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Setting Up a Runner's Strength Training Program

By Doug Lentz, C.S.C.S. -

There are at least three good reasons for distance runners to acquire a sizeable level of general strength in both the legs and the upper body.

First, workloads of greater intensity can be managed more easily. Second, greater muscular strength decreases the risk of joint injury or overuse strain by minimizing connective tissue stress (bone, ligament, tendon, or cartilage), which plays a part in maintaining joint integrity. Third, a progressive resistance exercise program helps strengthen these connective tissues, making the entire support system more durable.

Why Weight Training for Runners?

As an example of the benefits strength training can provide, recent studies have shown that as few as six weeks of proper weight training can significantly reduce or completely relieve kneecap pain or "runner's knee." It also reduces the recurrence of many other common injuries, including nagging hip and low back pain.

By strengthening muscle, as well as bone and connective tissue (ligaments attach bone to bone; and tendons attach muscle to bone), weight training not only helps to prevent injury but also helps to reduce the severity of injury when it does occur.

In addition to injury prevention, weight training improves performance. Studies show that with as little as 10 weeks of weight training, 10K times decrease by an average of a little over one minute.

The research has also shown that running economy defined as the steady-state oxygen consumption for a standardized running speed (milliliters per kilogram body weight per minute), will be improved due to weight training.

By improving running economy, a runner should be able to run faster over the same distance due to a decrease in oxygen consumption. Improved running economy would also increase a runner's time to exhaustion.

Developing training cycles and an annual plan

Intelligent strength training for runners is based on the idea of periodization. Periodization is the gradual cycling of blocks of time in which specificity, intensity, and training volume are varied to achieve peak levels of fitness.

Dave Martin, Ph.D., in his book Better Training for Distance Runners, (Human Kinetics, Inc., 1997, Champaign, IL, 435 pp.), describes three components of a strength training period. A macrocycle is a developmental period of considerable length directed towards peaking at maximum performance fitness. For many athletes this requires nearly a year.

A training macrocycle is divided into several smaller developmental periods called mesocycles. A mesocycle has a specific developmental objective, such as increased lactate threshold or increased strength. A mesocycle lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

All mesocycles consist of at least one microcycle that is a period of roughly one to two weeks during which a meaningful block of training provides balanced development for the runner.

Strength training for the runner can be divided into three time periods -- pre-season, in-season and post-season. During these blocks of time, the volume and number of sets performed changes to keep pace with the different seasonal demands that running presents.

The greatest benefits of strength training for runners should be gained during the pre-season. This is the time to maximize your strength for the upcoming race or higher-mileage season. Volume (sets times repetitions) should be the highest during this time of year, which compliments the lower running mileage.

When trying to increase strength maximally, a protocol of three sets per exercise (with about a two-minute rest between sets), and five to six repetitions per set has been shown to be most effective for athletic populations.

A common mistake would be utilizing a repetition load that is too light. Determining the amount of weight to use is somewhat a trial-and-error process. The last repetition should feel as if you couldn't do another. If your last repetition seems easy, add 5 to 10 percent more weight.

Total body training two to three times a week during the pre-season will suffice, giving adequate time for full recovery after workout.

The in-season for most runners comprises the greatest portion of the year. It could last from mid-April to mid-October. Even for non-racers, this time of year would be those months in which you do most of your running volume. The goal of the in-season strength program is to maintain as much strength as possible.

In-season lifting mainly requires one to two weight-training sessions per week with only one to two sets of eight to 10 repetitions per exercise. Take great caution to avoid overtraining by either lifting too much volume (sets times repetitions) or too much frequency (number of workouts per week) during the in-season.

The final third of the training calendar is referred to as the post-season. For most runners the post-season is from mid-October to mid-January. For competitive runners, post-season starts when your racing season is over. For those who do not compete, these are the months immediately following your peak mild weather months.

In either case, the first four weeks of the post-season are a time to recover. During this time, weight training can be performed two times a week consisting of only one set of eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise with adequate rest periods between sets. After four weeks of recovery, increase your weight training volume to two to three sets of each exercise with 60 to 90 second rest intervals.

Setting up the program

So, how do you go about designing the most effective progressive-resistance exercise program to improve running performance? What type of equipment should be used -- body weight, free weights or machines? The answer to this question is probably a combination of all three. There is no single method that can be shown to be unequivocally superior. The runner's competition or peak running schedule dictates how those time periods are used.

There are, however, at least six key factors that should be included in an appropriate training program:

  • Train regularly. failure to do this is close to a waste of time. Give each body part attention about three times a week.
  • Train the muscle groups most in need of conditioning that will be of greatest benefit to running. For example, if you followed a bodybuilder's weight training routine you will probably find minimal, if any improvement, in running performance. Quite possibly, running performance would diminish.
  • Ensure muscle balance by training antagonists as well as agonist muscle groups. Agonist muscles are defined as the muscle or muscles most directly involved with bringing about a movement (also known as prime movers). Antagonist muscles are the muscle or muscles that can slow down or stop a movement. Antagonist muscles assist in joint stabilization.
  • Provide a progressive overload stimulus. In other words, you must progressively place greater-than-normal demands on the exercising musculature for desired increases in strength to occur.
  • Work the muscles throughout their full range of movement so that strength gains occur in the full range of motion. Failure to do so could result in injury.
  • Allow adequate time between training sessions for recovery and physiological adaptation to occur.

A simple set of dumbbells can be used at home for an effective strength-training program. See the suggestions below for a typical program for a runner to work a variety of muscle groups.

It is important that exercises be performed properly with attention to posture, breathing, and adequate time given to each repetition. A runner should use all the components of an effective weight-training program during all phases of the three-season year.

It has been my experience that carefully manipulating the volume, duration, frequency, and intensity of the weight-training exercises to compliment your running calendar is of utmost importance. Although we prefer to utilize multi-joint exercises (more than one joint moves to help perform the action) whenever possible, this "periodized" approach to weight training will probably yield positive results with any form of resistance training -- and will pay off with improved running performance.

Typical strength-training program for a runner

Muscle group (Exercise)

Quadriceps, hamstrings, hips (squats, dead lifts, and lunges)
Calves (heel raises)
Shoulders (shoulder shrugs)
Upper back (dumbbell rows)
Chest (elevated feet push-ups)
Biceps (curls)
Triceps (triceps kickbacks)
Lower back (Superman exercise: lie stomach down, lift feet and arms like Superman flies)
Gluteals and hamstrings (good morning lift: basically a dead lift with bent legs)

A stellar example: Steve Spence's story

In 1990, I had the pleasure of working with Steve Spence, who was on his way to becoming a legitimate world-class marathon contender. Steve is an excellent athlete who was familiar with resistance training and believed that strength could play some role in his running program.

He was using Nautilus-type equipment, performing single sets of high repetitions. He did not lift to muscular fatigue, stopping at about 20 repetitions because that "seemed right."

His work focused on upper-body strength. Steve reasoned that as an endurance athlete, he must need loads of muscular endurance to be successful. He also believed that his leg strength would come from running and that legwork wasn't necessary.

Recent research supports what we thought would happen with Steve Spence when in 1990 his weight-training program was changed, applying the strength-training concepts in this article.

Treadmill tests at Dr. Dave Martin's laboratory at Georgia State University in Atlanta, done a year after changing Steve's program, showed that Steve's stride at a five-minute-mile pace had lengthened from 70 to 73 inches. This computes to a saving of close to a mile's worth of strides in a 2:11 marathon.

During Steve's career as a world-class marathoner he was known as a strong finisher, reflecting gains in running economy due to strength training. In the 1991 World Champions Marathon in Tokyo, Steve was in 15th place, 50 seconds behind the leaders at the halfway point. Spence ran the last half of the race faster than anyone else and ended up with a bronze medal.

American Running Association Clinic Advisor and Editorial Board Member Doug Lentz, CSCS, is the Director of Fitness and Wellness for the Chambersburg Health Services in Chambersburg, PA. His last article in "Running & FitNews" on strength training without equipment was disseminated when our troops were in Bosnia to keep them in shape. Doug is a former triathlete, turned duathlete, turned cyclist, as well as competitive Olympic-style weightlifter. Since graduating from Penn State University in 1981, Doug has trained elite, amateur, and professional athletes in 14 different sports.

Copyright, The American Running Association.

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