If you run, you’ve probably heard from many a source that lifting weights and doing strength work can really aid your running performance. This post is about to do the same thing, but it will also talk through which exercises will help you the most, and why. Focusing on weight training and body-weight exercises does mean that this post will miss out lots of other forms of cross-training, in no way does that exclusion mean that these are the exercises that will work the best for you and the others are worthless. There are plenty of other exercises and movements that will improve your running form, but including them here will simply create an extremely long read.
So why does strength training in general aid running?
By adding in strength training to your routine it can help to increase the amount of stress placed on certain muscle groups, without stress muscles don’t ‘grow’. When a muscle is under stress you create little mini tears in the muscle fibres that are then rebuilt. As they are rebuilt the muscle becomes stronger. Too much stress and it will take longer for the muscle to rebuild, making it more injury prone and your muscles sore. When the muscles, involved in running, build in strength, your running gait will become easier to control. This means that your running will be more efficient, so you can push it a little harder. If the exercises you’ve been doing have been focused on power, you’ll likely gain in your ability to sprint faster, quicker than you could before.
Why can’t running produce the same adaptations caused by strength training?
In short it can, it can just take longer to do. When running we always exert the same force onto our legs and as such always stress them in the same way. Strength training allows use to use muscles in isolation, ie, deadlifts will specifically work on the hamstrings, and not really affect the quadriceps. When running you may also be simply adding to certain inequalities within your muscles. For example, you might favour one leg over the other and as a result that leg will become stronger, further emphasising it’s favouritism. When strength training you can really test the balance of your muscles and work a little more on the weaker leg to build it to an equal level. This can be done through running too, but it would mean a total re-conditioning of your running style which takes constant monitoring and coaching. By working with weights you can encourage each side to be lifting the same weight and encourage growth in the same ways.
What muscles should be emphasised during strength training?
Now if I said all of them you’d sure fire turn around and not do anything! But in truth having a more toned and conditioned body will help, whichever muscle group is the strongest. If you needed to focus down on certain areas here’s 5 that I would choose; Hip Flexors, Abdominals, Hamstrings, Calves (Gastrocnemius and Soleus), and the ‘Shin’ (AKA: Tibialis Anterior (Yes, I understand the shin is a bone)). Most of these you’ll already know about and can pretty much all be hit by doing squats.
How can I work these muscles in isolation?
For the hip flexors it can be very hard to work these in isolation, if you combine work for the hip flexors with core work lying double leg lifts will help target the muscles that help aid the quads with lift the legs. When doing these though: LOOK AFTER YOUR BACK! It’s encouraged to really look at your form whilst doing this exercise, you don’t want the back to be taking the weight of your legs at that strain will cause negative effects. Instead try to keep the back pressed against the floor and lift one leg at a time until you understand the movement complete. I mentioned a movement for hamstrings earlier, deadlifts. This is best to do whilst holding a weight in your hands and involves you sliding the weights down your legs (piking at the hips) before pulling the weight back up. For a bodyweight exercise, try doing one-legged squats, this will also work your core as you work harder to balance too. The calf muscles can be easily worked in relative isolation by doing calf raises. These may already be part of your warm up routine for regular runs as they are quite simple. To do them without a weight you simply lift your heels off the floor and lower until they are just above the floor, before repeating. If you want to make this a little more challenging you have a few options, opt for single leg rises (one I do in Ballet quite a lot) this variation really works on balance as well as strength in the calves. You can slow it down, the longer you stay in those transition states (between the top and the bottom), the more the muscle needs to work. On top of this if you hang your heels slightly off a raised surface, say the bottom step of the stairs, you’ll also find it will target the calves a little more strongly. Then the final variation of this you can do is to add weight, hold them down by your sides and do your chosen variation as normal. Next the Tibialis Anterior, this is the last muscle I’d recommend if you’re short on time, but it is a tricky one. The best way to strengthen this muscle is to use resistance bands. Take off your shoes and pop your foot onto the band, try and get it so your toes are halfway into the band and you’re holding the two ends. Then simply pull the band gently with your hands and point your toe into the resistance band before flexing again. Another way is the tie the resistance band around the leg of a chair very loosely, then bring the band up over your foot before flexing the ankle. Both of these examples work the muscle in a slightly different way so will strengthen different movements associated with that muscle.
How is it best to get these in?
This really depends on your own situation. I do think little and often is the best, just a few of these everyday will give you the adaptations you want. But this might mean you are constantly forgetting to do them. Another way would be to plan in a set gym/strength session every week where you work on these movement and maybe more to help boost your overall strength.
Coming up on the blog soon I’ll be sharing a few of the workouts I’ve been doing so stay tuned for that!