WHY RUNNERS SHOULD GET STRONG

For many runners, strength training is a low priority, playing second fiddle to logging more kilometres and the occasional track workout.

But, to run fast (and pain-free), weightlifting should be a part of every runner’s game.  I’m talking about the heavy stuff too! Not mall-walking with hand weights, but lifting weights where the 5th rep is hard.

Here are the reasons why strength training should be a part of every runner’s PR training plan…

How Strength Benefits Runners

VO2max—the measure of how much oxygen the body can take in and consume—is a classic performance metric for runners.  It’s considered the gold standard for aerobic capacity and is linked to running performance. But, VO2max by itself never determines who will win a race.  Many other factors are as important (if not more important) and don’t get talked about near as much.

1.  Economy

This is the amount of energy needed to hold a given speed.  Related to a vehicle, a car that gets 50-kms per litre is more economical than one that only gets 30-kms per litre. This is important for running, because the more economical runner, will have more firepower to go harder throughout the race.

The most significant impact on running economy is body type. East Africans dominate the distance running scene. This is believed to be due to their remarkable economy. Their smaller size and thin limbs require less energy to move them forward (ref). 

But, there are also training components for building better economy.  Specifically, training both heavily, and explosively, produces muscle and tendon adaptations.  This improves the elastic components of the muscle, making the body more “springy.” A degree of springiness is good!  It improves running economy by allowing the body to work less while going at a higher speed.

In a study of well-trained runners, an 8-week strength training program improved strength and running economy. But most important to the runners in this study was the 20% increase in time to exhaustion. Meaning they could go 20% longer when working at their max capacity (ref).

It’s important to note these runners didn’t put on any weight as part of the strength program, which is one of the biggest fears for many runners when it comes to strength training.

2. Power Output

Distance running isn’t considered a power sport. Yet, the ability to generate power, especially when fatigued, is important to running performance.  Power output generates speed!

In fact, a muscle power test called vMART, appears to be a better predictor of running performance than VO2max (ref).

vMART is measured by 20 second runs with a 100-second recovery between the runs.  The speed increases each round and goes until exhaustion. Having good aerobic capacity is helpful for this test, but equally as important is the ability to generate power under fatigue.  A good vMART shows the ability to push faster speeds when the going gets tough.

Research proves that greater power improves speed without increasing cardiovascular demand (ref).  And strength training is an important part of the equation to more powerful running.

Hip and Core

3. Health

To this point, it’s been all about performance.  But what about the runner who wants to log miles with their friends and show up for the occasional weekend race?  Strength is important for this class of runners as well.

Strength is necessary for joint stability to protect the knees, hips, and back. Without adequate strength, the ligaments, tendons, and smaller support muscles take on the brunt of the load.  This excess strain leads to pain and injury.

We get in-depth on the injury risk due to poor strength here: The Big Risk Factor for Running Injuries.

4. The Added Bonus

Weight training is also good for aesthetics.

Despite thousands of calories burned, long runs backed by beer and burritos don’t build a body to impress.

Many assume strength training is about being big and bulky. A stereotype perpetuated by bodybuilding magazines, and scores of dudes showing up daily for bench and curls.

First, nutrition is most important to getting big (that goes for muscle or fat gain). With calorie intake in check, a few weight training sessions per week can provide muscle definition for those shirtless runs, without turning into the hulk.

Strength Training for Runners

Regardless of your goals, strength is the cornerstone of an active and healthy body.  If properly structured, it doesn’t hinder running ability but instead boosts running performance (ref).  Thus, regular strength training should be a part of every runner’s routine.

To help structure your workout, check out our Glute & Core Guide here: Crossover Symmetry Glute and Core Guide.