It’s fair to say that most runners today know that they need to do some form of strength training in order to perform better and reduce injury risk. It is also pretty common knowledge that running hills never did qualify as true strength training;) However, when I see patients in my clinic and runners in our club, there are still many misconceptions about what true strength training is and how to incorporate it into your run program. If you are training for a 5K, would you run a 20 mile long run? Probably not. If you are training for a marathon, are you going to spend lots of time doing 100m sprints with full recovery? While a little speed work does help, it would not be enough to get you acorss 26.2 miles. Let’s see if we can shed some light on what effective strength training for runners might look like. Just a heads up that I hate being told the first 2 steps of a 5 steps process and then “you’ll figure it out”, so there is a lot of info in here so you can actually safely apply the following concepts tomorrow.
Let’s start with a few definitions:
Strength: the ability to move a load a certain distance. If you can lift 150lbs off the floor and someone else can only do 100lbs, you are stronger by definition. (to improve pure strength, lifting 80-90% of 1 rep max, having 1-2 reps in reserve, doing only 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 3-5 MINUTES of TOTAL rest, that’s the hardest part for us endurance runners :)
Muscle Endurance: the ability to move a certain load over a certain amount of time, with more time being equated to better endurance. This time component can be measured in time or repetitions. (often achieved in the 3 sets of 20 type ranges, with a lot of reps in reserve)
Hypertrophy: in the context of our muscles this means growth in size of muscles. More size does have the ability to become more strength, though there is an optimal balance in size and the weight that it means you are carrying on your body. (lifting 8-12 reps at 70% of 1 rep max/ about 3 reps in reserve is the sweet spot here)
Power: is load (strength) over time, the ability to move a load quickly. If you and a friend both move 150lbs from floor to waist, but you do it faster, you are more powerful. You can improve power by moving the same load even faster, OR by moving a heavier load as fast as you did the lighter load. One of these variables has a lot more potential to change than the other… the amount of load, or strength. (lifting at 50% of 1 rep max but focusing on speed is crucial here. With power training, a dab'll do ya, so only a few reps and sets are needed, similar to pure strength, but even longer rest time. Also, plyometric work can shine here, think jumping tasks of any kind).
Running is mostly a sport of power trying to be sustained over time. A rare combination of power and endurance. Each stride is all about power, but we need to be able to continue this powerful single leg hop for many many miles. The goal of a good strength program should be to develop pure strength in your sagittal plane (forwards/ backwards plane) in order to make you more powerful with each stride, while also addressing decent endurance factors to keep that power coming over and over. Now, if you only weigh 150lbs, and can only squat 135 lbs., even at 30 reps (3 sets of 10 sound familiar to everyone?) there is only so much power you can generate to propel yourself forward. But if we can increase that squat to 225lbs over the course of several months, it becomes really easy to push 150lbs with each stride, and takes less energy in each stride to do that, leaving you more energy to go faster and longer. So how do we get there?
This is where most runners are not aware that their program is probably heavily under-dosing the stimulus (read weight/ load) necessary to do this. We need to have seasons where we lift heavy, just as when we go high mileage and intensity a certain number of weeks out from a key race so we have our body prepared for the rigors of race day. We want to consider the 35 rule: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 3-5 minutes rest in between, done at 80-90% of 1 rep max. So if you max out your deadlift at 150lbs, you want to shoot for 4x4 at about 130lbs. You will have only done 16 total reps
Pure strength has very little to do with the ability of the muscle fibers themselves, but rather the nerve to said muscle recruiting ALL the fibers to participate. It’s like the 80-20 rule being fixed. (80% of the work is done by 20% of the group, while the other 80% of the people cheer on the first 20%). By recruiting more muscle fibers the ones already working do not have to do more work, instead they do what they have been doing, but help arrives to move the load. So when you tap into pure strength training sections of your run strength program, you usually end up with LESS soreness than in the endurance and hypertrophy stages. And note the 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps for hypertrophy… if you have started lifting heavier, but stayed in that range, you are actually in the sweet spot for putting on that bulk that I often hear is not desired. If I had a nickel for every time a runner told me they did not lift heavy because they did not want to bulk up, my 5 year old’s college fund would be near complete already.
A couple quick thoughts on benefits of pure strength training:
So, just as your running calendar has weeks to months of easy recovery time after a key race, then base building time, then tackling big workouts and speed for a certain event, then a taper, so too should your strength training reflect time to address endurance, strength, power, and taper and recovery. You can also add hypertrophy in there if you feel adding 3-5 pounds can make a big difference in power and energy stores on race day.
To determine what is an appropriate weight for your heavier lifting, try using the “Ready, Fire, Aim!” approach using an AMRAP set and a 1 rep max calculator. AMRAP stands for “As Many Reps As Possible”. Set up a weight for your lift that you feel confident that you could hit 3 sets of 10. On the 3rd set, don’t stop at 10, but keep going as many reps as you can. Then try to hit 2 more to be sure you maxed out. Pull up the following online calculator and punch in the weight you used and the reps you hit. I would say anything over 25 reps needs to be redone next week, but heavier, as once the reps get way up there, it gets hard to have accuracy on the 1 rep max guess.
The best lifts to go heavy on are the ones that move us forward, so think squat, deadlift, split squat, weighted hip thrust. I will be working on posting some videos of these 4 lifts as they are the main ones to get some good push in our running. So DON"T jump to some weight twice as heavy as you have ever done tomorrow, but start talking with your trainign team (coach, physical therapist, doctor, etc.) about how you can slowly work your way towards some pretty heavy lifting for a month or two and have fun becoming a stronger, faster, more powerful and healthier athlete who can run.