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General Strength Training For Distance Runners

Address all three planes of movement to decrease your risk of both running-related and general injuries.

Improving general strength can benefit runners in numerous ways. For some, becoming a better, stronger, overall athlete is one of their main training goals. For others, general strength can serve as an opportunity to decrease injury risk, prepare the body to handle a greater training load and improve running performance.

Regardless of why you’re interested in improving your overall strength, implementing an intelligent and progressive plan is an investment that will return dividends on the work you put in. Let’s take a look at three specific ways in which including general strength work into your training schedule can help you improve as a runner.

What Is General Strength?

General strength refers to exercises, movements and muscle groups that are not specific to the running motion or that don’t contribute directly to propelling you forward as quickly and efficiently as possible. These types of exercises are called “running specific” training, which you often find in running-specific core work, form drills and plyometric routines.

However, general strength exercises can still help prevent injury and improve your performance. They serve as the backbone to helping you become a stronger overall athlete, which allows you to handle a greater workload (i.e. more intensity and/or greater mileage).

Become A Better Athlete

Running itself is one of the most effective exercises for building the aerobic system. Unfortunately, it’s not very effective for developing balance, overall strength, athleticism and flexibility. In fact, the more you focus on running (building your mileage and making less time for other activities) the worse you become as an overall athlete. Case in point: weeks before running 28:40 for a 10K, I strained a hip flexor playing Wiffle ball in the backyard with my eight-year-old cousin. An “athlete” capable of Olympic Trials performances shouldn’t be that susceptible to injuries.

Why is this?

Running is a repetitive and largely unvarying motion. Your foot plant is roughly the same with each step and the entire running movement occurs in what is called the sagittal plane (front to back of the body), which is what moves you forward. When running correctly, you’ll spend very little time moving side-to-side (frontal plane) or twisting/rotating your trunk (transverse plane). Consequently, the muscles used to activate and support the transverse and frontal plane movements become weak and prone to injury.

Not only does this increase your risk of injury in activities outside running (like my Wiffle ball story), but it also increases your risk of running-related injuries. For example, not being proficient in the frontal plan will result in weak hips and adductors, which is often the cause of IT band problems.

Performing general strength exercises to ensure you’re addressing all three planes of movement decreases your risk of both running-related and general injuries.

Increase Your Training Volume

Simply stated, aerobic fitness develops faster than the muscular system (i.e. tendons, muscles, ligaments and bones). For example, you may be able to hammer out a long run or a tempo run at 8-minutes-per-mile and not feel aerobically taxed, but your hips aren’t yet strong enough to handle the stress of the pace or volume of the run and your IT band becomes inflamed.

This experience is very common for runners who get injuries such as recurring shin splints or other persistent aches and pains when they first start running. Their aerobic fitness is allowing them to continue to increase the distance of their runs because they no longer feel winded at the end of each run; their shin muscles, however, haven’t adapted to the increased pounding caused by the increase in volume and they quickly become injured.

Therefore, it’s important that new runners and injury-prone athletes include ancillary routines, such as general strength training, into their weekly training plans to speed the development of the muscular system. In doing so, you’ll improve the strength and resiliency of your muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones and enable the muscular system to keep up with your aerobic developments.

Not convinced? Let’s use your own training as an example.

What is holding you back from running more mileage and faster workouts each week? I am willing to bet it isn’t your aerobic system, but rather your body’s lack of resiliency toward increased mileage and harder, longer workouts.

If you seem to get injured every time you build mileage or try to maintain harder training for more than a week or two, I guarantee your aerobic system isn’t the problem. Rather, you’ve lost (or in some cases, never had) your athleticism, meaning your muscles, tendons and ligaments aren’t as supple, flexible or as injury-resistant as they once were. By developing general strength, you’ll improve your athleticism, be less injury prone and better able to handle a greater volume of training.

Improve Your Running Economy

In addition to injury prevention, strength training has been shown to directly improve running performance. Of course, running is the most effective way to improve your ability to run faster, but as we’ve seen, and you’ve probably learned in your own training, we can’t infinitely increase mileage or workout volumes. Therefore, we can use general strength work to speed our improvements along while getting in the appropriate amount of actual run training.

But how does improving your running economy make you faster? By improving running economy, a runner should be able to run faster over the same distance with less effort. This is the result of more powerful muscle contractions without a corresponding increase in effort with each stride, more efficient form (i.e. less wasted energy), and a decrease in oxygen consumption while running at the same speed.

Here are some interesting preliminary results about the performance benefits of strength training:

In 2009, Sato and Mokha studied 28 recreational runners with 5K PRs just under 30 minutes. 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 experimental group dropped their 5K time by 47 seconds, while the control group only improved 17 seconds.

A 2008 study by Øyvind Støren and coworkers in Norway examined a more rigorous program focusing on raw leg strength. Seventeen runners (nine men and eight women) with 5K bests in the 18:40-range partook. Støren’s subjects displayed no increase in oxygen intake but a 5 percent increase in running economy and a startling 21 percent improvement in a treadmill run to exhaustion at somewhat faster than 3K race pace versus the control group, who had no improvement on either mark.

Fitting It Into Your Training Schedule

If I’ve convinced you that adding strength training to your schedule will help you become a better athlete, improve your running economy, and help keep you injury-free, check out the four best strength training exercises for runners. Now that you’ve got the exercises you need  to do, check out this article for how to incorporate them into your schedule so you recover faster and don’t interfere with your running workouts.