For runners, "training" means running. And with all those miles logged each week, and all those hours of long runs and hill sprints and fartleks, it's easy to see why strength training isn't your first priority. But while runners have historically been anti-strength training ("It will make me bulky and slow!"), strength and conditioning science is finally catching up and more runners than ever are sprinting to the weight room to reap the many benefits strength training has to offer.
Here are 5 big reasons all runners—from elite marathoners like Ryan Hall to weekend stroller joggers—should start strength training NOW.
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1. Run Faster
It may seem like a no-brainer, but strength training helps you run faster! Strength training places stress on your body in the form of resistance (weights), which prompts your body to adapt and make changes in order to increase its ability to withstand that stress. Over time, these physiological adaptations can have a huge impact on your running speed. This is why it’s important to train on a comprehensive program designed specifically for running performance—in other words, you can’t do a few random strength workouts and expect to see results.
Not only does strength training increase your body’s fat-free mass (bone and muscle mass) while decreasing your body fat %, it also increases the amount of force your muscles are able to exert into the ground with each step during your runs. This helps to make each stride more powerful, increasing your maximal speed and improving your ability to maintain high submaximal speeds for longer. Strength training also increases your muscular endurance and anaerobic power, making it easier to tackle that final kick in a race.
2. Stronger Bones, Tendons, Ligaments, Fascia, and Cartilage
Here’s an abbreviated table adapted from the 4th edition of the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning detailing some of the performance benefits you’ll see from starting a strength training program:
The repetitive nature of running (“pounding the pavement”) leaves runners highly susceptible to injuries—especially overuse injuries. In addition to stronger muscles, strength training creates positive adaptations in your bones and connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, fascia, and cartilage) which can help mitigate and prevent overuse injuries like stress fractures.
A quick anatomy recap: muscles attach to bones through tendons (muscle tissue blends into tendon, so it’s all one continuous structure). Tendons have little blood flow, which is why they’re white in color illustrations of the musculoskeletal system. Ligaments connect bones together. Cartilage is a dense but flexible connective tissue that helps joints move smoothly and absorbs shock forces through joints. Fascia is a band or sheet of connective tissue that helps stabilize and separate muscles. All these connective tissues are made primarily of collagen, and all respond positively to strength training.
Just as your muscles respond to the stress of resistance by growing stronger, stronger muscles exert a greater pull on the bones they attach to, causing the bone and the structures around it to respond by grow stronger, too. Bigger and stronger bones, thicker cartilage, and sturdier and stiffer connective tissues help runners withstand and absorb more pavement pounding. The Achilles tendon in the heel and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee are prime examples of how important connective tissue strength is for runners.
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3. Better Running Economy
You can measure a car’s fuel economy by how many miles it gets per gallon of gas—and you can measure your running economy (RE) by how much energy and oxygen you use to run at a given pace. The less energy and oxygen you need to sustain a pace (say a 6:30 pace in a 5k or 8:00 pace in a marathon), the better your RE. Your RE is a good indicator of how efficient and effective your body is at running, and can be improved through—you guessed it!—strength training.
Strength training helps perfect your running form (see reason #4), making your strides more efficient. And when you can run better, you can train harder—running more miles per week, or sustaining faster paces for longer durations. All this adds up to better running economy. Even better, improving your RE can also enhance your maximal aerobic capacity (VO2max) and lactate threshold, both measures of aerobic fitness and markers of endurance performance. In short, a better engine makes for a higher-performing car, and the same is true for running.
4. Better Running Form
The human body is a pretty amazing machine. Most of us have a dominant side that is more muscularly developed, and most of us have stronger anterior muscles (on the front of the body) and weaker posterior muscles (back of the body)—and these strength imbalances can create some imperfect movement patterns. Ever wonder why only one knee will hurt after a run, or one side of your back and not the other? It’s not hard to imagine that if your right glutes are twice as strong as your left glutes, it will alter the way you move. If you do have some funky movement patterns, your body—smart animal that it is—will use other muscles to help out, like recruiting your left lower back muscles to help your weak left glutes extend your hip.
This must have been especially helpful for our human ancestors’ survival. Imagine if instead of recruiting other muscles, your body just shut down the malfunctioning muscle—not good if you’re trying to run away from a sabretooth tiger. But these compensatory movement patterns, created by muscle imbalances, can lead to pain and injury over time, especially if you’re running mile after mile with subpar form.
A strength training program designed specifically for runners will focus on correcting the muscular strength imbalances that cause bad movement mechanics. This is especially important for your quadriceps and hamstrings—most runners have super strong quads (front of the body) and super weak hams (back of the body), which can alter your stride and cause injury. By evening out these imbalances, you can “turn any” any inhibited and weak muscles and achieve better, more efficient running form. Better form means less risk of overuse injury from bad movement patterns, and more effective running.
5. Prevent Injuries
For runners, all other benefits of strength training really add up to this: fewer injuries. Ever been sidelined by an injury halfway through training for a race? Ever had shin splints, tendonitis, IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, low-back pain, or other injuries that caused you to skip a run (or several)? A well-designed strength training plan for runners will help strengthen the muscle groups surrounding the most frequently injured joints (ankles, knees, hips, back, and [interestingly] wrists) and make you all-around stronger and more durable. When you’re stronger, your running mechanics naturally improve, helping avoid injury caused by poor running form. And when you’re more durable, you’re better able to withstand all the repetitive ground forces during your runs, without causing injury.
Improved durability also unlocks your capacity to run a bit more, a bit harder. Training at higher intensities—whether it’s a faster pace to hit a PR or longer distances to train for a half or full marathon—allows you to achieve new levels of performance previously unattainable. Being stronger, and staying injury-free, help you attack every track session, every tempo run, every long run with 100% effort. Higher quality training = better performance, plain and simple. And here’s the really important part: when you are able to run and train without injury, you actually enjoy running more! In this way, strength training helps you get the most out of your runs, both physically and mentally/emotionally. After all, it feels good to give your full effort!
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Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye