. I don’t expect any fast result from it, I don’t expect miracles to happen, it’s just part of the whole process and it’s something that over the long term will pay off. It will help them to have the best possible running form and will help them to train harder compared to those who don’t do weight training because their tolerance to workload has increased, (they don’t break down/become injured). I call this long and strong runners. 

How to incorporate weight training into my running program?

How do we do weight training? We take 3-4 exercises. Each exercise we do 2-3 sets of 8 repetitions. Not more than that. This is because we are in the gym to teach our body to recruit more muscle fibers (which is our way of getting stronger), so we need a high weight and a small number of repetitions. We don’t want our muscles to grow big, so we don’t do too many repetitions. We also have to consider that weight training is only a small part of the overall program and that the athletes do not have unlimited reserves of energy to give to this side of the training. If it heavily impacts their main training (the running) then we have missed the point completely.

We don’t go to exhaustion, but we still do a relatively high weight. For instance, when my runners do squats, I tell them; “You should do 8 reps and feel like you could do another 2-3 more, but not 8 more. If it feels easy, add some weight”. Especially with the squat exercise, we start with a decent but comfortable weight and try to add some weight once in 2-3 weeks. They go up to 150% of their body weight.

How often should runners use weight training?

Do this once a week for a great part of the season. We stop with it only a few weeks before your “A” Race. In the beginning you will feel some stiffness and muscle pain, but after a while that gets less or is entirely gone. Still, I prefer to give weights the day before an easy run or a long run, so that it does not affect you. Or, if there is no other option, the day before a lactic threshold session. We don’t do weights the day before an important track workout and definitely not the day before hill sprints.

For me the 4 most important weight exercises are:

        1      Squats (Either with 2 legs, or in a split stance position)

        2      Lunges

        3      Straight Leg Deadlift 

      4   Romanian Dead lifts

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