The best way to get better at running is … by running. That doesn’t mean that strength training is not important for runners, though. With so much time dedicated to training runs throughout the week, it’s easy to blow off time in the gym. With this installment of the Running Tips series, I’m going to explain the best exercises when strength training to be a better runner.
There are some compelling reasons why strength training can help your progress as a runner and even increase your speed. If you want to know more about why you should be lifting weights, check out this guest post I wrote last year for Allison’s blog: 5 Ways Strength Training Makes You a Better Runner.
The Movements of Running
Set aside your knowledge of what muscles are necessary to strengthen for running and start to think instead of what movements take place during running. Those movements are what you can focus on in your strength training.
Let’s break down the act of running:
Although running is obviously a very active lower body sport, your upper body and torso are also working. Your arms are swinging back and forth with elbows close to your sides; your abdominals and spine musculature are working to maintain your posture; and should there be a sudden change in terrain, like an uneven road or trail, you might bend to one side to keep your balance.
As for your lower body, you are pushing off from your foot in plantar flexion, flexing at the knee and extending at the hip. Running primarily takes place in the frontal plane, so movements like hip abduction and adduction are less a priority in the actual motion of running.
What does this mean for the exercises to focus on for prime running form?
Shoulder flexion: Close-grip bench press, scapular pushups, close-grip cable press, close-grip overhead press.
Shoulder extension: Close-grip rows, close-grip pull-up and pull-downs.
Spinal extension. Many runners bend from the waist in slight spinal flexion, rather than a whole body forward lean which is considered a more efficient running form. To offset this focus on your abdominals in flexion, spinal extension should be prioritized: Supermans, cobra position, the cow position of cat/cow.
Plantar flexion: Standing calf raises
Knee flexion: Hamstring curls, with machine, cable, resistance band, or swiss ball
Knee extension: Leg extensions, with machine, cable or resistance band
Hip extension: Forward or reverse lunges, step ups, squats, deadliest, leg extensions
Hip flexion: Pike, Captain’s Chair knee raises
Stabilization: Plank, wall sits, bird dogs, dead bugs (Need a quick workout which focuses on stabilization? Try my 15 Minute Abs Workout!)
(The lower body movements of the three joints are often referred to as triple extension and in fact all three joints are working when doing exercises like squats, lunges and step ups)
Don’t ignore muscles underused in the act of running, just because you think they’re not necessary. Remember, your muscles all work together and it can be helpful to think of your body’s movements as part of an overall linked chain, rather than staccato movements each performed in unison. That means, even if your hip abductors and adductors aren’t working as much as your hip extensors during running, ignoring them completely during strength training can lead to imbalances and injury. Think sumo squats, lateral lunges and step ups, and medial lunges and step ups.
(Want more running injury prevention tips? Check out this post on Treating and Preventing ITB Syndrome)
Endurance vs strength
If you want your strength training to be sports specific to running, then it makes sense that focusing on an endurance type of training (usually 15 repetitions or higher) would be your focus. However, having strength and power to build upon are also important. Ideally, you would program your strength training over the course of a year, leading up to your target season or event. Begin with strength, then power, then be working on endurance as you approach your target.
If you’re unsure of how to come up with a program based on your current status and your running goals, it can be a great idea to work with either a personal trainer or a running coach with strength training experience, so he or she can help you put a good routine into regular practice.
How Often Should You Strength Train?
ACSM guidelines recommend strength training takes place two or three times per week. As a trainer, I recommend a minimum of two strength sessions a week for training effect to occur. If that seems like two to three days you’ll find it difficult to also have time to run, you may consider breaking it down into much shorter mini sessions to do four times a week. In terms of your timing for strength training, it’s a great workout to schedule on an off day, but if you’re lifting weights on the same day as running, run first, since that’s your priority and you want fresh legs for your running workout.
Check out some of these great posts from other bloggers on adding strength training to your running routine:
For Breaking Muscle, Flavia del Monte write about Weight Training Basics for Runners
Coach Jess from Race Pace Jess gives you a Quickie Post-Run Strength Workout
Amanda from Run to The Finish has a great You Tube workout of Stability Exercises for Runners
Laura from Mommy Run Fast shares 6 Important Strength Exercises for Runners
Runners, do you consistently strength train?
Is strength training more important to you for injury prevention, or performance?