A scientific perspective of legs strength training for distance running

It is well known that strength training for distance runners provides a number of benefits that should be taken into consideration by both novel and more experienced runners. Primarily, strength training increases your strength and power, which will have a direct impact on your running performance. It also increases your running economy, which means you’ll be able to run faster with the same effort. Finally, training weights reduces the risk of injury by increasing the strength of vulnerable areas like the posterior chain and core. If you are an aspiring or current runner who is interested in upping your game by adding a strength-training routine to your training regimen, this article will provide strategies for developing a safe and effective strength-training program. This article will explain how exactly strength training should be done, explore its benefits for distance runners, provide tips on how to incorporate it into your running training plan, and list some useful exercises you can perform as part of a complete strength-training routine.

The limits of distance running

The main limitation of distance running is the availability and utilization of oxygen, not strength, speed, or power. As you increase your speed, the amount of oxygen required increases. To keep the pace aerobic and maintain a quicker pace, the body must receive sufficient oxygen in addition to the oxygen demands of working muscles and the heart. If there is not sufficient oxygen, exercise turns anaerobic (oxygen-independent), and fatigue sets in. To become better long-distance runners, athletes must increase the amount of oxygen supplied, a factor related to the VO2, to their working muscles to match the growing demand.

There are no research studies to support the belief that strength training enhances oxygen delivery from the lungs to the muscles. Is the cardiovascular system that is responsible for oxygen delivery. The more blood volume (the volume of blood pumped by the heart per beat) and cardiac output (the volume of blood pumped by the heart per minute) athletes have, the more oxygen will be delivered to the muscles.

Why strength training makes you faster

Strength training to boost distance running performance isn’t obviously visible, but it could help runners become faster if done properly. By boosting their muscular strength, runners will become faster, because muscular power (force x speed) is what they will gain. During running, each foot touches the ground for only a brief moment, not nearly enough time to generate the greatest force. The rate at which force is generated is much more important than its magnitude. Runners’ strength programs aim to make their muscles produce force faster, so they can generate stronger muscle contractions in a shorter time. Runners’ strength programs are intended to boost their muscular strength and power in a precise way, so they can become faster.

Power strength training is what you need

Research has shown that power training, either with heavy weights (3–5 sets of 3–6 reps at 85% 1 repetition maximum) or plyometric exercises, can improve running economy and endurance performance by increasing muscle power production. Heavy weight training focuses on the strength component of power, whereas plyometric training focuses on the speed component. When lifting very heavy weights (strength component), or when performing quick plyometric movements (speed component), athletes recruit nearly all of their muscle fibers, which serves as a training stimulus for the central nervous system. The result is that the muscles increase their rate of force development, getting stronger, quicker, and more powerful. The more effective muscle force production translates into a better running economy.

Additional benefits of strength training for distance runners

Running faster might be one of the main reasons for opting to add a training program to your routine, however, strength training also comes with additional benefits to your overall running experience, thus highlighting the positive impact this habit could have:

  • Improved running economy: strength training increases your running economy, which means you’ll be able to run faster with the same effort. This is because muscles that have been strengthened through strength training have a higher capacity for oxygen utilization than untrained muscles.
  • Better running technique: stronger muscles are more efficient muscles, meaning you’ll be able to run with better form without even realizing it. A stronger posterior chain will help to lift your knees higher, while stronger glute muscles help to engage your hips. This will help you to maintain a more upright posture, which will improve your running efficiency and reduce the risk of over-striding and heel striking.
  • Reduced risk of injury: strength training helps to strengthen the muscles that are most commonly injured in runners, including the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and calves. These muscles are used during running but aren’t fully engaged in the same way that they would be during other forms of exercise like weightlifting. Because of this, runners are prone to muscle imbalances that can lead to injury.

How to incorporate strength training into your running routine

Most runners that typically train strength with the main goal to prevent injuries, use light to moderate loads and a high number of rep programs that are geared toward increasing muscular endurance. As for the attempt at increasing muscular endurance with strength training, surely a mere 20–60 reps in the gym, despite them being performed at a higher intensity compared with running, are not going to increase muscular endurance over and above what your clients already achieve from their weekly running or what they would achieve by running more miles. 

If you are planning on adding strength training to your programs, make sure to use a very high intensity and very few reps to focus on neural adaptation rather than on muscle hypertrophy because adding muscle mass will decrease economy. As a common rule, the majority of strength training should be done during your speed (anaerobic) phase of training rather than during your aerobic endurance phase because speed, strength, and power are more closely related physiological traits than are strength and endurance. Likewise, you should do your strength/power workouts on your speed work days rather than on your easy run or long-run days. Runners that have already increased their running volume and intensity as much as they can, or if they cannot handle the physical stress of running more miles, power training with heavy weights and plyometrics may be the next step in their training programs. 

Fundamental strength exercises

Common strength training exercises include: squats, hamstring curls, calf raises, power cleans, and deadlifts. Runners should start with 2 sessions per week. Back off on the volume for weeks 3 and 6 for recovery. 1 or 2 sessions per week are enough with 2-3 sets of 4-8 repetitions. The load for each exercise should be about 90% or 1RM during the first week and gradually increase to 95 1RM towards the end of a training cycle.

Plyometric exercises consist of:

  • Single leg hops: on one leg, hop up and down, hop forward and back, and hop side to side.
  • Bleacher hops: standing at the bottom of the bleacher steps on one leg, and hop up the steps. Walk back down and hop up again on the other leg.
  • Double leg bound: from a squat position with both legs, jump forward as far as you can.
  • Alternate leg bound: in an exaggerated running motion, bound (which looks like a combination of running and jumping) forward from one leg to the other.
  • Squat jumps: with hands on hips in a squat position, jump straight up as high as you can. On landing, lower back into a squat position in one smooth motion, and immediately jump up again.
  • Depth jumps: from a standing position on a one-foot-tall box, jump onto the ground, and land in a squat position. From this squat position, jump straight up as high as you can.
  • Box jumps: from the ground, jump with 2 feet onto a box about one foot high, and then immediately jump into the air and back down to the ground. As you get experienced with the exercise, try jumping with one foot at a time.

To increase the effectiveness of these plyometric exercises, athletes should spend as little time on the ground as possible between hops/bounds/jumps. The exercises should be done on a soft surface, such as grass, a track, or a gymnastics mat. It is better to start with 2 sessions per week of 2-3 sets of 3-6 repetitions with full recovery between sets.

Conclusion

In this article, we explored the benefits of legs strength training for distance runners, provided tips on how to incorporate it into your training plan, and listed some useful exercises for distance runners. Distance runners should consider adding a strength-training routine into their training regime, as it provides many different benefits to runners of all abilities.

References

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