Strength Training: Do Runners Need It?!

Middle and long-distance runners have always been recommended, as a part of their training schedule, to pile on miles upon miles every week. Up until recently, not many runners indulged in weight training to improve performance. In fact, runners have always considered weight training (and the resultant muscle gain) to be detrimental to race times. Even anecdotal evidence suggested that strength training packs on weight and runners feel that this tends to slow you down.

This belief is not totally misplaced. However, it is important to note that weight training exercises, when done in the traditional bodybuilding way will cause muscle hypertrophy (bigger sized muscles). This will lead to weight gain and decrease in performance. Thus, if you end up hitting the gym 3 times a week and follow a typically ‘bodybuilder’s workout’ (chest days-arms days-leg days), chances are, you will see your race times suffer!

Researcher and trainers are now recommending a new method of strength training: one that involves explosive movements with minimum resistance coupled with plyometrics exercises; these can help enhance your performance without putting on undue weight.

Basis of Endurance Training in Runners

Endurance sports, including middle and long-distance running, call for low to middle intensity muscle work for prolonged periods of time. Needless to say, there has to be a constant supply of oxygen to the working muscles for you to keep going. In short, endurance sports call for higher aerobic capacities of the athletes.

Traditionally, VO2max has been considered as the prominent indicator of an individual’s aerobic capacity. VO2max is volume (V) of oxygen (O2) that your body can efficiently transport to the exercising muscles. In general, higher the VO2max (more the O2 transferred during exercise), the better your cardiovascular fitness and therefore the longer and faster you can run. (To read more about VO2max, click here). Thus, stacking up miles over a week to improve your VO2max, as runners do, does indeed make sense.

However, recent research has now tended to support the view that other factors like running economy (RE) and peak treadmill running performance (PTRP) may be better at improving endurance performance than VO2max1-4. Furthermore, some studies have even reported that strength training is the single most factor responsible for improved RE and PTRP in runners5-7 and thus enhanced endurance performance without much change in VO2max.

How Does Explosive Strength Training Help Runners?

So, how exactly does this explosive strength training-plyometrics combination help endurance athletes, you may ask?!

Well, the mechanism by which this kind of training will help runners is by improving muscle power. As defined by Leena et. al., muscle power is ‘the ability of the neuromuscular system to produce power during maximal exercise when glycolytic and/or oxidative energy productions are high and muscle contractility may be limited’7.

Explosive strength training causes neural adaptations like rapid activation of motor units in your muscles7. This, in effect, controls how quicker your muscles can contract (increased power).

Furthermore, the added advantage for runners and other endurance athletes is that the activation of muscles is for a short duration of time (as compared to bodybuilding-type strength training). Therefore, there is very little, if at any at all, muscular hypertrophy (increase in size). Therefore, you wouldn’t need to worry about ‘packing on size’!

Recommended Exercises

Here are some of the exercises that you may include in your explosive strength-plyometrics training routine. Remember, though; do not forget to carry on doing your sports specific endurance training as well.

• Short sprints (20-100 metres)

• Jumps exercises: hurdles, pop jumps on benches, drops, 1-legged jumps

• Olympic lifting: snatches and clean & jerks (plus their component exercises)

• Plyometrics for specific muscles groups like squat jumps, chest medicine ball throws, etc

Also do remember to:

• design a routine which allows for gradual increase in intensity

• keep the routine nice and simple to follow so it keeps you interested

Citations

(1) Billat LV, Koralsztein JP. Significance of the velocity at VO2max and time to exhaustion at this velocity. Sports Med 1996; 22(2):90-108.

(2) Conley DL, Krahenbuhl GS. Running economy and distance running performance of highly trained athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1980; 12(5):357-360.

(3) Morgan DW, Baldini FD, Martin PE, Kohrt WM. Ten kilometer performance and predicted velocity at VO2max among well-trained male runners. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1989; 21(1):78-83.

(4) Noakes TD, Myburgh KH, Schall R. Peak treadmill running velocity during the VO2max test predicts running performance. J Sports Sci 1990; 8(1):35-45.

(5) Marcinik EJ, Potts J, Schlabach G, Will S, Dawson P, Hurley BF. Effects of strength training on lactate threshold and endurance performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1991; 23(6):739-743.

(6) McCarthy JP, Agre JC, Graf BK, Pozniak MA, Vailas AC. Compatibility of adaptive responses with combining strength and endurance training. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1995; 27(3):429-436.

(7) Paavolainen L, Nummela A, Rusko H. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. Journal of Applied Physiology 1999; 86(5):1527-1533.

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