guest blog courtesy of running physio @tomgoom
Resistance training for runners has been subject to some debate in recent years. Some have claimed it may impair performance but recent research suggests it can be hugely beneficial and play a part in reducing injury risk. So how does it help and what exercises should you focus on?
Studies by Jung (2003) and Jones and Bampouras (2007 summary only) concluded that resistance training (RT) benefits runners by improving their running economy. This is a measure of how efficient you are as a runner, technically it means how efficiently a person uses oxygen while running at a certain pace. Stronger muscles are thought to manage the impact involved in running more effectively and help turn this force into forward momentum. The research also agreed that there was no evidence that RT would have negative effects on performance – it has been shown not to reduce other important training variables (VO2 Max and Lactate Threshold).
While there appears to be a consensus that RT improves running economy its role in injury prevention is a little less clear. Many physios and health professionals will recommend it but there is limited conclusive research to show it will reduce injury rates in runners. That said, extensive research on injury prevention that has included over 30,000 runners is yet to make any meaningful conclusions on what will reduce injury rates. The specifics of what to strengthen have also not been explored in great detail in the literature but we can draw some conclusions from a number of articles on specific injuries;
- Strengthen glutes – work with injured runners by Federicson (2000) showed that improving glutes strength (using sidelying abduction and pelvic drops) was effective in treating Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS), a very common running injury. It is also thought to help treat other common knee problems such as Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS). Strong glutes help to maintain pelvis and hip position during the impact phase of running, in doing so they help reduce load on the knee, ankle and foot.
- Improve eccentric quads strength – Syme et al. (2009) found general quadriceps strengthening significantly reduced pain in PFPS (often called Runner’s Knee due to how common it is in runners). Eccentric strength in this case means how well the quads work as the knee flexes to lower the body weight. This happens during impact in running so is very important.
- Strengthen calf muscles – calf muscles are thought to have a vital role in absorbing impact during running. Weak calf muscles can lead to Achilles tendinopathy or plantar fasciitis
- Strengthen hamstrings – quite a few runners approach me with hamstring problems and strong hamstrings work well with strong quads to provide stability from the knee.
The next question is how do you strengthen these areas? Here are some recommendations
Glutes- sidelying abduction, controlled single leg dip, side plank with abduction, pelvic drops, pelvic wall press
Calf- single leg calf raise a) with knee straight b) with knee flexed around 30 degrees. Plantar flexion against weight – using the leg press machine
Hamstring- hamstring curl (using machine or leg weights), high step ups, ‘Nordic’ hamstring exercise
Reps, sets and load
There is some debate over the most effective choice of training variables for improving muscle strength. Extensive work from the American College of Sports Medicine (2009) provided guidance but was criticised elsewhere in the literature. What complicates the picture is that pure strength isn’t the only potential target for resistance training. Broadly speaking there are 4 potential aims – to build strength, power, enduran
Without meaning to muddy the waters further there is another point to consider – strength is the bedrock on which other targets can be built. Without adequate strength you’ll struggle to improve power, endurance or hypertrophy. My recommendation would be first to build strength, then work on other targets as required. Traditionally it was recommended to do power work for sprinters running shorter distances and endurance work for middle distance or long distance runners. This probably still rings true to some degree but the training programmes in the literature focus more on strength than power or endurance.
The amount of repetitions, number of sets and load/ resistance involved varies considerably depending on what your target is. The ACSM (2009) made the following recommendations;
Strength - 3 sets of 8-12 reps using a moderate or heavy load so that the final 2 reps are challenging enough that you couldn’t manage an extra rep. Separate each set by a 2-3 minute rest period.
Power - Start with low to moderate load and build up to heavy weights, 1-3 sets of 3-6 reps at an ‘explosive tempo’ with a 2-3 minute rest period between each set. Reps and sets will vary depending on resistance used and experience.
Endurance – do multiple sets (usually starting at 2-3 and building up) with high reps, usually 15-25 using light to moderate loads. Rest for 1-2 minutes between sets.
Hypertrophy – similar to strength work initially – 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps using moderate to heavy loads and a 1-2 minute rest period. Progress with increased load, 1-12 reps (depending on resistance) 3-6 sets with a 2-3 minute rest period.
Here’s an example programme from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) article by Erikson 2005 (which is freely available online);
You’ll notice the programme above includes upper body and arm exercises as well as leg work – the whole body is involved in running so it can help to strengthen core and arms too. You’ll also see they change their prescription between the on and off seasons. During the off season when not racing runners are building the strength needed to compete. In the racing season strength training is reduced to allow the runner to work on building mileage and allow adequate rest and recovery.
Final thoughts: resistance training can be a very valuable tool for runners to improve performance and reduce risk of injury. It is most effective when used to target specific areas of weakness – an assessment from a strength and conditioning coach, personal trainer or Physio will help you build an individual programme to suit your needs. If you’re struggling with an injury or have health concerns always consult your GP or health professional before starting a training programme.
More details here on resistance training in runners.
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