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Best Ways to Strength Train for Your Next Marathon, Monitor Your Training Load, and Think About Running Shoes and Injuries

Amby Burfoot's Science of Running: News runners can use from the latest scientific reports.

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How to Strength Train for your Next Marathon

weightlifting for the marathon barbell back squat
Photo: Getty Images

For a number of years, runners aiming for optimal performance have been advised to use heavy strength training (HST) in their training program. There’s research to support this approach, but the studies were mostly done on elite or near-elite athletes. That left open the question: Is it worthwhile for midpack runners to consider HST or similar approaches?

Scientists at Shanghai University recently decided to find out. They’re part of a group called the Chinese Marathon College.

The new study:

The research team collected a group of 38 veteran runners (average age, 31) with a measured VO2 max equivalent to a 2:50 marathon performance. The runners were randomly divided into three groups that spent six weeks continuing their normal training (about 28 miles per week) while also adding different strength workouts twice a week. One was termed “complex training” (CPX) and included heavy weights, plus plyometric jumps. The second was heavy strength training (HST). The third consisted of light-weight endurance strength training (EST).

The new paper appears in the European Journal of Sports Science. It’s titled “Concurrent complex and endurance training for recreational marathon runners: Effects on neuromuscular and running performance.”

Results:

There were no significant changes of VO2 max between groups. But the CPX and HST groups improved significantly in velocity at VO2 max, and in running economy, both of which should improve race performance. Note: The researchers did not conduct any tests to see if actual race times changed; they measured only physiological factors. “From a practical perspective,” they wrote, “besides aerobic capacity, neuromuscular characteristics are especially important for marathoners’ performance.”

They added: “In addition, we found that six weeks of strength training did not cause any changes in body weight, BMI, or fat-free mass.” That’s important, because extra weight would probably harm your marathon performance.

Digging deeper:

In both the CPX and HST strength programs, runners performed 5 back squats, 5 split squats, and 5 walking lunges at 70 to 85% of their one-repetition max. The CPX subjects did the same exercises plus drop jumps, single-leg hops, and double-leg hurdle hops. The CPX runners did three sets of their routine, while the HST runners did five sets (so that the two groups did relatively the same amount of work). The EST group did five sets of 15 to 20 reps of the back squats, split squats, and walking lunges at 30 to 40% of their one-rep max.

Take home message:

Strength training and plyometric training may improve marathon performance of non-elite runners. The Shanghai researchers believe that plyometrics are more potent, but also more dangerous because of the injury potential. If you want to pursue plyometric training, they suggest you begin with HST and then gradually transition to CPX training.

How to Monitor Your Training Load

Screenshot of a Strava training log.
Photo: Strava screen shot

Biomechanist Max Paquette and friends have recently been digging deep into the question of how best to measure your overall training load. A recent PodiumRunner article explained their hypothesis that measuring miles alone is not enough to get the job done.

Of course, it’s one thing to have a hypothesis, and another to have supportive data. That’s what Paquette pulled together in his latest research project.

The new paper:

Along with colleagues including Christoper Napier, author of the beautifully illustrated Science of Running, Paquette put his theory to a test by investigating 68 veteran runners who averaged about 30 miles a week in their training. The researchers wanted to see if using sRPE (session Relative Perceived Exertion) gave a more accurate picture of training stress than just hours per week of running (which would be essentially the same as just total miles covered per week). Session RPE includes a subjective evaluation of training difficulty as well as an objective measure like minutes or miles.

The paper, “Session Rating of Perceived Exertion Combined With Training Volume for Estimating Training Responses in Runners,” was published in the Journal of Athletic Training.

Results:

Whether a given training week was less intense than another, or more intense, sRPE provided a more granular view of training stress. With a heavier training week, for example, sRPE recorded a difference as much as 17.7 percent higher than a comparison by duration alone. Hence, if a runner or coach were trying to follow the 10% rule of training increases, they might not recognize that it had been exceeded by looking only at minutes or miles of training. But it would jump off the pages of a training-log analysis that utilized sRPE.

Digging deeper:

Week-to-week changes in running exhibited much more variability with sRPE than with duration alone. This variation is exactly what you want to measure in order to decrease injury risks and increase performance payoffs.

Take home message:

Take a serious look at your training log, and consider changing to a system that includes sRPE. Paquette, Napier, et al believe this would give you “a more individualized estimate of week-to-week changes in overall training stress.” This could help you monitor “training adaptations” and “possibly injury risk reduction.”

How to Choose the Right Shoes

A pile of trainer running shoes.
Photo: Getty Images

All runners would like to reduce their injury risk, especially if a simple action like appropriate shoe selection could do the trick. A Danish research group named RUNSAFE has been studying this question since 2010, and recently published a complete update of their findings.

The new paper:

The authors did not conduct a new experimental trial, but rather looked back over a “vast literature” of studies on running-related injuries from the past 40 years. In particular, they focused on the relationship between running shoes and injuries. They summarized their findings in a “narrative review” a nice way of saying that this paper is easier to comprehend than others that bore down into design and statistics.

Their report appeared in mid-October in the online version of the Journal of Athletic Training, and was titled “Can the ‘Appropriate’ Footwear Prevent Injury in Leisure-Time Running? Evidence Versus Beliefs.”

Results:

The Danish team concluded that “footwear does not cause injuries.” At the same time, footwear is important, because it “can modify the global training load a runner can tolerate before sustaining injury.”

Digging Deeper:

There’s evidence that:

  1. Footwear alone does not produce injuries, but can “modify” runners’ training loads.
  2. Fitting shoes according to foot type for example, by the “wet test” does not decrease injuries.
  3. Shock absorption may reduce injury. But strangely, the evidence is limited to lighter-weight runners rather than heavy-weight runners.
  4. Some amount of motion-control is good for many runners, particularly excessive over-pronators.
  5. Low-drop shoes increase injury rates among regular runners.
  6. Shoe age has no effect on injuries.
  7. Shoe cost has no effect on injuries. That is, more-expensive shoes don’t necessarily offer more protection than less-expensive shoes.
  8. Barefoot or minimalist running does not decrease injury risk.
  9. Alternating pairs of shoes does reduce injuries.

Other potential injury-reducing features have not been tested. Among these: toe-box width, bending stiffness, and weight. Also, the idea that “comfort” is an important factor has not been investigated.

Take-home message:

Don’t blame your shoes for injuries. There are probably other, better reasons for your problems. “In short,” the paper concludes, “it is possible the role of running shoe technology in injury prevention has been largely overrated.”

Which means, as ever, be careful about your training, especially abrupt changes in training.