A frequent question we are asked as coaches is what strength exercises should I be doing as a runner and what are the benefits of strength training for running?
The first part of this question probably has a multitude of answers depending on whom you speak to, while the second part of the question is usually answered similarly across the board. The purpose of this article is to offer some insight into why strength training is important for runners and the general population, as well as introducing some training principles and ideas that may change the way you look at strength training.
Let’s first break down what we want to achieve with the introduction of strength training. A quick look at social media and the mainstream media highlights that if we want to feel a certain way (strong), we must look a certain way (aesthetic). This process does not take into account how we have evolved as humans and the factors that have remained constant in our evolutionary lineage.
Secondly, the way we move is the most important foundation in addressing and developing strength. Humans didn’t evolve to lie down on a bench press, sit down strapped into a machine, or bend and stretch into hyper mobile, hyper flaccid positions. We also didn’t evolve to move primarily in a single plane of motion. We evolved from chimps to walk, run, throw and jump for protection, survival, and growth. If we want to continue to develop we need to address these movement patterns that are responsible for our growth and development in the first place.
If we want to get fundamentally stronger at running it’s important to address the movement patterns responsible for the gait cycle within our training. The gait cycle refers to the sequence of events or movements when one foot makes contact with the ground and when the same foot makes contact with the ground again. This is made up of the alternating stance phase and the swing phase, which can be broken down further again. Breaking down the gait cycle is incredibly complex, but if we start with the basics we should see benefits. Let’s look at how we do this.
- Strengthen and mobilise your hips. Strong hips allow enough mobility to harness and transport the energy created during the gait cycle. If we look at the body as an integrated system of movers, then the hips can be considered the centrepiece for efficient control of the lower limbs as well as the midsection and upper body. Release the psoas with a ball for stronger breathing and spinal strength and stability. Strengthen the gluteus medius to encourage healthy hips and knee function while avoiding common injuries such as ITB syndrome or patellofemoral pain. Single leg balance, single leg swings in the sagittal and frontal plane, single leg bodyweight deadlifts, and standing hip abduction are just some of the exercises you can introduce to target your hips beyond this. Traditional exercises such as the lunge, unilateral squat variations and weighted hinge exercises like the kettle bell single leg deadlift can also be incorporated and serve to highlight any imbalance or weakness in movement patterns that you can address in isolation.
- Strengthen and mobilise your feet and ankles. Your feet are the sole recipient of ground contact time during running so it makes sense to address what is happening at your feet. Barefoot walking is a great starting point for rewiring your feet and brain. Use a ball to roll out the medial, lateral and transverse arch of your feet to restore efficient movement. Barefoot calf raises, toe raises and banded ankle flexion/extension, inversion and eversion exercises go a long way in ensuring positive foot and ankle health. Single leg balances, hops and plyometric jumps are valuable tools. Progress to barefoot strides once a sufficient foundation has been established.
- Learn to flex and rotate. Our thoracic spines are designed to flex, extend and rotate. Thoracic rotation is a dominant movement pattern in both walking and running. Too much time at a desk, driving and training predominantly in the sagittal plane has meant we need to retrain our bodies into rotation and restore mobility to the thoracic spine. Release the pecs, lats, upper back and abdominals with a ball to ensure the muscles and joints responsible for rotation are free and uninhibited. Then work on facilitating rotation and flexion/extension through strengthening exercises such as the 4-point kneeling thoracic rotation, prone thoracic extension, and the side-lying or standing thoracic windmill. If you’re working at a desk all day give yourself short breaks to encourage mobility of your thoracic spine.
- Think dynamic. Once you have addressed any postural dysfunction or biomechanical dysfunction, look to incorporate dynamic strength into your routine. Think in slings! Target the anterior and posterior oblique slings, lateral and longitudinal slings, and take the time to learn about fascia and its role in the body. Lastly, learn to breathe again through corrective breath enhancement.
To address the second part of the question, let’s keep things simple. Strength training makes you stronger! The more strength you have, the more force you apply to the earth, the faster you move. Strength training also assists in the development of running economy[i], and reduces the risk of injury[ii]. Most importantly, an uninjured runner is a happy runner.
Before commencing any form of strength training it is recommended you check in with a physiotherapist, experienced and qualified trainer or coach, or anyone educated and qualified in the assessment of biomechanics to ensure you’re giving yourself the best chance at developing correctly. Always ask why or why not an exercise is done, how it may or may not benefit you and appropriate progressions for your level of training and expertise. Most importantly, remember everyone is an individual and it’s important to keep this in mind when approaching training.
[i] Storen, Helgerus, Stoa & Hoff, 2008 Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise
[ii] Fleck SJ, Falkel JE, “Value of resistance training for the reduction of sports injuries” Sports Med 1986 Jan-Feb.