Strength and Power Training…For Runners???
Sorry for the short writing hiatus I was just on, as I missed last week entirely. Most of my distraction from writing was due to being in the process of buying a house (nothing major, of course).
Anyways, I’m back on track this week with an article on sport-specific training for runners and what that should look like. Current concepts on training in the gym for endurance athletes are quite different from what I used to think, and perhaps that is true for a lot of other people as well.
If you are an avid runner, or you know someone who is, then I think you’ll enjoy this article (and hopefully share it too!). And if you like what you read, don’t miss the offer at the bottom of the article! Read on to find out more about training for runners…
I still remember the dichotomy between us baseball players and the track and cross country athletes in college. We would see each other in the gym, but our training routines were quite different.
As baseball players, we were concerned with training for strength, power, speed, and size. We wanted to get bigger, throw harder, hit harder, and run faster. This meant squatting or deadlifting near maximal weights, and trying to get out of the long-distance running that we were told to do.
On the other hand, the runner’s (in particular the long-distance runner’s) training routine was all about endurance. Whether it was in the weight room, on the track, or running around campus, everything they did was about maximizing endurance.
When I first began studying the textbooks that talk about how to design training programs, I remember the sections on training specificity. I recall the tables of recommended repetitions for a given exercise, and how many should be performed for strength, power, hypertrophy, and endurance. 1-3 repetitions for power training, 4-8 for strength, 8-15 for hypertrophy, and 12-20 for endurance.
It all seemed pretty straightforward at the time: football players, sprinters, and other strength/power athletes should train with high-load, low repetition exercises. On the other hand, cross-country runners, soccer players, and other endurance athletes should train with low-load, high repetition exercises. And that’s what they did.
While the football player would squat 500 lbs. for 2 repetitions, the cross-country runner would squat 50 lbs. for 15 repetitions. At first, this seems to make sense. If your sport is all about endurance, then you should train the muscles for endurance every time you exercise.
However, there are a few problems with this approach to training which have come to light with more recent research on the topic.
First of all, while sport-specific training is a nice idea, you shouldn’t get overly specific. If you simply repeat the same kind of physical demand in the gym that you do in the sport itself, then you don’t have a great sport-specific training program. Instead, you have a program that is promoting overtraining in certain areas, while completely neglecting others.
For example, as a former baseball player, I know some people who think of sport-specific baseball training as only performing exercises for the throwing shoulder, doing some running, and performing repetitions of swinging the bat or throwing the ball with added resistance.
The main problem with this is that baseball players get thousands of repetitions of these sport-specific activities through regular practice and games. If you repetitively train the same movements in the gym that are performed in the sport, you’re not getting stronger and more resilient; you’re breaking down and overtraining the same movement patterns.
So, instead of doing that kind of so called “sport-specific” training, you will be better off by getting generally stronger and more athletic with foundational strength exercises. After that, you can work on weaknesses, and perform movements that are different but complementary to what is performed during the sport.
The other goal of a truly sport-specific training program should be to assess the problems that are caused by the demands of the sport and the repetitive movements involved in it. That way, instead of reinforcing these problems during training, you can work on correcting them.
Of course, these ideas for truly sport-specific training programs can be extrapolated to any sport. But today I want to focus on what good training should look like for endurance athletes, and in particular runners. Unfortunately, the importance of good strength training is often overlooked in this population.
For runners the answer to how we can protect them from injury and maximize performance is not simply more running. They already get plenty of this in their training.
It’s also not a matter of performing endurance oriented strength exercises, as twenty repetitions of loaded squats will only add to the repetitive strain placed on their bodies.
Instead, the answer is a paradigm shift in how runners are trained, and what it means to perform sport-specific training. Rather than just replicating the movements and energy demands needed in the sport, training in the gym should focus on improving weaknesses, building strength and resilience, and maximizing movement quality.
So how should runners train in the gym?
The focus for training when it comes to long-distance runners should be:
Limiting the increase of body mass and muscular hypertrophy
Maximizing workout efficiency and optimizing recovery to avoid overtraining
Improving maximal oxygen consumption, running economy, and lactate threshold
Improving lower body and core strength and stability to allow efficient force transfer through the legs during running
Improving maximal strength of the lower body to enable greater force production with each stride, thus allowing the runner to produce the same absolute force at a lower relative intensity
All of the above are goals that should be the focus for runners when training in the gym, but how can we train to reach these goals?
Firstly, for runners who have been training for a while, there is not likely to be much increase in maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max), or lactate threshold, by simply adding strength training to their current routine.
To define these two terms, VO2 max is an indicator of the overall capacity of the cardiovascular system to take in and utilize oxygen during exercise. A higher VO2 max is an advantage for an endurance athlete because they can run for longer at higher speeds while still being able to deliver much needed oxygen to the muscles.
For someone who is sedentary, strength training will absolutely increase VO2 max, but not so much for a trained endurance athlete.
The lactate threshold is the point of exercise intensity at which concentrations of lactate in the blood exponentially increase. Lactate production is associated with increased levels of hydrogen ions leading to increased acidity. This happens when you are exercising at a level that is above your ability to deliver oxygen to the muscles, and your body must produce energy anaerobically (i.e. without oxygen).
This is what causes the muscular fatigue and “burn” associated with high intensity exercise. But if you can increase your lactate threshold, then you can increase your intensity of exercise without suffering the negative consequences of fatigue and muscle burn. You will be able to use oxygen to produce energy at faster running speeds, rather than relying on anaerobic energy production to keep you going.
Now, as I said, you are unlikely to increase these two factors by adding strength training if the athlete has already been training as a runner for a long time. However, what you can improve in the gym is running economy.
Among highly trained endurance athletes, running economy is one of, if not the greatest factor affecting running performance. This is because there is usually not a large difference in VO2 max or lactate threshold levels among highly trained and elite endurance athletes. But there may be a significant difference in levels of strength and running economy.
Simply put, running economy is the ability to run at faster speeds while still consuming the same amount of oxygen. In other words, you can increase your running speed while leaving VO2 max and lactate threshold levels unchanged. Needless to say, this offers a huge advantage.
The only question now is: how does one increase running economy?
That is where strength and power training comes in to play. Training for strength and power will increase maximal strength, muscle-tendon stiffness, rate of force development, and the ability to produce powerful muscular contractions.
All of these factors allow each stride and push off during the race to be more efficient and powerful, allowing the runner to increase running speed while conserving energy.
Going back to my point near the beginning, you can’t improve these factors very much by training with low intensity, high repetition exercises. This will, for the most part, provide the opposite effect by adding volume and fatigue to the training program, and slowing you down even more.
The answer, then, is to perform sets of strength and power exercises at high intensity, with low volume. This serves to maximize force and power development in the muscles, while not placing excessive strain on the body.
Of course, if you have never done much if any, strength training before, you should begin with at least several weeks of lower intensity strength training to build a foundation of strength and stability before jumping right into high-intensity strength and power training.
But after this initial phase, leave the high-volume training to your regular running routine, and focus on building your strength, power, speed, and resilience in the gym. This will ensure that you avoid overtraining, while maximizing your performance in endurance events.
If this sounds like something you or someone you know would be interested in doing, but you’re not sure how to design a good strength training program for yourself, you’re in luck. At the Carlisle UMedGym, we are starting a special training program for runners who are over 40 on April 18th.
In the program, we will provide a thorough assessment, 1 private training session, and scheduled semi-private training sessions once a week for five weeks. All of this is included for only $125! Needless to say, it will be a great opportunity to get started with a strength training program that is tailored directly to your needs.
If you are interested, please contact me via the contact page on this website, or check out this link for more information.
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