Strength may not be an obvious component of distance running, but research shows stronger athletes are better athletes, trail runners included. Spend some time getting stronger and you’ll be a better runner.
That said, you don’t need to be a powerlifter. A little strength training goes a long way.
Why Strength Train?
Research reviews in the journal Sports Medicine, the Journal of Sports Sciences and a meta-analysis in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research show strength training improves strength, running economy, power and performance for runners over a variety of distances.
Strength and plyometric training improve rate of force development (RFD), a measure of how hard a runner strikes the ground when running. Strength training improves both intermuscular coordination (coordination among several muscles) and intramuscular coordination (coordination within the muscle), both of which contribute to RFD.
Tendons also play a critical role in running economy and benefit from strength training. Tendons act as springs, absorbing and transmitting impact forces in a process called the stretch-shortening cycle. Strength and plyometric training influence tendon properties, creating stronger, stiffer, more efficient tendons according to a research review in the journal Sports Medicine.
Finally, a review of research in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BMJ) shows 20 to 90 percent of runners will be injured in any given year. Strength training helps prevent both acute and chronic injuries in runners, as indicated in another review in the BMJ. Strength training makes the bones, muscles and connective tissues more durable and resistant to injury.
Adding muscle while running many miles is all but impossible. A high-intensity, low-volume weight program adds little if any muscle mass. Bulking up demands high-volume lifting, genetics and eating like a grizzly bear. Rest easy dear trail runner. Getting “too big” is not in your future.
Multi-joint, free-weight exercises are best. Barbells are ideal but dumbbells or kettlebells work too. (See also the below for other exercises that don’t require gym equipment.)
Deadlift: Stand with feet flat, hip-width apart. Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip, keeping your arms locked out. Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar. Lift up your chest and straighten your back. Take a big breath and hold it, keeping the body tight. Stand up with maximal effort. Hold the weight at the top with locked knees and hips. Return the weight to the floor by moving your hips back and bending your knees, keeping the bar against the legs the entire time.
Back Squat: Stand with a loaded bar on your upper back, feet shoulder-width apart. To squat, keep your chest up, look straight ahead, push your knees apart and move your hips back and down. Squat until your hips are parallel with your knees. Keep your chest up. Stand up and drive the bar up with maximal effort.
Split Squat: Stand in a staggered stance with one foot forward and one foot behind. Hold dumbbells in your hands at your sides or a bar on your back. Take a big breath and hold. Descend straight down by bending both knees. Allow your rear heel to rise and keep your front foot flat. Drive through the front foot with maximal effort and stand back up.
Calf Raises: Stand on the edge of a step with balls of feet on the step, heels off the step. Stand tall and hold a sturdy object or wall for balance. Raise your heels as high as you Hold a moment then lower the heels under control, feeling a stretch at the bottom. Add weight or more resistance by holding weight in one hand or standing on one foot instead of two.
Pick one of the first three exercises and always include the calf raise. To warm up, skip rope for few minutes then do some bodyweight lunges and squats (or your favorite mobility routine.) Do some light sets of your chosen exercises and work up to one to three heavy sets of three to eight reps.
Plyometrics, or jump training, consists of various jumps, hops and skips. They range in intensity from low-level exercises such as skipping rope to high-intensity exercises such as depth jumps.
Two-footed plyos are generally lower intensity than single-leg plyos. Skipping rope is a great way to introduce plyometric training and can be included in your weight training warm-up or on off days from running. (Skip an imaginary rope if you don’t have a rope.) Runners should undertake a four- to six-week strength program before doing high-intensity plyometrics.
Plyometrics from low to high intensity:
Two-foot squat jumps
Two-foot box jumps
Two-foot long jumps
Split scissor jumps
How Much? How Often?
Training volume is defined as the number of foot contacts per training session. A jump and land on two feet equals two contacts. A jump and land on one foot equals one contact. Jumping and landing on two feet for 10 reps equals 20 contacts.
Volume recommendations are:
Beginner: 80-100 contacts
Intermediate: 100-120 contacts
Advanced: 120-140 contacts
The good news for strength-training newbies is that almost any type of strength training brings progress. The most improvement will come from doing no strength training to doing any strength training at all. Even one workout per week can elicit gains and maintain strength. Most research indicates strength training twice per week with 48 hours between workouts is optimal.
This progression works well:
Weeks 1-4: Two lifting sessions on M/Th, Tu/Fri or Wed/Sat.
Weeks 5+: One lifting session and one plyometric session on the same days as above
No Gym? No Problem
Heavy lifting is best done with a barbell, weight plates and a squat rack. If you don’t have access to gym, use isometric exercises. Isometric action happens when muscles contract with no movement. Some examples:
Two- and one-leg wall sit
You’ll need to push hard against something such as a wall or park bench for the wall sits squat hold and the calf hold. Side planks are done on the ground.
Use heavy weights (80-to-95 percent of 1 rep maximum) or 2-8 reps per set.
Lift with maximal effort on the up (concentric) phase, i.e. move the weights against gravity as fast as possible.
Stop just short of muscular failure.
Use excellent form: Always control the weights. Keep good posture and stay tight.
Consider hiring a trainer.
Use a mix of strength and plyometric training.
Rest adequately between sets. 2-3 minutes. This isn’t endurance training!