Strength training for endurance running performance has become a well established method of training with a substantial body of evidence supporting its application. Despite this I regularly see many elite and recreational athletes training in ways that could be improved. The most common errors I see are in exercise selection, exercise technique, the loads being used, having a far too generalized approach, and a failure to put together purposeful individualized programme.
These errors are probably down to a lack of understanding on the many benefits of strength training as well as a lack of understanding of how to manipulate the elements of the programme towards a specific outcome. In this article I highlight three important benefits of strength training for endurance running performance and give some recommendations for training these qualities.
Benefit 1: Strength training improves lower limb coordination and muscular coactivation.
Running is a complex coordination task that becomes more challenging to control at higher speeds and levels of fatigue. Because of this, having greater coordination is advantageous and will lead to improvements in technique. If chosen appropriately, the types of exercise you perform in the gym can teach you key technical qualities that will enhance your coordination and running technique.
For example, exercises such as step-ups, reverse lunges, and single-leg RDLs, which are all uni-lateral exercises, are great for teaching qualities like balance, posture, hip flexion, and hip extension. I have found endurance runners feel far more comfortable performing these exercises compared to bi-lateral movements like squats and deadlifts. Unfortunately in the research uni-lateral exercises are studied far less and as a result training recommendations are often built around bi-lateral exercises instead. This is not to say these exercises are not useful, however when it comes to developing lower limb coordination for running, my preference is to train unilateral exercises.
Muscular coactivation is also really important and refers to the degree to which muscles can fire in the right sequence and at the right time. This skill can also be enhanced through certain plyometric exercises if you know how to perform them properly. For example, some exercises can teach the body develop a level or ‘pre-tension’ across key muscle groups before ground contact. This enables your body to act more like a spring and as a result reduce ground contact times when you run. A great example of exercises to develop this is to perform pogo jumps for the ankles and repeated countermovement jumps or bounds for the hips.
Benefit 2: Strength training enhances motor unit efficiency.
Appropriately designed strength training should target a neural adaptation which enhances how a muscle’s motor units are recruited. One part of this is improving motor unit synchronization, which refers to the ability of a muscle to fire all its parts at the same time, making it more efficient. When a muscle is better able to recruit motor units in this way it will fatigue less at maximal and sub-maximal speeds. This adaption will lead to greater running economy, which is typically defined as a reduction in energy demand for a given speed.
Furthermore, improved motor unit efficiency will enable you to generate higher forces when you are sprinting or running up hills. This occurs as a result of being able to recruit more motor units and in particular those that fire at faster rates. Exercises to develop these qualities are usually based around lifting heavy or moving a lighter weight as fast as possible, as both require you to recruit a large number of motor units. Personally I prefer the distance runners I work with to lift sub-maximally at speed rather than targeting true maximal strength work.
Benefit 3: Strength training can reduce injuries.
Injuries happen when the demands of the sport exceed the capacity of ones body to handle them. Whilst distance runners typically possess great endurance and good speed they often do not have the strength to handle the significant stresses they can place on their own bodies. A body that is stronger, and therefore more able to produce and absorb force, will be able to handle higher volumes and intensities in training. In part, this is also because of the improvements in coordination and efficiency highlighted above, but also because the forces involved when running are now in effect relatively lower compared to the overall strength of the athlete.
When it comes to preventing injuries it is also really important to be targeted in the types of training you do relative your own risks. Perhaps you have a history of tendon injury, well certain isometric and eccentric exercises have been found to be very effective in protecting tendons. Alternatively, perhaps you have a history of injury to muscle, in that case maximal strength or strength endurance training will be the way to go.
The core is an relevant area here too, with many athletes classing their core endurance circuits as important injury prevention work. When it comes to injury prevention and the core however, the quality that is most important is not strength endurance but the ability to resist rotation, extension and flexion when running. This ability requires the core to brace against large and fast forces that occur with each ground contact. Great exercises to develop this quality are medicine ball exercises where you pass ball back and forth and brace the core each time you catch. Various band resisted chops and pulls are also great where you have to resist forces that cross the body. When it comes to core training it is also important to understand that all strength and plyometric exercises develop the core when performed properly. Working with a strength and conditioning coach will help you identify if each joint is moving correctly during each exercise and no matter how strong your core is, you must learn to use it properly when you run, jump and lift.
Best of luck with training to all the runners out there. It is a challenging time for everyone and hopefully your running is helping you get through this time. If you have not started strength training, now could be good time, and even if you do not want to get back into public gyms there is a lot you can do with very little equipment. Find a great S&C coach to work with and their support will enable you to purposely train towards the benefits I have highlight above.