I’ll get straight to the point. If you want to improve your running times and reduce you’re injury risk, then you need to go to the gym regularly and shift some relatively big weights (1, 2). Now this is something that contradicts the beliefs and practices of most runners. Some believe that strength training will result in them bulking up and that this will make them heavier and slower. Some are wary of lifting weights because of the fear of hurting themselves, whilst others believe that only running will make them better runners. Of those runners who do incorporate resistance work into their training programme, most choose low weight and high repetition exercise, in the belief that this will be the best way to improve their running efficiency. All of these training beliefs and behaviours are based on hearsay and supposition. When we look at the science, we find that for runners of all ages and abilities, the addition of strength training to their running schedule can reward them with better running performance and fewer injuries. So let’s take a closer look at how this happens.
Improved Running Performance
Strength training not only improves muscular strength and performance, but can also improve VO2 max (3). This is the term given by Physiologists to the amount of oxygen that the body can transport to the working muscles. Improving the VO2 max results in better running economy. Strength training also improves anaerobic fitness, which for the runner is especially beneficial when trying to maintain or even increase pace towards the end of a run. In addition to these physiological responses to strength training, running ability is enhanced by better muscle recruitment and by improved muscular and tendon load production and delivery. The net result is faster and longer running distances for the same energy output (4).
Reduced Injury Risk
Regular strength training programmes have been shown to reduce the risk of sustaining a number of overuse injuries(2). However, to achieve this, the type of strength training is important. Low load, high repetition circuit type exercises don’t seem to be as effective as higher load and low repetition strengthening work (6). How these reductions in injury rates are achieved by strength training programmes is up for debate. However, it seems that exposing muscles and tendons to regular high levels of loading results in them becoming more robust and less likely to succumb to overload related changes which trigger pain. Common running related injuries such as Achilles tendon pain and patella tendon pain are two conditions that should be managed with strengthening exercises. In the case of the Achilles tendon, specific weakness of the soleus (deep calf muscle) has been linked in runners with Achilles tendon pain (7).
What Should A Runners Strength Programme Look Like?
The evidence points to the most effective strengthening programmes being those that utilise relatively high levels of resistance. The use of explosive types of exercises such as jumping, hopping and lunging have also been shown to be effective ways of improving running performance (5,6). Because the type of strength training that is advocated by these studies involves exercises such as squats, deadlifts and calf raises to levels that are 60-80% of the max effort, this type of training can only be performed a couple of times per week (8). This type of training needs to be done for at least a 6 week period for measurable running performance improvements to occur. Additionally, these improvements fall away quickly when the strength training stops (9).
It is important for exercise technique to be good in order to minimise injury risks and for the work to be effective. Runners with little or no resistance training experience should phase gradually into it and those with pre existing injuries may need to take things even slower as they learn good technique and increase their loading. The guidance of a Strength & Conditioning Coach and a Physiotherapist would help with the above issues.
1 Rønnestad BR, Mujika I Optimizing strength training for running and cycling endurance performance: A review Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2014 Aug;24(4):603-12. doi: 10.1111/sms.12104. Epub 2013 Aug.
2 Lauersen JB, Bertelsen DM, Andersen LB (2014) The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials British Journal of Sports Medicine 2014;48:871-877
3 Ozaki, Hayao, Loenneke, Jeremy, Thiebaud, Robert, Abe, Takashi. (2013). Resistance training induced increase in VO2max in young and older subjects. European Review of Aging and Physical Activity. 10. 10.1007/s11556-013-0120-1.
4 Beattie, K., Kenny, I. C., Lyons, M., & Carson, B. P. (2014). The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athletes. Sports Medicine, 44(6), 845-865
5 Mikkola J, Vesterinen V, Taipale R, Capostagno B, Häkkinen K, Nummela A (2011) Effect of resistance training regimens on treadmill running and neuromuscular performance in recreational endurance runners, Journal of Sports Sciences, 29:13, 1359-1371
6 Alexander JLN, Barton CJ, Willy RW (2019) Infographic. Running myth: strength training should be high repetition low load to improve running performance British Journal of Sports Medicine Published Online First: 25 September 2019. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2019-101168
7 O’Neill S, Barry S, Watson P, (2019) Plantarflexor strength and endurance deficits associated with mid-portion Achilles tendinopathy: The role of soleus, Phys Ther in Sport, Vol 37, 2019, 69-76
8 Blagrove RC, Howatson G, Hayes PR Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Med. 2018 May;48(5):1117-1149. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0835-7.
9 Karsten B, Stevens L, Colpus M, Larumbe-Zabala E, Naclerio FInt The Effects of a Sport-Specific Maximal Strength and Conditioning Training on Critical Velocity, Anaerobic Running Distance, and 5-km Race Performance J Sports Physiol Perform. 2016 Jan;11(1):80-5. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2014-0559