Runners often either love, hate or endure strength training as a necessary evil. However is strength training necessary for runners, and if so how do we sell it to our athletes as personal trainers or health professionals?
Many people are under the notion that Strength Training (ST) isn’t helpful for runners and in some cases that it can have a detrimental impact on performance. Common arguments heard are “ST will make me bulky and therefore slow” and “with that time I could be running and therefore getting faster”.
However with the rise of strength and conditioning popularity over the last few years, ST is becoming more widely accepted in running circles, and I have had more and more runners coming to me for advice on how ST works for runners, and how to implement it.
To explore how ST could be beneficial for runners, it is necessary to look at a number of different components of running and the possible positive or negative effects of each. This was summarised excellently in a 2003 article by Jung.
VO2 Max is a measure used to determine an individual’s fitness. It is the runner’s maximum capacity to absorb, transport and use oxygen during exercise and is measured as the number of ml of oxygen per kg of body weight. Whilst having the highest VO2 Max value does not necessarily equate to the winning of a race, runners who perform well in races will typically possess high VO2 Max values (Jung 2003) and for this reason, it is a goal of many distance runners to improve their VO2 Max. A negative impact of ST would be if VO2 Max went down, however research shows this is not the case. In fact, studies have shown that ST can be helpful in increasing VO2 Max in untrained individuals, but has no benefit in already trained endurance athletes. A fear in runners is that ST can lead to increase in muscle mass and hence a reduction in VO2 Max, but this is contradicted by the findings above.
Lactate Threshold (LT) is the level of exercise at which lactic acid begins to form in the blood faster than it can be removed and is commonly accepted as an important factor in predicting distance running performance (Jung, 2003). Similar to VO2 Max, the evidence doesn’t show a significant improvement of LT when ST is added. One study showed an improvement in untrained individuals, but no studies have showed improvements in trained runners. Importantly again however no studies have showed a ST caused a reduction in LT.
Running economy involves the link between VO2 Max and running velocity, or in other words how much oxygen is needed to run at a given speed. Imagine having two runners who have the same VO2 Max running at the same speed but one being much more efficient and therefore not needing to use as much oxygen to do so. The more efficient runner therefore has more saved in the tank and could cover the same distance faster if needed, or maintain the same speed for a longer distance.
Many studies show that ST improves running economy, Jones and Bampouras (2007) (Jang) highlighted a strong relationship between distance running performance and running economy. A study by Paavolainen and colleagues in (Jung) 1999 found 9 weeks of explosive ST improved running economy by 8.1% in trained-distance runners, resulting in a 3.1% time improvement over 5km.
The exact mechanisms of how ST improves running economy isn’t entirely known, however the key component of running economy is the ability to store and return energy from muscles and tendons in the runners legs, termed the stretch-shortening cycle. ST is believed to help improve this stretch-shortening cycle so the runners ground contact time decreases.
From a simpler point of view, imagine the maximum force you could exert was 100kg through your legs, and when running you had to exert this full 100kg every stride. If you increased your maximum force possible up to 125kg with the amount needed per stride staying at 100kg, surely this would make running easier?
Those who have read previous blogs on injuries or who have suffered injuries themselves will know that ST is a vital component of rehabilitation. It certainly isn’t the sole exercise or modality used in rehabilitation programmes, but does play an essential role in the big three: strength, balance and flexibility. The goals of a runner after injury and the type of injury will determine the importance of ST and how it should be employed. Identifying weaknesses usually requires the help of a Physio or other health professional who can assist with the implementation of a ST programme whilst decreasing the risk of aggravating symptoms.
As discussed, ST can be a vital component for injury rehabilitation but does it help prevent injury? It makes sense that ST could reduce injury. A large source of injury is due to tissue loading outweighing tissue tolerance. Lauersen and colleagues in 2013 analysed the available research to determine the effectiveness of ST in preventing sports injuries. The conclusion:
“Strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved“
Another study in 2013, by Kristensen and Franklyn-Miller, highlighted the role of ST in reducing the risk of injury. It stated that a high intensity approach using weights above 70% of 1 Rep Max is more effective than a low intensity approach, however a gradual introduction to heavy loads is necessary.
Strength training has increased in popularity over the last few decades for endurance athletes including runners, and the research backs up its implementation. Strength training appears to have no positive or negative effects on VO2 Max or lactate threshold, but can improve performance by improving running economy and reducing the risk of injury.
“ Intelligent use of the weight room, just like intelligent implementation of a running programme, can have dramatic influences on the success of the competitor. This success can be defined as faster running times, but can also…include reduced injury risk….” Erikson 2005
This statement suggests intelligent use of strength training. Implementing strength training incorrectly could increase training volume and demand upon the tissues and therefore increase injury risk. There is an ever growing number of professionals qualified in strength and conditioning so don’t run the risk of getting it wrong, but start using strength training and lift yourself to faster run times.
By Kevin Tucker
Erickson T.M. The Benefits of Strength Training for endurance athletes. NSCA Performance Training journal . 4(2) 13-17
Jones P & Bampouras T. Resistance Training for Distance Running. 2007. Strength and Conditioning journal. 29(1)
Jung A.P. The impact of Resistance Training on Distance running performance. Sports Medicine, 2003. 33(7): 539-552
Kristensen J. & Franklyn-Miller A. Resistance Training in musculoskeletal rehabilitation: a systematic review. 2013. British Journal of Sports Medicine. 46(10).
Lauresen, J.B., Bertelsen, D.M. & Andersen, L.B. The effectivness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised control trials. 2013. British Journal of sports Medicine.