Runners are near legendary for their aversion to strength training. Many successful coaches and athletes in the past made a point to avoid strength training. Moreover, it can sometimes seem like it’s just one more thing to add without any measurable benefits.
The philosophical debate over the place of strength work (especially heavy weight training) has gone on for quite a while, and it’s spurred a range of research on the topic. Luckily, we now have the research on how strength training can help you improve your running. More importantly, we even know what type of strength training will work best.
Let’s dive into some of this research…
Result of light strength work on running performance
In Sato and Mokha’s (2009) study, 28 recreational runners with 5k PRs just under 30 minutes were divided into an experimental and control group. During the six week experiment, both groups continued their normal training routines, but the experimental group was given a set of five exercises to be performed four times a week in 2-3 sets of 10-15 repeats each.
The exercises—crunches on an exercise ball, back extensions on an exercise ball, opposite arm-leg raises while lying on the stomach, hip “bridges” on an exercise ball, and “Russian twists” (twisting the torso side-to-side while in a sit-up position) on an exercise ball—were all targeted at the hip and torso muscles, which are thought to contribute to stability while running. The researchers hoped that strengthening these muscles would lead to better running form and a performance boost to boot. Interestingly, the exercise program did not lead to improvements in running form, but did lead to a moderate improvement in running performance.
The experimental group dropped their 5k time by 47 seconds, while the control group only improved 17 seconds. An astute observer might question whether the performance boost was simply due to the recreational runners taking on more training and achieving better general fitness instead of a running-specific improvement. If this is the case, perhaps any physical intervention (moonlighting as a bricklayer, for example) would improve running performance for recreational runners.
Strength work plus additional training
This was one question addressed in a 2010 study by Alexander Ferruati and his colleagues at Ruhr University in Germany. Twenty two recreational runners (no information was provided on their race times, but their normal training consisted of about 40min of running per day) were split into two groups. Both groups added a 9-mile “tempo run” at about 5-10% slower than marathon pace to their weekly training schedule, but the experimental group also added two strength sessions: one targeting the upper body, and one targeting the lower body. Each session had five exercises, most of which were done on health-club style weight machines.
While both groups improved their fitness over the eight week study and the strength group became significantly stronger, neither group was better off than the other. The strength training did not noticeably affect running economy or oxygen intake.
While Ferruati’s study seems to be a tough blow to proponents of strength work, it deserves a second look. Runners rely primarily on their legs to propel them, and Ferruati et al. had their subjects doing only one session of leg strength a week.
Leg strength training for runners
A 2008 study by Øyvind Støren and coworkers in Norway examined a more rigorous program focusing on raw leg strength. Støren’s protocol was four sets of four half-squats with a barbell, three times a week with three minutes of recovery, with nearly the heaviest weight the subjects could manage.
Seventeen runners (nine men and eight women) with 5k bests in the 18:40-range partook, with nine in the experimental group and eight in the control group. All of the subjects carried out their normal training during the eight week study and underwent the usual battery of physiology tests before and after the study.
The results stand in contrast to Ferruati’s study: Støren’s subjects displayed no increase in oxygen intake but a 5% increase in running economy and a startling 21% improvement in a treadmill run to exhaustion at somewhat faster than 3k race pace vs. the control group, who had no improvement on either mark. Støren et al. chalk up the improvements to increased muscular efficiency.
The runners who completed the half-squat protocol not only became stronger, but also more powerful—they were able to generate force much more quickly after the strength program. The researchers proposed that this allowed them to have a “quicker” stride and save energy while running.
Strength training and elite runners – does it work
Still, one criticism remains: is this sort of training useful for someone whose body is already developed to a very high level of fitness? Physiology studies on elite athletes are notoriously difficult to find, since elite runners are exceedingly picky (and rightfully so!) about their training. Fortunately for us, one extraordinary study by Philo Saunders and his coworkers at the Australian Institute of Sport managed to round up fifteen elite runners and have seven of them undergo a nine-week explosive lifting and jump training program. All of the runners had 3km PBs around 8:30 (equivalent to well under 15 minutes for 5km) and six of them had competed internationally.
Accordingly, the strength program they did was fairly comprehensive: three sessions a week, split between gym exercises like the leg press, hamstring curls, and back extension, and outdoor sessions done on grass consisting of bounding, skipping, double-legged hurdle jumping, and scissor jumps. As usual, both groups continued with their normal training.
At the conclusion of the study, the strength program group displayed a 4% increase in running economy at fast speeds and a smaller, non-statistically significant increase in running economy at slower speeds vs. the control group. Just like in Støren et al., these elite runners also were able to generate force more quickly, which probably accounts for their improved economy.
What you can take away from this research on strength training
In summary, it seems that the benefit of strength training for the distance runner hinges on the intensity and frequency of the exercises as well as the type of strength work being done.
A moderate, once-a-week excursion to the gym to use a few weight machines is unlikely to result in significant gains.
Yet, a more intense program focusing on an effective, targeted, running-specific strength routine is a great idea for runners of all fitness levels.
Light weights are unlikely to benefit you as much as heavier/maximal weights when it comes to improving performance.
Send us a message or leave a comment and let us know if you have any questions! We all have our own thoughts on the matter, and we all have something different that suits us.
See what’s up next week for our #RunFormFriday tip! For more in depth understanding on how to put this into practise, get in touch and we’ll see how we can help!
“You can keep going and your legs might hurt for a week or you can quit and your mind will hurt for a lifetime.” (Mark Allen)
I have 4 questions for you:
How often do you give less than 100% in your workout?
When is the last time you really gave it a full, focused, determined effort…right to the very end?
On a scale of 0-10 (10 = high), how would you rate the quality of your last 3 training sessions?
Are your answers to those questions acceptable to you?
This week’s keyword: Quality
Commit to bringing the best of you to each training session this week.
Your focus, your presence, your enjoyment and your determination are all sharpened, honed and strengthened when you chose to commit to quality, especially when your lungs are burning and your mind is telling you to quit.
To help with increasing the quality of your training, here are three practices to include in your workouts, starting today.
Set your focus – just before you begin, ask yourself “What one thing do I need to focus on in order to make this a level 10 quality workout?”
Rate your effort – check in with yourself multiple times in each training session and give yourself a Quality Score out of 10. Make the necessary adjustment to finish strong.
Track your progress – give an overall score to every workout this week. The more you measure, the more likely you are to keep raising your quality each time.
These practices take virtually no time to execute and the payoff is worth it. Using Triblogs makes it easy to log everything and keep an eye on your focus and the quality of your training.
Let us know if you do any of these – or are planning on trying this. These blogs are there to act as a trigger for people, something to make you think! You may feel that they have no relevance at all! Please let us know what you think.
How To Breathe Comfortably
We’ve all been there: getting into our stride, enjoying our swim and feeling focused before – splutter, panic – it all goes pear-shaped. There’s nothing like a mouthful of water to put you off your stroke. Learning how to master your breathing will add fluidity and efficiency to your swim, enabling you to go faster. Here are our top tips on how to breathe comfortably during your swim – no water intake required.
Learning how to breathe comfortably will add fluidity and efficiency to your swim
Keep your face relaxed and carry on breathing
Feeling anxious about putting your head in the water? Relax – you may unwittingly be tensing your facial muscles during your swim, which can lead to exhaustion if prolonged. Keep calm and come up for air as soon as you need to, keeping your face relaxed. Aim to avoid changing your facial muscles or expression when you’re underwater – they should be exactly the same in the water as they are on dry land.
Exhale slowly and comfortably
As your head enters the water, practice opening your lips slightly and gently breathing out. As you swim, exhale gently through both your nose and mouth, or just your mouth – whichever you find most comfortable.
[Tip: a nose clip can help you breathe out of your mouth more comfortably.]
The trick to exhaling underwater is to do it slowly. Then, as you feel you’re getting ready to come up for air, breathe out at a faster pace, in preparation for your next breath. Avoid exhaling too quickly, however, as this may cause you to gasp for air. Aim for your exhalation period underwater to be twice as long as your inhalation period.
Use this trick to avoid water in your windpipe
If you do breathe in water, try not to panic. Shape your tongue as if you’re pronouncing the letter ‘K’ – this will help prevent water entering your throat.
Smooth Comfortable Rotation
Think about rotating from the hips – and the shoulders – to give yourself more room to breathe into. Remember to turn your head to the side rather than lifting your head out of the water. This will help to keep your hips high and close to the surface (keeping resistance low), but also make it easier to get your mouth (not your head) into open air.
Take your time with learning this – as with any skill. The point is that the linked drills are there to make you smoother, stronger, more efficient. Make sure you hit all those target points! Have a go at the swim golf; maybe rather than thinking about trying to swim faster aim to swim harder.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to get in touch; either by email, facebook or leave a comment on here!
See what’s up next week for our #SwimTechTues tip!
Faster Is Not Always Better
Breaking the speed limit in a car is illegal; if I had it my way as a coach, it would be illegal in training workouts too! In a runner’s mind faster is always better, and any run that is longer or harder than prescribed is considered an achievement. However, if you’re following a good plan, running faster is not always better. Going longer than planned might actually be detrimental to your potential at your goal race and long-term progression. Each workout, recovery run, and rest day in our training plans has a specific purpose. To maximize the effectiveness of each run and to make the absolute most out of every mile, it’s important that you adhere to pace/effort guidelines.
Here’s a quick rundown of common running workouts and why breaking the speed limit is a bad idea:
Get your training right!
A tempo run is designed to improve a runner’s lactate threshold. During easy running, your body breaks down sugars to fuel the muscles, which produces lactic acid. When running easy, the body recycles lactic acid back into energy and efficiently expels the waste products. As you continue to run faster and demand more energy, the production of lactic acid will slowly increase. The point at which your body produces more lactic acid than it is able to reconvert back into energy is referred to as your lactate threshold. A tempo run requires running slightly slower than the body’s lactate threshold, so that you train your body to increase its ability to reconvert lactate back into energy. Tempo runs extend endurance and the ability to maintain a faster pace over longer races like the 10k and the half marathon.
[Tweet “If you always run hard, when can your body recover?”]
Why running faster during a tempo run is detrimental
When you push too far beyond your lactate threshold pace, you prevent your body from learning how to effectively clear lactate. Instead of becoming more efficient by handling a moderate and consistent amount of lactate, your body is flooded. It isn’t able to benefit from a prolonged period of lactate clearance. By speeding up, you don’t achieve the benefits of the workout and actually walk away from your tempo run less fit than you would have by staying on the prescribed pace.
After a hard workout, a runner’s muscles will have micro-tears from the forceful contractions which happen at fast speeds. These micro-tears cause muscle soreness, and make training the day after a hard workout difficult. The body heals these small micro-tears through the circulatory system, which delivers the oxygen and nutrients to the muscles that need repair. An easy recovery run increases blood flow to the muscles specific to running, helping to clear out waste products and deliver fresh oxygen and nutrients.
Why running recovery runs too fast is detrimental
Your body does not have an infinite ability to heal itself and requires proper rest in between hard bouts. If you run too hard on an easy day, you create more muscle tears than you’re fixing, extending the amount of time you need to fully recover. This can cause you to run poorly on subsequent workouts because your muscles are still fatigued. Keeping your easy days truly easy will promote faster recovery, allowing you to be prepared for the next hard session and produce maximum results.
Speed workouts (VO2max)
Defined simply, VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen the body can utilize during exercise. Training at VO2 max increases this limit, allowing you to have a quicker leg turnover and improve your top speed. In addition, speed workouts increase leg muscle strength and power, which reduces how much energy it takes to run at a certain speed. This is also known as improving your “economy.”
Why running speed workouts too fast is detrimental
During VO2 max workouts and speed work, you’re asking your body to push its limits. When running near your top speed, the likelihood of injury is increased since muscles are being contracted to their max while under duress. Your training schedule will assign workouts that hit your VO2 max to develop speed, but keep you from going over the red line.
Keeping your speed workouts within the given pace range will reduce the risk of injury and allow you to string together consistent training. Our training plans are an intricate puzzle that pieces together different types of workouts. It maximizes the available time to prepare you to have your best performance on race day. Running faster than prescribed paces may seem as if it’s advancing your fitness, but you are actually limiting your progress and increasing the likelihood of getting injured.
Before you step out the door on your next run, think to yourself, “What is the purpose of my run today?”
[Tweet “Make sure that each run has a purpose. Then aim for it!”]
This will ensure you stay on course and give you the confidence you need to execute a plan as it’s prescribed, even if it means obeying the speed limit.
Progress: it is the reason why the majority of us train every week. However you measure progress, whether you want stronger swims, better technique, less injuries or a faster 400m split, progress is what keeps us training day in and day out. Disregard the individuals that train to “maintain”, that is just an excuse to not work hard. But, what if everything you put into your training doesn’t amount to a hill of beans? Here are 10 things that can indicate whether or not your programming & training is being spent wisely.
1. You don’t understand the difference between difficult and useful.
Just because something is hard to do, does not mean it is useful, or will do anything to progress your training/racing career. I could spend 3 months mastering a tumble turn, but will that really help me as a triathlete? Spend your time wisely, time is finite.
2. You aren’t eating enough.
If I had a pound for every time we added more food in to someone’s diet improved their training and energy, I would have more pounds than you. Carbs are not your enemy, stagnation is. Starving yourself is not eating big, so for the love of progress, put a potato on the barbie.
3. You ask everyone on the internet for advice, and listen to all of it/none of it.
Either way you end this equation, you are going to lose. If you try to follow everyone’s cues and tips, you will go nowhere, because everyone on the internet has different opinions about the “right” way to do things, which may not apply to you at all. If you listen to none of it, you are wasting everyone’s time, especially yours. Pick someone’s advice that you trust, put on your blinders, and follow their orders.
4. You think training hard all the time will make you better.
Killing yourself in every session will do just that. Kill you. You will be tired and most likely end up lacking in motivation. The problem with this approach is that you only really end up with one gear, and you’re only really working at about 85% because of fatigue. Better to do some real steady low intensity training working on good technique, and then hitting the hard sessions flat out to give you that maximal benefit.
5. You want to get better at everything, and you want it to happen yesterday.
Arguably, a lot of us are guilty of this. However, the line that separates those who want to be good and those who want to become good is the ability to break goals into smaller pieces, and accomplish them in segments. World records aren’t built in a day.
6. You view training gear as non-primal/cheating.
I am going to let you in on a secret: if you are reading this article while connected to the internet, you are about as far removed from a primal state as you can be, why should your training be any different? By all means, don’t rely on training gear. But learning to work well with your race kit is important – don’t race with new kit! By giving yourself that feeling of moving fast in training, this can really motivate you toward higher efforts in other sessions.
7. You aren’t recording your training.
If you are doing training purely for fun with no target then this doesn’t apply. However, recording your sessions and being aware of what particular results, splits or efforts mean is very beneficial so that you can chart progress. Also knowing how your training is affecting testing sessions means that you can look to replicate where things go well. We use Triblogs, but there are plenty of options, you might even write things down!
8. You are afraid to compete.
I can personally attest to this, because I was once afraid to compete. Sometimes failing at a competition is exactly what you need, in order to do better the next time. I have yet to work with someone who, after their first competition, did not have a fire lit under their ass to compete again ASAP.
9. You think swim/bike/run is all you need to do to be a good triathlete.
This may be true for those first starting out, but as you progress, you will see that it is simply not true. By not adding in supplementary strength or training movements, your weaknesses will still be your weaknesses as you get stronger.
10. You don’t know how to detach.
What if I told you that there was a whole world out there, full of people and places that have no idea about triathlon/sport, or care about it? Sometimes getting out of the “community” for a short period of time is exactly what you need to get your mind right. Familiarity breeds contempt, and all too often we get extremely familiar with our lifestyles. Take some time off and hit training with renewed vigor.