If you were to ask an aspiring professional tennis, golf, basketball, soccer, or football player whether they lifted weights to help with their on field performance, the answer would undoubtedly be; of course. Yet, for some reason running and runners, either high level or low level, have rarely associated strength training with improving their running economy. Why lift weights to help improve running, when you can run to improve running? A rhetorical question heard time and time again. And to that I say here's why:
A 2014 research review by Ronnestead & Mujika investigated the evidence for strength training for running performance and concluded some promising results. It seems all that gym work will pay off for runners. To summarise their findings, they found that strength training resulted in:
- Delayed activation of Type II muscle fibres. These fibres are used for speed and in improving the body's ability to delay their activation it could potentially allow a runner to have that extra gear or kick at the end of a run.
- Increased neuromuscular efficiency. Better recruitment of the muscles needed due to training these particular muscles in the gym. More efficient, more readily activated 'running muscles'.
- Increased musculotendinous stiffness. The word stiffness has negative connotations in the exercise world. However, stiffness can mean more spring-like. Creating a better spring can help runners use something called the Stretch Shortening Cycle, where a muscle is put under stretch, storing energy like an elastic band, and then releases energy and potentially speed when released.
- Delayed fatigue. This can't be anything but positive. More muscular strength and endurance delays running related fatigue, improving performance.
- Increased maximal speed & Increased Anaerobic capacity. Improved ability of our system that doesn't require oxygen to provide our body with energy. Potentially again giving us a kick at the conclusion of the run. Greater speed means better times.
- Increased Rate of Force Development. Facilitates better blood flow to working muscles. Increased neural activation (the messages sent to muscles from the nerves improves or strengthens) is usually the reason for improved RFD.
From the research, to make these physiological changes in the body, a runner must complete at least two sessions of strength training for at least 8 weeks. Performing 2-3 sets of exercises with 2-3 minutes between sets. Muscles and exercises targeted should simulate running movements, focussing on key lower limb and abdominal muscles.
What are you waiting for? If you could improve running performance, economy, all the while developing more muscle mass and definition, why wouldn't you? So start hitting the gym with squats, deadlifts, lunges, calf raises etc. We will post our favourite running related strength exercises in a follow up blog. Until then, happy training!
Ronnestead, B. R., Mujika, L. (2014). Optimizing Strength Training For Running and Cycling Endurance Performance: A Review. Scandivanian Journal Med Sci Sports 24: 603-612.