As spring approaches marathon season starts creeping that ever bit closer, and the familiar running niggles are seen coming in for physio treatment. Too often we see runners who have had to put a holt to their training programme as a result of relentlessly pounding the pavement, with little variety and a lack of strength work incorporated into their schedule. Much of the time these running injuries could have been prevented if specific strengthening exercises had of been added in to a weekly training programme.
As a keen runner, and one who has been side-lined by my own running injuries, I understand the frustration of being held back from training and disappointment at not reaching performance goals. In the long run (excuse the pun!), I do believe my personal experience with injury has helped my physiotherapy practice when treating runners and I cannot stress enough the importance of a structured, individualised strength and conditioning (S&C) programme that runners should supplement alongside they weekly mileage. So, whether this is your first marathon or you’re training to smash your personal best, here I hope to bust a few myths and explain why you should get your S&C in.
Due to the high volumes of repetitive loading in endurance running, it is no surprise that we see a high prevalence of over-use type injuries, particularly of the lower limb. It has been shown that approximately 4 x your body weight is placed through your body with every step when running, with the greatest demand through the foot and the Achilles tendon. Over the course of a race or a long run, these forces can accumulate to exceptionally high loads.
Using specific strengthening exercises to place load through a tissue that may be vulnerable to injury, will help improve that tissues tolerance to load, and as a result reduce your risk of injury. This will also indirectly improve your performance, as less time will be lost through being side-lined through injury.
Recent research, backs this up, with a promising systematic review by Lauersen et al. (2013) which looked in the determining the effectiveness of stretching, strength training, balance exercise and combined approaches in preventing sports injuries. They concluded that ‘strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved’. In this study the strength training was not specific to each patient, so therefore with tailored strength training we may see even better improvements.
Strength training also results in nervous system and muscle system adaptions, which will directly enhance your running performance. This includes improving your ability to produce more force with each stride, more effective use of elastic energy from your tendons and a more effective running style. Which means you will take less effort to go faster!
Will I bulk up?
Many runners do not like the idea of strength training as they think they will add bulk and increase muscle mass which will slow them down, which is obviously not the desired outcome for an endurance runner – nor is it the case. Strength training for runners is aimed at improving your nervous system to produce a higher amount of force in a shorter period of time. It makes you more efficient with the muscle mass you are already carrying.
Strength training allows you to recruit a greater percentage of the muscle mass per contraction and therefore consequently share the work more evenly, increasing your efficiency and reducing fatigue. Endurance runners are highly unlikely to increase their muscle mass, due to the continued effect of endurance training within their training schedule. It takes a great deal of heavy lifting, with very specific, focused muscle strength training to bulk up like a weight lifter.
Are you strong enough to run?
The first point of any S&C programme is determining your own strengths and weakness so that a training programme is specific to you. The exact details of what to strength and how to do it are likely to be highly individual depending on your specific goals, strengths and weaknesses. Common areas of weakness include calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes and all of these can be targeted through strength training.
We can use a battery of tests to reflect the key physical demands used in running, which will determine the emphasis of where your S&C should be placed. We will look at how you move with a movement screening exercises, capacity tests to identify your strength and jumping type exercises (plyometrics) to look at your power and control. These tests are also really helpful in providing some motivation, as we all love a number to beat! This way you can see just how strong you are becoming.
Here is an example of some of the capacity tests that we would look at:
Single leg Calf Raises (reps)
|Less than 15|
|Greater than 30|
Single leg Hamstring Bridge (reps)
|Less than 15|
|Greater than 30|
Press ups (reps)
|Less than 20||20-40||Greater than 40|
|Side plank (s)||Less than 60||60-120|
Greater than 120
How often and how to start?
Ideally, an S&C session should be done at least twice a week. You should allow at least 8 hours between running and then doing your strengthening, ideally have a 24-48 hour gap for sufficient recovery.
I hope that this has dispelled some of the concerned and uncertainties you may have had about strength training as a runner, and has got you thinking about whether you have enough of it within your own training program.
If you have a current injury or a history of injury we would suggest booking in a Physiotherapy Initial Consultation where we can assess your biomechanics, identify your areas of weakness and help you create a set of exercises tailed to you. If you are injury free our S&C Intro will suffice and will enable you to access our S&C classes. Starting strength training will dramatically help reduced your injury risk and improve your performance goals, to help you on your way to smashing that PB and enjoying your running niggle free.
Lauersen et al. (2013) – The Effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. BSJM.
Strength and Conditioning for Endurance Running, Blagrove 2017