Sometimes runners get into a rut where they focus almost exclusively on running. They’re so engaged in with running that they do little or no training with weights, even bodyweight movements. It’s true that running moderate to long distances is an aerobic sport that requires endurance. For people who compete in 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon races, improving aerobic capacity, running economy, and lactate threshold are the three areas of focus. What about strength training? Surely you need strong legs to run. That’s one reason working the lower body against resistance is important, even for runners. But there are other reasons that runners need strength training. Here’s why it’s important for all runners to work with weights or another form of resistance.
Why Runners Don’t Focus Enough on Building Strength
Runners run because that’s what they enjoy or complete in and it’s easy to ignore aspects of fitness that don’t bring as much pleasure. Long-distance runners, in particular, are likely to resist resistance training. That’s because long-distance runners must run for long periods of time. Having more muscle mass increases the amount of energy they have to expend when running because they’re carrying extra weight. On the other hand, you need strong quads to generate speed, so there must be a balance between strength and bulk. Most runners won’t benefit from lower body bulk unless they’re a sprinter. All you have to do is look at the body of a long-distance runner and compare it to a sprinter. Two very different body types.
Why Runners Need Strength Training Too
As mentioned, distance runners don’t need bulky quads or hamstrings, but they need lower body strength and that comes from resistance training. Another reason runners need strength training is it can lower their risk of injury. Everything in the posterior chain is connected and all the joints and muscles in the chain impact each other. Weak hamstrings or glutes place added stress on the knees, ankles, and feet and this increases the risk of injury. As Runner’s World points out, many runners have “quad dominance,” meaning their quads are stronger than their hamstrings. This creates a muscle imbalance that can lead to a hamstring injury. When the quads are strong enough to generate lots of strength, but the hamstrings are too weak to handle it, the weaker hamstring can stretch or tear. Such a muscle imbalance can also reduce running speed.
Another benefit of lower body strength training is that it enhances dynamic stiffness in the legs. In turn, this improves running economy. Plus, strength training enhances the strength of the core, the “powerhouse” of the body and the point from which runners generate strength, power, and speed.
What’s the Best Way for Runners to Strength Train?
Intuitively, runners who resistance train gravitate toward lighter weight and higher reps, usually reps in the 12 to 20 range. This approach mainly builds muscle endurance, but how many runners really need that? If you run, you build muscle endurance every time you lace up your exercise shoes and take a jog or a long run. Lifting lighter weights and higher reps will build strength initially, but the body quickly adapts to this type of training and strength gains slow. However, as mentioned, runners need lower body strength, particularly in the hamstring and glutes to counter quadriceps dominance and restore muscle balance. That’s why the best approach is to use heavier weight and lower reps as this is the way you build strength without building significant muscle mass or bulk. Plus, more weight and fewer reps is less time consuming for runners who already spend a lot of time running. So, lifting in the 6 rep to 8 rep range to fatigue is optimal.
What Types of Exercises?
Since many runners have quad dominance, it is important to emphasize the posterior chain with strength training, particularly the glutes and hamstrings. Squats are the go-to exercise most runners do–for good reason. Squats is one of the best compound exercises for the lower body. Yet, squats, particularly the front squat, are a quad-centric exercise. Runners need to emphasize the hamstrings and glutes more. So, it’s best to include a variety of squat variations, including back squats.
The reason back squats are so important is that this exercise targets the glutes and hamstrings more than the front squat, a quad-focused exercise. Plus, back squats are usually a safer and easier move relative to the front squat, as you don’t need to be as flexible to do a front squat.
It’s also a good idea to include dynamic squat variations such as jump squats, a move that helps increase power in the lower body. Runners also need good balance to avoid injuries. Therefore, single-leg squats are another squat variation that is important to lower the risk of injury and falls.
Don’t stop with squats! Deadlifts are another effective exercise for the posterior chain, including the hamstrings and glutes. Lunges, too, should be part of your routine. Two of the best lunge variations for runners are walking lunges and reverse lunges. Reverse lunges have the advantage of targeting the glutes and hamstrings more than front lunges. Front lunges activate the quadriceps more. Also, include some single-leg bridges and hip thrusts to work the glutes.
Keep Your Workout Well Rounded
Runners need to build lower body strength to enhance running performance, but core work is vital too since a strong core helps runners build speed. Core strength also lowers the risk of injury and makes running more economical because you waste less energy with extraneous movements when you have a taut core. Some of the best exercises for the core are planks and their variations. Once you’ve mastered a basic plank, try tougher variations like planks with leg raise, spiderman planks, side planks with a twist, and more. Don’t let your plank workouts become stagnant!
The Bottom Line
Yes, runners of all types need strength training. That’s true for sprinters and for long-distance runners. If running is your passion, make sure your lower body and core are as strong as possible to help you be the best at your sport and avoid injury.
· Runner’s World. “Owner’s Manual: Strong Hamstrings”
· OnFitness. March/April 2013. “Strength Training for the Runner”
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