Strength Training for Runners: The Basics
A lot of runners believe that their primary focus should be on the actual RUNNING, and that any time they spend in other types of training such as resistance or strength training for runners, HIIT, core training, etc. detracts from their running. There is a little bit of truth to this: after all, to be able to run more, you need to run more.
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However, you also need to understand that spending time engaging in other types of training can actually make you a better runner. Perhaps not in the short-term (if you spend time on other training, you can’t improve your running time now), but definitely in the long-term. Strengthening your core, leg muscles, and even upper body will improve your running. It sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain:
When you run, the focus is primarily on your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, circulatory system). This helps to develop good aerobic conditioning and endurance. However, what happens to your muscles and joints as you run? Aerobic conditioning can lead to a decrease in muscle mass, particularly of the (upper body) muscles not being as well utilized as the lower muscles when you run. The body also tends to break down more muscle tissue than body fat when you ONLY focus on aerobic training.
On the flip side, mixing resistance training into your routine will do two things: 1) it will push your heart and lungs harder, and 2) it will prevent muscular catabolism (breakdown) and fat accumulation.
Push your heart and lungs harder – Aerobic training only pushes your heart to 75% or less of its Max VO2. The focus is primarily endurance, but cardiovascular endurance is just one of four pillars of fitness (along with muscular endurance, muscular strength, and flexibility/mobility).
Resistance training and HIIT training can both push your cardiovascular system to its limits (95% Max VO2). This leads to better fat-burning, improved cardiovascular conditioning, and a higher aerobic threshold. Basically, the higher your aerobic threshold, the more you can push yourself before hitting your peak. Pushing that aerobic threshold will make you a better runner—you’ll be able to run faster without pushing past 60-75% VO2 Max. (see here for AHA guidelines). You can keep an eye on your heart rate whilst you run with a fitness tracker- check out our lowdown on some of the most popular.
Prevent muscular catabolism – Muscular breakdown is a BAD thing for anyone, but more so for runners. When your body primarily burns fat (the side effect of aerobic exercise), it feels the need to store more fat. If you add muscle breakdown to an increase in stored fat, you end up with “skinny fat”—people with a very low weight and lean body, but a high body fat to muscle mass ratio.
On the other hand, keeping your muscles in good shape by doing resistance training will continue to encourage fat burning, particularly the visceral fat stored around your gut. You can lower your BMI without affecting your muscle mass.
Bonus: Resistance training strengthens the muscles you use – Your back, legs, and abs are all engaged when you run. Spending more time strengthening those muscles will help to increase the limits (strength and endurance) of the muscles that pump away as you run.
If you want to be a better runner, it’s VITAL that you spend more time in resistance training as well as your regular runs. So, where does one start with basic strength training for runners?
Strength Training for Runners: Best Exercises
If you want to get in tip-top running shape, here are some of the best exercises to create a program of strength training for runners:
Squats – Squats are a classic lower body exercise that hit your thighs like a boss. At the same time, they also force you to engage your core (back and abs) to keep your posture straight while you squat. Both Back Squats and Front Squats are good, and you should include both in order to improve your posture. The strengthening of your legs and core will make you a better runner.
Lunges – Lunges tie with Squats as the “best lower body movement”. However, they are better for runners, as they focus more on your glutes and hamstrings than Squats. Side Lunges, Crescent Lunges, and other Lunge variations will help to improve lower body and core conditioning, translating to better strength for your runs, as well as improved proprioception, stability, and a reduction in any muscular imbalances built up through an unbalanced stride pattern. These benefits can have reciprocal effects on your pace and efficiency.
Plank – The plank is all about core strength, tightening up your abs, glutes, and lower back. This exercise can strengthen the spinal erector muscles that protect your spine as you run. It will reduce the strain on your lower back from the repetitive impact of your stride.
Deadlift – Deadlifts hit your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings LIKE A BOSS! I will argue that there is no single exercise better for runners than deadlifts. Running often focuses on the thighs, so many runners will do a lot of squats and lunges. But the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back take most of the strain, especially on inclines. Deadlifts—both Regular and Stiff-Legged Deadlifts—will give these important muscles the priority they deserve.
Push-Ups – Push-Ups may be an exercise that targets your upper body (chest, shoulders, and triceps), but it’s also great for keeping your lower back, abs, glutes, and hip muscles engaged, assuming you retain tight form. In this regard push-ups can be as effective as the plank, but with the added benefit of shredding your less-used upper body muscles. The two can even be combined, for example pushup into plank with arm and leg extension (and that’s just for starters).
Russian Twists – Russian Twist is a twisting movement that engages your abs, lower back, and your obliques (side muscles). The obliques may not be as utilized as your abs and back when you run, but they deserve attention if you are to have a well-rounded balance of musculature.
Squat Jumps – Squat Jumps combine aerobic training (jumping) with anaerobic training (Squats) for one heck of a workout. This exercise will push your aerobic threshold beyond its limits, and will get your body used to strengthening your muscles while working your heart and lungs. The jumping movement will lead to serious increases in your aerobic conditioning, translating into better, faster run times. Beware of the DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) that can occur from a heavy bout of jump squats the first few times. Probably best to do them after your run, not before.
Though resistance training may not be your primary focus as a runner, it certainly deserves its place in your routine if you are serious about your progress. The exercises above are excellent staples of strength training for runners, but also anyone beginning resistance training. You should spend at least 40% of your weekly exercise time engaged in anaerobic/strength training in order to see improvements not just in your running, but your overall fitness.
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