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Strength Training for Distance Runners: Why and How Much?

– Derek M. Hansen –

Running successfully over long distances (I consider anything over 400 meters to be a long distance) requires a composite of many factors. The majority of distance runners will tell you that “mileage” and overall training volume will form the foundation of their training program. Hence, good distance runners tend to have:

– Low body mass
– Low percentage of body fat
– High percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers
– Relatively high VO2 max (maximal oxygen uptake)
– A poor chance of winning in the Ultimate Fighting Championship

Thus, when we picture a successful distance runner, we tend to think of a skinny person of average height with an efficient cardiovascular system and big lungs. We certainly do not envision a heavily muscled body sculpted through hours of hard work in the weightlifting gym. So why would any lightly muscled distance runner even consider touching a weight when planning their training program?

An excerpt from exercise physiologist Dave Costill’s 1979 book, A Scientific Approach to Distance Running, gives us a closer look the average strength characteristics of the typical elite distance runner.

“In 1968, we tested Lou Castagnola, a 2:17 marathoner. At that time he had a maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max) of 72.4 ml/kg minute and a vertical jump of 29.2 cm. Following the 1968 U.S. Olympic marathon trial, he terminated all training. Three years later we re-examined him and found his VO2 max had declined to 47.6 ml/kg minute. His vertical jump, on the other hand, increased to 51.cm, a 76% increase despite his detrained status. This suggests that endurance running impairs leg speed and explosive power.”

Although this excerpt is from an old book, it’s findings hold true over numerous research studies performed in the three decades since its publishing. And, these findings can be confirmed by simply going for a 45 minute run, then following up the run with an explosive weightlifting session. The two activities mix as well as a snack of popcorn and bubblegum.

If strength and power related activities are so incompatible with cyclical aerobic activities, why would we be proposing the use of strength training for distance runners? It seems as though the results would be disastrous. Yet there still remain many good reasons for keeping strength training within your long distance running program.

Improved running mechanics. Improvements in multi-joint strength and power abilities can minimize excessive hip, knee and ankle flexion during the support phase of the running stride. A longer ground-contact time is often observed in runners with a lower strength-to-weight ratio. These athletes experience a greater amount of flexion in the lower extremities on ground contact, negatively affecting their running economy. Higher strength levels achieved through a combination of conventional weight lifting and plyometric training can improve overall lower body strength, stiffness and elasticity, ultimately enhancing running mechanics and efficiency. Flat tires on an automobile ultimately result in poor performance and fuel economy. The same could be said for running athletes with poor lower body strength.

Enhanced injury prevention. Overuse injuries often plague long distance runners, particularly when the majority of mileage is accumulated over hard, paved surfaces. As the research has shown, resistance training performed early in the development of young athletes can increase their bone density. Continued resistance training through an athlete’s lifetime can help to preserve bone density and slow the potential for loss of bone density in latter years. As many long distance runners have discovered, stress fractures in the feet and lower legs can be a common symptom of high mileage. Any means of strengthening these bones could help to minimize the incidence of injury and, hence, lost training time.

Soft-tissue injuries such as tendonitis, low back pain and shin-splints can also be prevented with a training program that incorporates exercises that progressively load muscles and connective tissue. A stronger, more resilient body will allow for more intense workouts and higher volumes of training for running athletes.

Neuromuscular recruitment improvements. A maximal strength program may make perfect sense for 100 meter sprinters, but there are also unique benefits for longer distance runners. A well designed strength training program that incorporates low repetitions, relatively high loads and appropriate recovery times between sets will develop muscles that produce more force while not resulting in unwanted muscle bulk. Improvements in maximal force production make sub-maximal efforts much easier, particularly over longer durations. And, since not all long distance running occurs on flats or down-hill sections, hill climbing can be enhanced by muscle strength improvements derived from strength training.

It is interesting to note that I recently cracked open my copy of Peter Coe’s book, “Better Training for Distance Runners.” I was encouraged to find a photo of Sebastian Coe half squatting with a loaded barbell of 100 kg – which would be well above his training body weight. In the text supporting the photo, Peter Coe states that, “Five reps constitute a typical set.” This was not surprising to see as we have heard many stories of Seb Coe running very fast 400m splits in relays. Although he was renowned for his middle-distance accomplishments, it was apparent that he had significant speed abilities that could not be developed by high volume running alone.

Balancing out your training. At some point in your training, you will reach a point of diminishing returns with one or all of your current training elements. You can only run so far before you stop improving and start to de-train or get injured. Cross-training can provide significant benefits while preventing plateaus in training and elevating complimentary qualities such as speed, power, strength and durability. These qualities are often forgot when mileage is the primary concern for athletes competing in distance running. Once you direct a portion of your time and energy to higher intensity qualities, they can feed back into your primary training and provide a transfer effect that leads to better overall running performance. Also, you cannot discount the benefit of having a variety of training environments and modes to keep you psychologically fresh and enthusiastic about your training. Achieving a proper balance of training inputs can improve performance without increasing the risk of overtraining.

If you examine the most recent achievement by Kenyan athlete, Patrick Makau, completing the Berlin marathon in a World record time of 2:03:38, you can come up with some interesting conclusions. He averaged a 4:43 mile pace over 26.2 miles translating into 70.75 seconds per 400m (the equivalent of running around a quarter mile track 104 times). In order to run consecutive 70-second quarter miles for two hours, I would surmise that he has the capability to run a 400 meter race time of no less than 47 seconds, a 200m race in 21.5 seconds and a 100m time of under 11 seconds. That type of performance takes a degree of fast twitch muscle fiber that doesn’t come just from long runs in the plains of Africa.


Exercise Prescriptions

So if we can all agree that improved strength qualities can enhance overall running performance, how does one go about developing an appropriate strength training program? As with any exercise prescription or planning process, individual differences will arise depending on age, gender, experience, pre-existing injuries and goals. However, there are some basic guidelines that can be followed to get the most out of a strength training regime that will add value to your running program.

Don’t be afraid to lift heavy weights using less repetitions. Conventional wisdom for endurance runners has been to lift light weight over numerous repetitions. It is not uncommon for long distance runners and other endurance athletes to engage in 3-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions with low recovery times between sets. While this may intuitively fit with their endurance profile, it does very little to improve their durability and high performance capabilities as the type of work they are performing is too similar to what they are already doing with their running. In other words, it is overly redundant. These endurance athletes would be better served by running more, as it is more specific to their ultimate goal.

There is a misplaced fear that lifting heavy weights will result in bulky, useless muscle. If the correct repetitions and loads are selected, weightlifting can yield great improvements in muscle recruitment and force production, without significant increases in muscle cross-sectional area and body weight. Sets in the range of two to five repetitions with 80-95% of a one repetition maximum can easily be integrated into a runners training program without creating unwanted side effects. Of course, time has to be taken to develop technical proficiency and progressively build up the loads being lifted to ensure that an athlete minimize risk of injury. Such work also prepares athletes for the stress of other complimentary activities such as plyometrics.

Why sit when you can stand? Implement the majority of your exercises with your feet planted on the ground. Ground based exercises such as dead-lifting, squatting, lunging and overhead pressing can provide the vertical loading required for improving lower limb force producing qualities and postural integrity. While many core-strengthening routines utilize exercises that are carried out in horizontal positions, I’m a big proponent of loading the body vertically. It’s been many tens of thousands of years since we were quadripeds. Now that we are walking and running bipedally in the upright position, our training should reflect this fact. Loading the spine, pelvis and legs vertically with weight training will pay dividends for running athletes who spend most of the time on their feet.

Incorporate jumps, plyometrics and/or medicine ball throws into your routine. A good portion of your strength training activities can be undertaken without the use of weightlifting equipment. Jumps that focus on strong hip extension – such as jumping up stairs or up onto a box – can help develop powerful glutes, quads and hamstrings. Plyometric jumps over short distances, focusing on quick ground contacts, can develop lower leg strength and elastic power that can feed back into efficient stride mechanics. The addition of medicine ball throws and passes to your strength training routine can provide a total body workout that can build general strength, power, mobility and speed. Incorporating a combination of these activities into your overall training program one to two times per week can add the right type of intensity to your training program without creating more wear and tear. As with a higher intensity weight training program, a gradual progression of work for these ballistic activities is essential to avoid joint and soft-tissue injuries, thereby facilitating the positive evolution of your training program.

Running drills for strength, speed and power. Basic running drills that incorporate marching, skipping and rapid knee lifts can be useful in isolating the key mechanical components of the running stride and enhancing these individual qualities. Often referred to as the A, B and C’s of running drills, these drills can be used to hone technique, improve flexibility, stabilize posture, build core strength and enhance force production capabilities. These drills can be combined with regular running workouts or used in a separate qualitative technique workouts. If performed in association with a longer distance running workout, it is recommended that these drills be performed prior to the run when fatigue is not a factor. In many ways, these drills can be used as a warm-up or technique primer before a running workout.

Keep it simple. People are always anxious to add more elements to their training program in an effort to improve performance. It is advisable to add new elements incrementally in an effort to evaluate their efficacy and your body’s reaction to additional work. Patience and meticulous planning will pay off in the long run, while the haphazard clustering of new techniques can only end badly.

Additionally, there are always new training types and trends that claim to enhance performance. Rubber bands, vibration platforms, kettle-bells, suspension training, hot yoga and hypoxic training devices are examples of trendy innovations that are flooding the market. This list is endless and can be expensive. Certainly these devices can add variety to your program. But do they actually deliver improved performance? That is the question that you seriously need to ask yourself when faced with the prospect of handing over more cash with no tangible return on your investment. Everyone likes the idea of placebos in training, as the mind can be a powerful ally in your day-to-day struggle to carry out your workouts. But in the long run, the “sugar pills” may just add more calories, not better performances.


Final Remarks

Perhaps I am just a purist. I believe that common sense adjustments to the volume and intensity of a training program over time can yield the best results. When it comes to a training program, you must have a full understanding of the contribution of all of the exercises and inputs. You must also have a means of monitoring the value and shortcomings of specific training elements. If something is not working for you, do not hesitate to remove it or, at the very least, minimize its involvement. Alternatively, you may know that some training elements are providing value added. However, would an increase in volume lead to greater improvements, or would a point of diminishing returns become a factor?

Ultimately, your training program is no different than a culinary recipe. A given gourmet recipe may call for one tablespoon of salt in order to make the dish taste just right and get rave reviews. Yet two tablespoons of salt might lead to a gut-wrenching experience that drives people out of your restaurant. The right ingredients added at the right time and in the proper amounts are the key to a good recipe. A training plan for long distance runners, or any athletes for that matter, should be no different. Make sure that you are adding the right types and amounts of work at the right time in your program, using experience and common sense as your guides. With careful management and decision making, your workouts and your meals will be much easier to digest.




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