Strength Training for Running – How and When it Helps

Do you consider yourself healthy?

Or more specifically, do you consider yourself athletic and in-shape?
If so, how do you measure your fitness or athleticism?

The bodybuilder might consider their success by the circumference of their biceps. The powerlifter might base success on what they can deadlift, squat and bench. And the non-athletic person might claim to have had a perfect physical the last time they saw their doctor.

Depending on which group you identify with will determine which metrics you consider important.

There’s no denying that running is a great measuring stick of our health and fitness. 

Running is basically jumping from one leg to the next. Running fitness is associated with longevity. And when we are better at it, i.e. a faster runner, we tend to do better in sports.

So if we can agree on the importance of running we should want to do the things that help us run faster. For a while now we’ve known that resistance training helps our running performance. 

But how effective is it? And when does it pay dividends during a race?
A 2015 Brazilian study looked to answer these questions. 

What did they do?
18 runners (average age 34 years) were divided into 2 groups for 8 weeks. Race times for these runners ranged from 35-45 minutes for a 10 km race. One group of 9 did strength training whereas the other 9 did no strength training. None of the participants had done strength or plyometric training previously.

Below is a table showing the exercises performed over the 8 weeks as well as the sets and reps performed. All of the exercises were for the lower body with an emphasis on the leg extensors i.e. the quads.

ExercisesPhase (weeks)Volume
Half-squat, leg-press, plantar flexion, and knee extension1–23 series 8–10 RM
3–4 3 series 6–8 RM
5–6 3 series 4–6 RM
7–8 2 series 3–5 RM

What did the measure?
Researchers wanted to know the impact of resistance training on:

  • incremental test i.e. VO2max
  • running speed
  • 10 km time trial
  • 30 s Wingate
  • maximum dynamic strength

So what did they find?
1 RM strength (up 23%), drop jump (up 12.7%) and peak speed (up 2.9%) improved considerably for the strength training group compared to the control. 10 km time trial improved 2.5% for the strength group compared to -0.7% for the control. The improvement in 10 km time was attributed to faster speeds during the last quarter of the time trial (specifically the last 2800 m). In absolute values the resistance training group shaved 65 seconds off their 10 km time trial whereas the control group added 18 seconds.
There was no significant difference with anaerobic measures i.e. Wingate, maximal oxygen uptake i.e. VO2max or running economy.

Limitations of this study
Only moderately trained runners participated. Different results might be expected for those new to running and elite runners.

None of the participants had previous resistance or plyometric training experience. The results would not be as significant for those with a background in strength training. 

The exercises selected focussed on the quads. How would the results have differed if the program included hip dominant exercises such as deadlifts or hip thrusts?

The study provides no details on the tempo of the lifts performed. Would the results differ if specific attention was given to all three phases of a muscular contraction? i.e. eccentric, isometric, concentric

All the participants of the study were male and relatively young. Would the same outcome be expected for female and more senior runners?

The take home message
If you are a moderately trained runner that doesn’t already include resistance training in their program than you should start. There would also be benefit to including some posterior chain exercises and gradually introducing some plyometrics.

Doing so won’t change your VO2max or anaerobic metabolism but you will run faster. Especially near the end of the run when those who don’t strength train will be slowing down.

Citation
Damasceno, M. V., Lima-Silva, A. E., Pasqua, L. A., Tricoli, V., Duarte, M., Bishop, D. J., & Bertuzzi, R. (2015). Effects of resistance training on neuromuscular characteristics and pacing during 10-km running time trial. European journal of applied physiology115(7), 1513-1522.

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