Strength Training For Runners: The Complete 4 Stage Guide

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Strength training for runners is often an overlooked or avoided aspect of running performance.

If you’re a desk bound worker or live a relatively sedentary lifestyle and have dreams of completing a 5k, 10k or further you might want to read this post about injury prevention, preparation and strength training for runners. 

Why is strength training important for runners?

The fact of the matter is that most runners hate strength training. That’s right up until the time they need it. The amount of runners I have coached over the years that didn’t need help with running but the niggles, issues and injuries that come with it is more surprising than you think.

It’s easy to tell a runner to go and run. If they’re a beginner or intermediate level runner the simple fact is that if they run they will improve their times. It’s not hard to get someone fitter or better at an activity like running when they have a large amount of room for improvement. 

When to do strength training as a runner

The art is keeping the runner injury free for as long as possible. If we talk about training adherence the moment we dip below 80% execution we start to slip away from our intended goal or race time. A good coach should be using strength training to help you stay injury free to complete your program.

Let’s look two of the common causes of injury for the recreational runner:

Overuse/Overtraining

This type of injury is usually compounded by deadlines of looming races or events where we try to cram too much into the timeframe we have available. We may be a new or seasoned runner but the addition of a deadline or goal PB usually pushes us to overcompensate and exceed the body’s ability to recover from the imposed demand.

If you’re someone who consistently gets injured just weeks out from a race, this maybe you.

There is a popular 10% rule when it comes to increasing volume in a running program. The problem with this rule is that progress is not linear and if we are failing to meet the 10% week on week increase we often compensate by adding more training to our schedule. This leads to overuse injuries. Instead, aim for month on month improvement where you can factor elements such as deload/easy weeks and focus on overtraining markers such as energy/stress and baseline performance levels to guide your progress.

Under-preparedness

Simply going too far too soon. If we are new to running or coming back from an injury we are at the risk of our body not being ready for the amount of kilometres or miles we want to put into it. This is usually identified in people that have the same recurring injuries and fail to ever see a running program through to completion.

Unlike overuse injuries, under-preparedness can be avoided by building a solid base of mobility, stability and strength before beginning or returning to running. This can be done in a concurrent fashion to our running program and shouldn’t impede steady progress.

How much strength training do you need for running?

Baseline standards should guide our program construction and approach when building a strength program for runners. By knowing where our weaknesses, strengths, asymmetries and injury risk factors lie we have a baseline as to how much strength training we need in our program.

When programming strength training for runners, the program needs to factor:

  1. Lifestyle – Weight, habits and previous injuries
  2. Mobility – Particularly lower limb function
  3. Stability – Trunk stability and lower limb
  4. Strength – Specifically in single leg and split stance positions

You should be doing enough strength training to improve or maintain the standards but not so much that your race times suffer. This will differ on your level or experience.

Previous Injuries & Limitations

Depending on your previous history and injuries your body might be better suited to hiking, cycling or swimming. Coming from someone who battles daily to keep a bad ankle out of reconstruction surgery, you need to make sure you’re choosing the right input that works best for you. 

The 10 Step Self Screen’s first test is the waist to hip ratio. This highlights the visceral fat around our organs. If our WHR is not at an acceptable level we may be carrying excess weight that is not conducive to running well. 

The second assessment is breathing, as it underpins everything we do it is important to ensure we have the correct breathing pattern, this will help with efficiency and endurance.

Mobility & Stability Issues

Once we have assessed whether we need to apply the relative lifestyle interventions from our WHR and breathing screens we can move onto mobility and stability issues. Just like in the Unlock Your Movement program we first need to deal with mobility issues followed by stability before moving onto strength training for runners. The key areas to focus on as a runner are:

  • Ankle, Hip & Posterior Chain Mobility
  • Trunk & Single Leg Stability
Mobility

Starting with ankle mobility, you should be aiming for a minimum of two to four inches of dorsiflexion with no asymmetries but four inches or more is optimal. For plantar flexion we need to be within the 20-30 degrees of range to be deemed acceptable. If you manage to get above 30 degrees of plantar flexion, we are looking good.

The toe touch, get down and up and overhead squat screens will highlight any further mobility issues of the posterior chain and hip you need to work on. If you find that there is a lot to work on, regress to the Unlock Your Movement program before you begin your running journey.

Stability

Once we have dealt with any underlying mobility issues we can move to trunk and single leg stability. The push-up plank is a basic measure of static trunk stability but does not really help us in a running aspect. This is where the single leg reach and loaded carry screen becomes useful as the beginning of strength training for runners. 

The Single Leg Reach is useful as it will incorporate ankle dorsiflexion and dynamic single leg stability. The aim for the screen is to score above 2 foot lengths distance with no loss of balance and no asymmetry on either side. 

Our loaded carry sees an individual carry two kettlebells for 90 seconds. The aim is to walk for 90 seconds without placing the kettlebells or weights down and with no loss of balance or gait. Men should use a minimum of 24kg and women should use 16kg each hand. 

If you fail either test you should look at introducing farmers carries and single leg balance work into your programs.

Strength & Durability 

If you still don’t believe in strength training for runners I want you to keep an open mind for just a second. Strength training should assist your running efforts and NOT become a sole focus of your training program. With the standards I am about to give you, they’re simply a goal post that I find if someone can achieve, strength is usually not an issue with their performance.

This means that you might find a place along the journey that is “strong enough” to keep you injury free. The standards should also be considered a goal to achieve during your off season for running (if you have one) and not something you need to maintain if you are at the peak of your running program. 

Strength Standards 

Men should aim for: 

  • Bulgarian Split Squat of ½ bodyweight for 15 reps each side and
  • Single Leg Deadlift for ½ bodyweight for 15 reps each side

Women should aim for: 

  • Bulgarian Split Squat of ½ bodyweight for 10-15 reps each side and
  • Single Leg Deadlift for ½ bodyweight for 10-15 reps each side

Splitting the weight across a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand is the best method for weight distribution. These standards fit nicely into a more well rounded approach here.

Improving Durability

To improve durability for running we are going to focus on two underutilized areas of strength training, isolation exercises and explosive strength development. For many years, isolation exercises have continued to get a bad wrap due to bodybuilding culture but they have their place as accessory strength training for runners. 

The Calf and Tib Raise

It’s great to see exercises like this come back into popularity. The calves and anterior tibialis are no different to biceps or triceps, taking them through range and progressively overloading them will improve strength and reduce injury risk. 

Hamstrings

Isolating your hamstrings through exercises such as the nordic hamstring are a perfect addition when programming strength training alongside deadlifts and kettlebell swings. If you have someone who suffers from chronic hamstring injuries taking the time to isolate and strengthen the hamstrings is a no brainer when it comes to running performance. 

VMO/Knee Focused Exercises

Knee pain is an all too common issue that runners face and by using exercises that mobilise, stabilise and strengthen the area around the knee goes a long way to helping build a body that’s ready to run. A simple method to improve VMO/knee strength is a loaded carry walking backwards up a hill. 

Explosive Strength Development

This is probably one of the most over complicated areas when planning strength training for runners. Quite often our image of explosive strength is around someone completing a barbell snatch and more often than not, runners simply don’t have the time or energy to learn such a complicated movement.

Explosive strength helps improve things like cadence, contact time, speed and efficiency. With the right application, you can drastically improve your body’s durability. So how do we measure and improve explosive strength training for runners safely?

Jumping Screen Standards

You don’t need professional athlete level abilities to run injury free. Before you complete the screens your time is best spent making sure you pass the mobility, stability and strength standards. Once you’ve passed the previous screens and assessments, you can complete these basic jumping screens to know if there are any weak links and what to work on next.

Broad Jump

Pass = body height +

Fail = Work on reaching strength standards and activities like kettlebell swings to develop your explosive strength. Once you are confident in adding jumping into your program, you can add exercises like these. Apply sparingly however.

Broad Jump without Arms

Pass = with in 20% of Broad Jump and past body height

Fail = Focus on strength training such as tempo and pause efforts. This means you slow the eccentric phase of a movement or pause at the bottom of a movement to accelerate the concentric phase. 

Single Leg Broad Jump

Pass = 80% of body height and within 10% difference on each side (no obvious asymmetry)

Fail = Work on single leg and split stance strength that promotes single leg balance and stability. Sub maximal jump single leg jumps are also suitable but don’t push to fatigue.

2-1-2 Bound

Pass = Body height + and within 10% difference on each side (no obvious asymmetry)

Fail = Focus on single leg and split stance strength combining it with basic bounding activities such as skipping and sub maximal jumping. 

Strength Training Program For Runners

The following program is a base program I adapt for most beginner and intermediate level when programming strength training for runners. Change or remove what you need to but the program is designed to compliment your running efforts and can be done two days per week with minimal equipment.

Day 1

Warm Up

Complete this circuit for two rounds:

Workout

Finish with two rounds of this conditioning circuit:

Day 2

Warm Up

Complete this circuit for two rounds:

Workout

Finish with two rounds of this conditioning circuit:

Final Points

Most of the exercises featured require to equipment to get started, this will allow you to progress rapidly and as with every program, reps and exercise selection is critical and should be personalised. By focusing on standards or goals to aim for this will allow you to stay injury free and build a base that will take you to your chosen distance.

As you can see, strength training for runners shouldn’t be complicated but there’s a lot to learn to keep you injury free and running.

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