A strength-training programme can improve running economy1,2,3 and the lactate threshold,4 resulting in improved endurance performance. In addition, appropriate strength and power training can enhance stride frequency via a quickening of the neural system, running economy (again) and sprint speed. These improvements may certainly be attributed, in part, to the whole-body stabilisation gained and to the development of a base of strength, allowing the athlete to develop more power via Olympic lifts, plyometrics and running speed-drills.
When performing any weight routine it is important to remember specificity of action. In order for resistance exercise to help runners reduce injury incidence or improve performance, the chosen exercises must replicate the running action as closely as possible. However, there is a place for the conventional free-weight exercises such as deadlifts, squats, press-ups and trunk stabilising exercises in building a base of strength before progressing on to the more advanced and movement specific exercises. In addition, it is also essential to have the ability to stabilise around the pelvic girdle (abdominals, lower lumbar, hip flexors, extensors, adductors and abductors) in order to master the above exercises and also the more advanced ones that follow. Pelvic stability, and the resulting postural control, is built into every exercise that is illustrated below, but to increase awareness further, runners would benefit from applying the principles taught in yoga and Pilates.
Like an organised running programme, strength training should be periodised.5 Assuming the person is going to compete in some summer races, the bulk of the work should be done through the winter, in conjunction with the long runs. Although the routine should maintain a few key exercises, using a repetition range of 8-12, with 3-4 sets it should aim to change every 6-8 weeks to avoid staleness. The following programme assumes the winter work has been completed and is based on a spring routine, when a runner is sharpening up in preparation for the summer races. The best time to include sport-specific power or strength-endurance training would be prior to important competitions and immediately after this phase. During the race season, it is best to drop back to one strength workout per week at a lower volume (sets/reps), but maintain intensity (weight). The intensity should also be reduced for a short period while peaking for a major event.
Once the runner has mastered the basics, then he/she is ready for a more advanced type of session. The two workouts below outline modified exercises that will demand much more of the neuro-muscular system. The exercises work in the same plane as the running action, but also train rotational stability, balance control and “functional flexibility” (flexibility specific to a particular movement pattern). The training sessions should be integrated within the overall running programme, causing as little interference as possible to the run sessions. Complete each workout once per week, with a spacing of at least two days between them. Session 1 is based on a gym weights routine, making use of barbells, dumbbells and therapy balls. Session 2 is based on an old-fashioned circuit, where the participant completes one set of each exercise in a continuous manner, before proceeding to the next set.
Complete three sets of each exercise before proceeding. Initially, focus completely on technique and not weight. Aim for 12 repetitions per set, although follow the advice for individual exercises with regard to volume. Take 60 seconds’ recovery between sets. Aim for a “moderate” perception of effort. After 2-4 weeks, increase the weight or degree of difficulty so that perception of effort is “heavy”. Decrease repetitions to eight (depending on exercise) and increase your recovery to 90 seconds.
1. Overhead squat
Press the barbell overhead with the hands wide enough so that you take the barbell behind the head. It is essential to keep elbows locked and shoulder blades retracted throughout the entire movement. Squat down, keep the core tight and body weight through the heels. Only go to a depth that allows elbows to remain locked, barbell behind head, chest elevated and body weight through heels. Stand up, returning to start position.
Easy alternative: squats
2. Double-leg hamstring drag
Lying supine, place your heels on the therapy ball. Lift your hips into a bridge position, push the heels down into the ball as you flex the knees and pull the ball in towards the gluts. Extend knees and return to start position. Start with arms at a V-position to the side, but bring them to your sides or across chest to increase level of difficulty.
Easy alternative: hamstring curl
3. Single-leg hamstring drag
Same exercise as the double-leg hamstring drag, only using one heel on the ball. Single-leg hamstring drags require a lot of training, so perhaps aim to start with 3 or 4 repetitions and gradually increase volume.
Easy alternative: single-leg hamstring curl
4. Therapy ball plank and leg raise
Set up in a plank position with elbows and forearms on the ball, lined up under the shoulders. There should be a straight line from shoulder through hip and ankle. Activate deep trunk musculature. Keep the hips square to the floor as you lift a leg. Initiate the movement from posterior hip. Repeat on the other side. Start with 3 x 5 seconds on each side per set. Over time, increase to 30-second bouts.
Easy alternative: plank on the floor
5. Core board press-up with rotation
Assume press-up position, holding the board at its sides for the most comfortable wrist placement. On descent, rotate the board clockwise. Stay tight through the trunk in order to counteract rotational forces on the body. Return to starting position and repeat, this time, moving the board counter-clockwise. To increase difficulty, place a weight on the back, or elevate your feet.
Easy alternative: press-ups
6. One-arm cable row
Stand in a semi-squat position with shoulders and hips square to the machine. Pull the handle back alongside the body, flexing the elbow and extending the shoulder. Keep the arm tight to the side, staying stable through trunk. Return to start position and repeat on the other side.
Easy alternative: two-arm cable row
Complete one set of each exercise in a continuous manner, before proceeding. Recovery between exercises is simply as long as it takes to make the transition, unless cardiovascular fitness is low, whereby 30-second recoveries can be incorporated. Compete 12 reps of each exercise, three circuits, with two minutes’ recovery between circuits. After four weeks (when you have mastered the exercises), instead of 12 reps, allow yourself 30-40 seconds, quicken the pace and see how many repetitions you can do in the time frame.
1. 400m run at 5km pace (either treadmill or track).
2. Lunge walk with medicine ball rotation
Step forward into a lunge position, hips sinking straight towards the floor. Place the ball beside the hip of the leading leg. Walk forward into a lunge on the other leg. As you do so, move the ball in an arc above the head, going from one hip to the other. Continue forward in a straight line along the floor.
Easy alternative: lunge walk
3. Therapy ball and medicine ball press-up
Place hands on the medicine ball before placing feet on the therapy ball. Find your balance and then proceed into a press-up. Concentrate on a neutral spine and braced trunk throughout. 12 reps will be demanding for most, so either choose an easy alternative or start with a smaller number of repetitions and build up.
Easy alternative: press-up with either a therapy ball or medicine ball
4. One-leg pick-up
In a standing position, hold the medicine ball at arm’s length in front of the hips. Tip forward from the waist, keeping a straight line between the shoulder, hip, and ankle of the moving leg. If flexibility allows, touch the ball lightly on the floor. If not, place a step below you so that you can limit the motion. Maintain a NEUTRAL spine throughout the movement. Return to the standing position by contracting glutes and hamstrings.
Easy alternative: complete the movement with less resistance
5. 400m run at 5km pace (either on track or treadmill)
6. Sweep with medicine ball
Start in a squat position with body weight through the heels, medicine ball hanging in hands between the knees. Rise out of the squat and as you do so, sweep the medicine ball with straight arms in a large arc in front of the body. Finish by bending the elbows as the ball goes behind your head. The descent is the exact opposite of the ascent, finishing in the start position. Keep a neutral spine, shoulder blades retracted and depressed and chest elevated throughout the movement.
Easy alternative: complete the movement with less resistance
7. Lunge forward and press
Start with the medicine ball at chest level. Step forward into a lunge and at the same time perform a shoulder press with the ball. Stay tight through core muscles. Push up quickly through the leading leg to return to standing, bringing the ball back to the start position. Repeat on the other leg.
Easy alternative: lunge out and back w/o press
Take up a press-up position, with shins on top of the therapy ball. Bend at the knees and contract the abdominals to pull the ball towards the body. Concentrate on drawing the knees towards the chest. Extend your legs to move the ball back to the start position.
Easy alternative: therapy ball crunch
- Johnston RE et al, Strength training in female distance runners: Impact on running economy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 11 (4), 224-229, 1997.
- Marcinik EJ et al, Effects of strength training on lactate threshold and endurance performance, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 23 (6), 739-743, 1991.
- Paavolainen L et al, Explosive strength training improves 5km running time by improving running economy and muscle power, Journal of Applied Physiology, 86 (5), 1527-1533, 1999.
- Anderson O, Strength training for lactate threshold improvement, Lactate Lift-off, Chapter 8, SSS Publishing Inc, 1998.
- Bompa TO, Periodisation Training for Sports, Human Kinetics, 1999.