Heaton Moor Physio
RUN STRONGER: Running Faster Through Strength Training
What makes me faster?
Faster runners are stronger!
Distance Runners do not usually think of themselves as people who should lift weights. Typically most of the training effort is spent in improving Aerobic Fitness through the tried and tested methods of getting miles under your feet.
And this is certainly effective, it trains your VO2max, the measure of your aerobic fitness and also improves your Lactate Threshold, the level at which lactate levels begin to dramatically rise in the blood.
Intervals, hills, long runs, tempo runs are all methods of training these two factors.
But there is a third metric that is associated with running performance, something called Running Economy.
Running economy is how much energy you expend at a given pace and not surprisingly, better performance is associated with a better running economy.
An easy way to think about it is people with a better running economy are able to complete a given distance at a given pace using less energy, meaning they have more in the tank to boost their performance.
Nothing to do with the price of trainers, the measure and theory of running economy has been around for a very long time, though in my experience, few runners have heard of it. Running economy itself turns out to be quite a complex area and has multiple factors which might affect it.
These include but aren’t limited to:
Anthropometric Factors (measures of how you’re built) – This includes Limb Morphology (the shape of your limbs), Muscle & Tendon Stiffness (how well your muscles and tendons can resist stretching against a load), Tendon Length, Bodyweight and others
Biomechanical Factors – Your flexibility and ability to store elastic energy, how much ground reaction force you can generate (how much force that returns into you when your foot strikes the ground, used by runners to generate propulsion)
Physiological Factors VO2max (how fit you are), Your growth development in adolescence, metabolic factors (how efficiently you can metabolise your energy sources), Muscle Power Factors (how much force you can generate from your muscles at maximal effort when contractile capacity is reduced i.e. can you push harder when you’re already pegging it)
(Saunders, Pyne, Telford, & Hawley, 2004)
Some of these factors aren’t modifiable (like limb length or how you grew in adolescence) and some are already improved by normal running training (like VO2max).
But there are a number of these factors which can be improved through weight training. But before we get to that it might be best to tackle some of the terminology, which is arcane at the best of times
Some terms in sports science are often confusing if you’re not used to them. Also a number of them are used interchangeably or differently at times
For example Muscle Power is a measure of a muscle’s ability to produce force at maximal exertion and not a measure of a muscle’s power. What you might think of as power is better described by Muscle Force, which is a measure of how much force a muscle generates..
Force is a little more abstract and can be applied to any object which has been moved. This is a measure of Mass x Acceleration and is usually expressed in Newtons.
Power, as opposed to muscle power, is a measure of work done over time and is measured in Watts.
MusculoTendon Stiffness (MTS) is not to do with the stiffness we feel after training, but a specific biomechanical property which is the ability of that structure to resist change under tensile load.
Why is this useful? Tendons and Muscles have a passive elastic component like an elastic band. When they are stretched, they store energy and then release it again when let go. A lax elastic band is not able to store as much energy as a stiffer elastic band. This is the same for Muscles and Tendons, generally more stiffness means better storing and re-use of energy. This is an important concept with regards to Running Economy
Rate of Force Development – How fast you generate your force, this is measured in Newtons Per Second
How does strength training help?
There are a number of areas in which strength helps with running. These are
Increased Contractile Capacity
Essentially, faster runners tend to be stronger. So not only do they have a greater capacity to generate force through their stronger musculature, they are also more effective at delivering this force, as measured by Rate of Force Development.
Increased MusculoTendindous Stiffness (MTS)
Weight training, especially training which includes plyometric training will help increase MTS which is generally considered to be beneficial.
Essentially the MusculoTendinous structures of the lower limb are better able to store and release energy, making your running more efficient.
Improved Anaerobic Capacity (useful in the speed bursts employed at the end of a race for example)
This is thought to occur from fibre type conversion from Type IIb to IIa which improves Muscle Power. Muscle Power is the ability to generate force while under maximal load, which allows for a stronger kick in the final portion of the race.
Improvements in Neuromuscular Factors
Much of the improvements in strength in the early stages of weight training come from improvements to the nervous system such as improved Motor Unit Coordination, increased Motor Unit recruitment and increased Frequency of Firing. Combined, these make for improved strength and efficiency at generating this strength.
Where to start
For those of us who are unfamiliar with weight training, it is probably best to simply build strength since, as stated before, the runners with the quickest times are stronger.
Strength training, particularly for a sport, can become quite complex, so the purpose here is not to outline a definitive programme, but to make suggestions on how to build the bare bones of a programme.
A simple measure of strength is 1 rep max. 1 rep max is the highest load you can move once and be unable to lift again immediately. Please DO NOT go and test this yourself. It is vital you do this under supervision of someone who has the training to run you through the test.
Percentages of 1RM are often used to define the loads you will lift in your plan.
So for an initial strength phase – that is, a phase in which you are trying to improving your contractile ability, you may perform a strength training session twice a week in which you peform 3 sets of 5 reps at 85% of your 1 rep max. Typical exercises would include, back squats, front squats, dead lifts and cleans or power cleans, for approximately 6 weeks.
To maximise your benefits, you could then have a short 2 week max strength phase in which the loads increase to 90% but this time have 5 sets of 3 reps.
Once we have gained our strength base then the next phase could be an explosive or power based phase. The explosive/power phase would be used to further train rate of force development and ability to generate high force as quickly as possible. The details of this phase are a little beyond the scope of this article, as it begins to get a little more technical, but they generally involve slightly lower weights and shifting them much faster.
I dont want to be a beefcake! It'll slow me down...
Dont worry, you won’t be. There have been numerous studies into concurrent running and strength training and all of them have shown no increase in mass, even over a 40 week training programme!
Muscle hypertrophy is actually quite hard to get unless you’re training specifically for it. Most of your gains will be from efficiencies in your muscles, tendons and nervous system.
Can I do endurance and strength training on the same day?
There is an effect called the interference effect which is due to a mixed hormonal signaling which can occur if strength training is performed directly following endurance training. The effect is that while the benefits of endurance training will be unaffected, the benefits of the strength is lost.
The advice currently is that it is best to perform the different styles of training on different days. If this cannot be achieved, then it is best to do the strength training first, as although this may fatigue the athlete for their endurance work afterwards, both trianing modalities will be beneficial.
Heaton Moor Physio can provide detailed planning and advice on strength training for running. Give us a call and book in for an Assessment of your needs.
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