Strength Training – No Escape

I used to think that if I want to be a better runner all I have to do is to run, the more the better. There is already a variety of established training runs to work with after all – easy, tempo, intervals, fartleks, long runs and others. However, training to be a faster runner is not that just about running to no ends, apparently.    

The experts are advocating strength training to be thrown into the mix if you want to improve to be a faster runner. This seems to violate the principle of training specificity. I am puzzled as to why by just running a lot, on its own, does not produce the optimal adaptations and improvements for the sport I want to focus on, which is, running.

My understanding is that our body is one that adapts to get better at handling the type of stress we impose on it. For instance, if we lift heavy weights, our bodies develop bigger muscles and increase our ability to lift heavier weights progressively. When we run long distances consistently, our heart and muscles become stronger, which makes us better at running long distances.   

So, if you ask runners, most will tell you that they don’t do strength trainings. Most of us runners are either reluctant or downright dislike to strength train. After all, strength training sessions will only take time away from our limited time to run. Strength training does not log miles nor contribute to our pursuit to meet our weekly mileage goals.   

I read that some would even maintain that strength training is useless for runners. The argument is that there is only marginal benefit to be gained from it. Some studies even suggest that running and strength training are in fundamental conflict by way of something called the interference effect. This is due to the reason that endurance and resistance trainings produce very different and incompatible adaptations. The short of it is that working on strength directly compromises endurance, and vice versa.

So does spending an hour of strength training improves your running more than using that extra hour for running? Or are we better off spending that one hour of strength training actually sleeping to allow our body to recover for our next run?

Well, like all things in life, it depends. Are you already running most days of the week or are you barely finding enough time or opportunity to run in a week? If you are already running religiously most days during the week, allocating a session or two towards building strength may be a good idea. But if you are struggling to run enough as it is, replacing the already limited running time with strength training will likely just bring marginal benefits to your running ability.

Assuming that you are running regularly (4 to 6 times a week), incorporating strength training can potentially bring significant benefits to your running abilities. Stronger leg muscles (achieved from specific strength trainings) can deliver more power when you run. Strengthened connective tissues such as tendons and ligaments can make you less prone to injuries.    

Improving your upper-body strength is also important for runners. A stronger core will help you maintain a stable upper body and boost running efficiency. Developing strength in your arms will improve your arm drives to assist you inject more power into your strides.

From my readings, I have summarised five basic body weight exercises that are useful for runners who wants to benefit from strength trainings. My aim is to keep it simple. Many, if not most of the fancy exercises out there today can be traced back to these fundamental five basic movements. That means if you get good with these five basic body weight movements, you can easily proceed to variations of these exercises or adding weights, which can challenge your body to obtain higher gains.     

(I do not dwell into the how-to of these exercises for you can find many resources on them available on the Internet.)

1.     Squats

The air squat is one of the most basic movement in body weight exercises. Being able to squat deeply with good form means having a wide range of movements on your hips, knees, ankles and back. Squats will strengthen the major muscle groups used when running and improve flexibility for a faster, more efficient running stride.

If your range of motion in the squat is limited, you will have trouble with not just your running goals, but many of your daily activities as well. Once you are able to air squat properly, you can progress into variations such as goblet squat, barbell back squat, front squat and even overhead squat.  

2.     Lunges

Lunges are a great way to strengthen the legs anteriorly and posteriorly. It also improves coordination of muscular movements and contractions between the front and the back legs. There are not many exercises that can do all of that at the same time.

There are many different type of lunges, but the most common ones are walking lunge and reverse lunge. Performing lunges with proper form can strengthen glutes and hamstrings, loosen hip flexors and promote body coordination and balance.

3.     Push-ups

The push-up is a classic body weight exercise that strengthens the chest, shoulders and arms to improve posture and arm drive while running. Done correctly it will even toughen the legs and glutes.

All runners should add push-ups in their strength training routines. It is especially effective in developing strong core necessary to help maintain good posture and running form, which translates to a stronger run. Push-up is also a full-body exercise that encourages mindfulness of the whole body to maintain a solid structure.

4.     Pull-ups

Pulling strength is an essential component of a well-rounded physical skillset. For most who are not familiar or are just starting, a pull-up may seem out of reach. Some of the things that might be getting in your way with pull-ups are weak shoulder girdle, poor grip strength, limited shoulder mobility and instability in the core.

The pull-up is one of the most effective exercises for strengthening the back, shoulder and arm muscles. These muscles act as counterbalance to your legs and provide the needed power transfer down the kinetic chain. Your upper body and core will be much stronger and this will translate to a faster run.

5.     Dips

Dips are a challenging exercise that can build strength and muscle mass in your chest, triceps, shoulders, and back. This movement builds stability in the core and upper body, while improving your overall conditioning. It can be done on the rings or parallel bars. Beginners can start with the simple park bench variation.

This exercise will build powerful pushing strength and stretch the pectoral (the muscles that connect the front of the human chest with the bones of the upper arm and shoulder). Naturally, strong legs muscles are crucial for running fast. But a strong shoulder will provide additional thrust to catapulting the runner forward.

Working the dips on the rings can be rather challenging

Many runners underestimate the importance of upper body strength for good running performance. The limitation of training with runs only is that you neglect the necessary strengthening and stress adaptation necessary for the upper body. That is why strength workouts should be a staple in your training if you want to see sustainable improvements in your running.

The key takeaway is that our physical abilities will reduce if we don’t use it. Our exercise capacities will always be matched to (and never exceed) the demand we placed on our bodies. Our bodies will only maintain the adaptations based on the demands we subject them to. 

That is why training works the way it does. Specifically, the lack of strength training can potentially causes us to lose our overall physical strength (especially on the upper body) that is important for a stronger run.