Wanna Get Faster? Get Stronger!

Wanna Get Faster? Get Stronger!

Jeff Vajay, PT, CSCS

Most runners live to run but when it comes to additional training techniques, that’s where it’s likely to begin and end. Exercise physiologists agree that total body fitness evolves from a fusion of cardiovascular performance, muscle conditioning and range of motion. However, while techniques like therapeutic stretching, foam roller massage and cardiovascular cross training are becoming more recognized in the endurance athlete’s realm and are even begrudgingly being utilized more frequently by runners, traditional weight training is still being avoided like shin splints. When I just mention the words strength training or lifting weights to a runner, the idea alone invokes an automatic cringe.  I often hear, “I’m a runner, I don’t need to lift weights.” Or, “Lifting weights won’t improve my PR, it’ll just make me bulky and slow.” Actually, you’re wrong, on both counts.

Most research does in fact support that weight training does not significantly improve VO2 consumption or increase lactate threshold VO2.  These are the gold standards for runners and endurance athletes.  Endurance training, i.e. running, is the best way to improve these measures and in effect, decrease your times. Most runners know this already, that’s why you probably have put significant thought into a specific running program.  However, there is one other standard through which you can also improve your PR: the often overlooked, but still critical element of “running economy.”  In developing and maximizing running economy, studies have shown to support the use of weight training for endurance athletes. 

Now that I have your attention, a 1994 study from the Department of Kinesiology at the University of New Hampshire, showed that running economy improved in those athletes who lifted weights and ran where there was no improvement in those that just ran. Running economy is defined as how fast you can run at a given level of oxygen consumption. Since the amount of oxygen consumption that you can maintain during a race is determined by your lactate threshold, your running economy really dictates how fast you can race. It was proposed that strength training improves running economy either due to a reduction in wasted motion, or because stronger legs allow runners to rely more heavily on their more economical slow-twitch muscle fibers. Therefore, having greater strength and stability will directly translate to better running economy because your body will be better able to stabilize the forces that gravity puts on you body while you run.

Besides potentially improving your PR, lifting weights has many other beneficial side effects. Physiological changes occur such as increased bone density and increased lean muscle mass.  Muscles strengthen and connective tissue, i.e. tendons, thicken, becoming more injury resistant. Stability improves in joints that may have been weak. Muscle imbalances can be normalized. Most runners have much stronger hamstrings than quadriceps due to the demands of running.  Strength training is a good way to target the quadriceps to balance the ratio and relieve undue stress on the joints.

The majority of injuries that I see in the PT clinic are the result of weakness, instability and muscle imbalance. Endurance training constantly is tearing down muscle. Strength training can help prevent or slow that loss. One of the biggest mistakes in training that I see is inexperienced runners trying to implement hill and speed work into their programs to build the strength and power they need to run faster. Hill running and speed work are in fact a form of strength training but have a greater risk of injury due to the repetitive nature and the greater impact and demand on the body. More appropriate would be a total body strength conditioning program which targets multi-joint movements, in a full range of motion, through multiple planes of movement. Running is an athletic activity, one in which you are supporting your body on one leg at any given time. Sitting on a machine will not replicate this. There needs to be a component of instability combined with the strength conditioning factor.

I recommend to my clients to incorporate a number of unilateral (one side of the body at a time) total body exercises, such as single leg squats, dead lifts and step ups. These, when done correctly, force the body to stabilize at the core, hip, knee and ankle.  It is also important to isolate and target areas of individual weakness, especially imbalances or commonly injured sites. A thorough functional movement screen is a good tool to get started on developing a personalized exercise prescription.

Periodization is another key element that I recommend for runners to utilize. Periodize, or plan, your year, meaning designate a pre-season, in-season and post-season program for both endurance training and strength conditioning. Combine more strength training during the off season to increase lean muscle mass, increase power output and improve stability of the proximal joints. As the season approaches, taper down the strength training in favor of more road work and increasing mileage. During the season try to perform strength training at least once each week to maintain this strength. In the post-season, incorporate some form of active rest like tennis or soccer to utilize muscle groups that you have not been used as much during the running season. 

In general, the lower your baseline strength, the more you will benefit from strength training. However, even an elite-level runner can reduce injury and improve running economy by strength training. Want that faster race time next Spring?  Hit the weights now!