It is well understood that strength training can be useful for short duration sprints – it increases power production resulting in greater acceleration. However the effects of strength training on performance during long distance running are less well known. There are two key advantages for the long distance runner to incorporate strength and conditioning into their training programme: to reduce injury and to increase running economy.
Strength training reduces the risk of injury by having an effect on both bone and muscle. Loading the bone during resistance training forces the bone to adapt to the new loads placed on it. Therefore over time the bone mineral density increases, making the bone much stronger. Having stronger bones reduces the chance of stress fractures which are common in distance runners.
Resistance training is a very important process to correct muscle imbalances. There are a variety of muscle imbalances that cause running related injuries, one of the most common being excessive strength of the quadriceps relative to the hamstrings. The extra quadriceps strength results in running speeds and techniques that expose the weaker hamstring to injury. Therefore by increasing the strength of the hamstring, through exercises such as the Nordic hamstring lowers exercise, the difference in strength between the muscles is reduced and hence so is the injury risk. Protein is also a vital ingredient in muscle recovery, and all runners should consume protein drinks after training.
Improvements in running economy
Running economy refers to the oxygen uptake required to sustain a certain running speed. By having a better running economy, you can run at the same speed while using less oxygen. Therefore this individual would have a lower energy demand for the same run and hence they tend to run faster over a given distance. Recent research has found that the optimal strength training programme to increase running economy is using heavy weight training twice a week. Exercises were focused on quadriceps, hamstrings and calf muscles. The program involved three sets to failure of 6 reps in each exercise with 3 minute rests between sets. After four weeks of this programme running economy had increased by 6.2 %, quite a considerable amount. The researchers are unsure of the exact mechanisms that are causing the improved running economy. However they suggest that increased fibre activation, more efficient fibre recruitment and improved synchronization of the fibres have a role to play in improving economy. Protein can aid weight loss, and in turn also lead to better running economy.
Take home message
Strength training is an excellent tool to reduce injury while improving performance through increases in running economy. However it is important to remember the best way to get better at running is by going out there and running! Find out more about the best protein products for runners here.