“If I want to be a better runner, can’t I just run more?” I get this comment frequently from the high school track girls I coach as well as runners I’m treating in physical therapy.
The rule of specificity would say yes because if you want to improve at a certain activity, you have to practice it specifically. However, a study by Marcell, Hawkins and Wiswell reports running alone is not sufficient enough to prevent the loss of muscle strength in older adults. Therefore, strength training needs to be incorporated into weekly routines. Although this study mainly focused on older adults (> 50 years old), if a runner would start strength training in their 20s or 30s, they can hopefully slow the onset of age-related loss of muscle strength not to mention build more lean muscle mass on the front end of life. The most successful as well as injury-free runners are those who have a good balance and variety in their routine, including strength/resistance training.
Now yes, if you want to be a good runner, you have to run. But if you want to be a better and less injury-prone runner, you need to incorporate other activities besides running. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend incorporating at least two days a week of moderate- to high-intensity strength training into your weekly routine.
Strength Training for Runners
Strength training not only provides global health benefits, but aids in injury prevention and performance enhancement. Paul Jones provides a nice review of how strength training can improve running economy as well as examples of specific routines and exercises that may be beneficial for distance runners.
What type of strength training exercises should you do? Here are basic and advanced examples of what I use with my patients/clients:
- Bridges: double and single leg
- Body weight squats (double and single leg) and lunges
- Deadlifts: double and single leg without weight
- Bridges with stability ball or foam roller
- Squats and lunges with weight: barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, etc
- Planks with stability ball, foam roller, theraband, rotations, etc
- Theraband lateral steps or standing 4 way hip with theraband
- Deadlifts with weight (double and single leg): barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, etc
This is not an exhaustive list and there are a million variations to the above exercises, but always MASTER THE BASICS FIRST. The problem I see with so many people (not just runners mind you) is everyone tries to skip steps and do the most high-level, complex exercises out there when they can’t even do the basics correctly. Remember, we must first learn to walk before we run.
How a Physical Therapist Can Help
Correct technique, an appropriate amount of weight, and an appropriate number of sets and repetitions are crucial when beginning a strength training routine. I recommend all runners, recreational and competitive alike, find a physical therapist or strength and conditioning specialist who has a strong background working with runners to get instruction in proper strength training. These professionals will not only recommend which exercises would be most appropriate for you, but they will instruct in the correct technique, weight, and sets/reps for those exercises.
I recommend returning to that same health professional after 4-6 weeks to update/modify your program as well as fine-tune your technique. It always helps to have an extra set of eyes watching your movements to ensure you’re performing the exercises correctly. You won’t maximize the benefit of strength training and can put yourself at risk of injury if you’re doing the exercises wrong.
Incorporating strength training along with running into your weekly routine can provide a whole host of health benefits, with injury prevention and performance enhancement being high on the list. Starting with one day a week can yield benefits and most runners find it enjoyable since it provides some variety into their routine. Find a professional near you to customize a strength training program for your unique needs and get ready to reap the benefits whether it’s setting a new PR or being able to run injury-free.
- P Jones MSc, CSCS. “Resistance Training for Distance Running: A Brief Update.” Strength and Conditioning Journal. Feb 2007, Vol 29, Num 1, pgs 28-35.
- TJ Marcell, SA Hawkins and RA Wiswells. “Leg Strength Declines with Advancing Age Despite Habitual Endurance Exercise in Active Older Adults.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Feb 2014, Vol 28, Num 2, pgs 504-513.
- 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. US Department of Health and Human Services.