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Strength Training

The New Rules Of Strength Training For Trail Runners

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There was once a time when runner’s strength training tended to be very simple. If you had a weakness, you went to the weight room and attacked it very directly — one muscle at a time. Generally with lots of reps at fairly low weight, under the theory you wanted to tone your muscles, not turn yourself into Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Now, all of that has changed. I call it the new strength training — more intense and more complex — and it has two different but complementary approaches. One emphasizes complicated exercises that you can do at home with minimal equipment — exercises designed to be more akin to the motions one makes in running. The other also uses your muscles more functionally than the old-school approach, but draws more powerfully on traditional weight-room exercises.

Do Fewer Reps For Better Neuromuscular Efficiency  

Woman in exercise gear standing in holding dumbbells during an exercise, in gym.

One thing that is gone from both, however, is the idea that you should do lots and lots of reps per set with light resistance.

Now, you make each repetition more taxing. And instead of knocking out 20 reps per set, like old-timers were taught to do, you do ten, or eight, or even six.

“Lower reps per set is better,” says Mike Young, Ph.D., a coach and kinesiologist at Athletic Lab in Cary, North Carolina. “Not like many distance runners did in the past, but more like a football player would do.”

“That’s foreign to distance runners,” he adds.

To avoid bulking up, all that’s needed is not to push it too hard. “You don’t want to reach the point of muscular failure,” he says. That’s what bodybuilders do, and that’s what signals muscles to bulk up.

“Leave reps in reserve,” Young says. “If you could, if forced, perform 10 reps, you don’t want to actually perform 10.”

The benefits can be enormous.

The latest research, Young says, shows that this type of strength training can improve running economy (a measure of how efficiently your muscles use oxygen) by 7 to 20 percent.

“That would improve performance by anywhere between 3 and 7 percent,” he says.

To put it in perspective, that’s a whopping 36 to 84 seconds for a 20-minute 5K runner — the type of thing most of us would kill ourselves to achieve in training.

And it really does work. A few months before COVID hit, a number of runners on my club’s women’s cross-country team gave this a try, under the tutelage of a strength coach who specialized in distance runners. Sadly, the 2020 racing season was canceled, but in time trials one saw her 5K time plummet from 18:24 in a pre-COVID track meet to 17:55 in a time trial. Another cut her 5K from 19:05 to 18:13, and her 10K from 38:54 to 37:08. Lots of factors played a role in this, but both were seasoned competitors, and there is no doubt that 12 to 18 months of dedicated strength training was part of it.

It works, Young says, by making the neuromuscular system more efficient. That allows your legs to recruit more muscle fibers when needed, but to turn them on and off more quickly when not. This helps muscles learn to relax when not in use, reducing their tendency to fight each other. “That is what strength training is really effective at,” he says. “[It] forces the muscles to be coordinated in how they recruit muscle fibers, relax, and produce tension.”

But that’s not the only benefit. It’s also good for injury prevention.

That’s important, says Dan White, a physical therapist at P.A.C.E. Therapeutic Associates in Eugene, Oregon, not just because nobody likes injuries, but because reducing injuries is an easy way to improve performance.

“If you look at the average high-level runner in the U.S.,” he says, “those people are frequently hurt for two months out of the year. If we can decrease the time away from running, that’s the win. If strength training buys you consistency and health, that buys you seconds.”

Don’t Make It Into a Circus Act

That said, White and Young approach the problem from slightly different perspectives.

Young focuses on strength and power. Complicated exercises drawn from videos you watch online can easily be counterproductive, he says, because the moment such an exercise starts looking like a circus act, that’s what it is.

“You are better off in the middle ground,” he says, “mixing strength, coordination, and balance, but not so much that you are not able to produce enough tension and force. We want the quality of the movement to be as high as possible on every single rep.”

Mix Concentric and Eccentric Training

Also important, he says, is to mix concentric and eccentric training. Concentric is when you flex a muscle, as when you lift a weight by curling your biceps. Eccentric is when you lower it without simply letting it crash back to the floor. That, Young says, forces the muscles to produce tension while also elongating — something they have to do at certain points in your stride.

You can also combine weight work and plyometrics. “[That] can be very effective,” Young says.

For example, he says, you could do a set of concentric/eccentric strength work (like squats). Then rest and do a set of plyometric exercises like squat jumps, that utilize the same muscles. You would then go back to the strength exercises and cycle through two or three sets of each.

“The effect is greater than the sum of the parts,” Young says. “This can be very effective because it doesn’t require a lot of volume.”

Make It Integrative and Functional  

White prefers to forgo standard weight-room exercises for ones that are more “integrative.”

What exercises you start with depends on what you see as your weak links, but the basic idea is to do relatively complex motions designed to work a substantial part of your movement chain in tandem.

As an example, he cites a runner who had a weak glute that nothing had seemed to improve.

White’s solution: he had the runner practice stepping onto a box into a runner’s stance (where you are standing on one leg, with the other knee lifted, as in mid-stride). When the exercise became easy, he graduated to doing the same while holding a 10-pound kettlebell on the side opposite to his stance leg. “[That] became a go-to thing for him,” he says.

It sounds simple, but with the weight and the right-sized box, this type of exercise can be surprisingly intense. And, like Young’s strength work, it has both a concentric phase (stepping onto the box) and an eccentric phase (stepping off of it, under control).

Young also likes exercises that are “functional and athletic,” as opposed to the old-school exercises that simply flexed one muscle at a time.

Once upon a time, he says, leg exercises might have included simple leg extensions, focusing on the quads. “But it’s not very coordinated or functional,” he says, because what sport uses the quads in isolation?

Likewise, why waste time training the upper body with biceps curls and triceps pulls when you can work both muscles in a more functional manner with pull-ups?

“That’s real life,” Young says. “Very rarely would you work the calf or the biceps in isolation from other muscles. We should look to train them as best we can in movement patterns and ranges of motion that are seen in sport. You need to do things that are functional and athletic, utilizing joints in the manner that they are used in [your] sporting activity.”

“We want to address the primary actions of the body seen in running in as few exercises as possible,” he adds.

Putting It All Together

Man doing the "runner's touch" strength training exercise.

So how do you put this into practice?

Young suggests focusing on three types of exercises for both the upper and lower body. For the lower body, it’s hinges (bending from the hip, to exercise glutes and hamstrings), squats, and lunges. For the upper body the focus on “pull,” “press,” and “core” (abs and lower back).

If you do three or four of these per session, you can address all six in two 20-minute sessions per week, he says.

White’s approach is more dynamic. As with his runner with weak glutes, he says, you might start by stepping onto a 12-inch box into a runner’s stance while holding a 10-pound kettlebell on the side opposite the leg you are exercising. (Proper form involves making sure you don’t let your pelvis sag on the kettlebell side, and making sure that your trunk is stable.)

You can also step sideways onto the box, again into a runner’s stance. “Those are two drills I’ve fallen into with young runners,” he says.

Another exercise is the runner’s touch, in which you start out on one leg, with the other knee raised high. Then you bend forward, extend the elevated leg behind you, and touch the ground, graduating to holding a kettlebell in your free hand to increase the effort.

Also useful, White says, is the runners pull. It’s a lot like the runner’s touch, but this time you substitute the kettlebell with a rubber tubing anchored to the wall in front of you. As you lean forward, that arm goes out, reducing the tension in the band. As you stand back up, you pull it backward, making your glutes, hamstrings, and core work as you stand back up…all on one leg.

When even this gets easy, he says, you can progress to more nuanced exercises like the “hot salsa,” which involves doing a lunge while holding a medicine ball. Start with it raised over your head, then reach out in front of you to touch it to the floor as you complete the lunge.

Another is the “wall drive,” in which you sit facing a wall, on a 24-inch box, with one foot on the ground, then push off the box and drive yourself into the wall, focusing on creating hip extension and calf raise.

Yet another is the “overhead walking lunge” in which you do a series of lunges with a 10- to 15-pound weight held overhead.

Not that the two approaches are either/or. “Our approach is a hybrid,” says Adam Haldorson, a professor of health and human performance at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon, and strength and conditioning coach for the school’s track team. “Sixty percent of the work is done to target force production (Mike Young) and 40 percent to target injury prevention and recovery (P.A.C.E.). From a collegiate strength and conditioning perspective, neither approach stands alone.”

But whatever you do, Young’s principles also apply: exercises are concentric, eccentric, and tough enough you can’t do enormously large sets of easy reps.

And, White says, don’t overshoot your abilities. “[My] basic tenant is doing the basic things really well until you’ve mastered them is a lot more important than trying to progress to high-level exercises too quickly.”