Let’s start with a story… A true story.
Two males in their early 20s, best friends who have signed up to do a half marathon together. Together probably isn’t the right word, against each other would be more accurate. Male number 1 runs pretty often recreationally as part of his general fitness routine – around 2-3 x per week, 4-6 kms at a time. He takes his half marathon training seriously and steps up to 3-4 runs per week, slowly building up to a 16 km run a week before race day and tapers appropriately. Male number 2 is not a runner at all. He never has been. His regular fitness routine is 3-4 x per week of resistance training at the gym but he likes the idea of a new challenge. He’s not so strict with his running program and only really does 1 maybe 2 runs per week, the longest of which prior to the race, is only 10 kms!
Come race day who wins? Male number 2. Surprised? We’re not.
Just to be clear, we’re absolutely not saying that conditioning in the form of running training shouldn’t make up the bulk of a serious runners program. But it is very interesting to see how much of a difference strength can make on novice runners. And if that is the case what happens when a running enthusiast also includes strength in their endurance preparation?
The evidence shows that strength training dramatically improves a number of measures directly associated with endurance running performance; Including running economy, stride length and stride frequency. Let’s look a little closer at what those things are:
Running economy is the relationship between energy cost and a given running velocity (being able to maintain a competitive pace even when you’re tired). Improved running economy increases distance travelled at a given speed because of decreased oxygen consumption due to improved mechanical efficiency, muscle co-ordination and motor recruitment patterns. Research tells us that both heavy strength training and explosive strength training improves running economy in well-trained endurance runners. This has been shown to occur in as little two sessions per week over six weeks!
Stride Length and Stride Frequency
A runner’s speed is determined by their stride length (distance travelled from one foot contact to the next) and stride frequency (number of strides per minute). As fatigue kicks in, either or both of these things are effected resulting in a slower pace and far higher injury risk. Studies show that a periodised strength training program including a combination of circuit training and plyometrics was able to minimise the negative effects of fatigue on stride length and frequency in only 8 weeks.
In addition to improving running economy and stride length/frequency, strength training prepares the body to handle the high volume of marathon training. It improves lower body dynamics and co-ordination and helps to correct weaknesses and asymmetries which may contribute to injury.
Tips on including strength training into marathon preparation
So now you have all the evidence and ‘why’ lets get the the ‘how’:
Start with light loads and focus on developing proper lifting technique before increasing the load. Due to the soreness in the 24 – 48 hours following strength training that is common when commencing a strength program, it may be better to start strength training during the off season;
Choose compound, multi-joint exercises that train the appropriate muscle groups and simulate the running motion;
The types of exercises chosen for strength training should align with the phase and focus of the training cycle, e.g. bodyweight, circuit-style exercises should be chosen for the base phase at the beginning of the season, while explosive plyometric exercises with higher loads and lower volume should be used leading up to competition.
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Sarah Ho is a contributing writer for Pinnacle Performance.