Heading into a gym can feel an alien experience for most runners used to getting their exercise fix in the open air. But there is increasing evidence that regular strength work is key to helping runners reduce or avoid injury and improve their running form and economy. Recent research (Lauersen et al 2014) on strength training for runners, suggests that a regular programme of strength work has been shown to reduce injury risk by 69%.
The harsh truth is also that as we enter our 30s we start to loose muscle mass despite regular running. But working out how often, how much, when and what can be the tricky part for any runner with an already packed schedule of training, work and family commitments.
Here are our top tips for incorporating strength work into your weekly training plan.
- Consistency and Efficiency
Like everything in running and in life, keeping consistent will always bring the biggest rewards. Be realistic with how much time you have to spend doing strength work each week. Better to do one session a week but maintain this week in week out, than set lofty ambitions of 2-3 sessions but soon drop off from this when the reality of life bites! Our bodies crave routine so find the right balance for you. One strength based session and one light core and body weight session a week will be effective for the majority of runners.
Be time efficient – know what you are going to do when you hit the gym and stick to it. Don’t get tempted to spend wasted time on cardio machines; you are here to develop muscular strength. After a quick warm up and a few mobility exercises a 45-minute strength session focused on legs, core and upper body will be ample to achieve the goal of developing your muscular strength each week.
- Easy days easy, hard days hard
Finding the right day to do strength work for runners can be difficult and it is about finding what is right and works for you. Our priority should always be our running sessions so use that as your structure to work out when is best to do the strength work. Our mantra is to ‘keep easy days easy, hard days hard’. So doing strength work on what would be your easy or recovery day, can seem like the obvious choice but in reality just brings another day when your body is stressed and not in recovery mode. If you should do the strength work before or after the run on that day can be debated and there are merits in both approaches. Generally we suggest run first and strength train after so legs are fresher during the run.
- Remember you are a runner
Whilst we must not neglect our upper body and core in any session, we need to have a bias towards developing the key muscles groups we need as runners. Focus on strength development in glutes, hamstring and calves. Our posterior chain is the ‘power house’ that drives us forward in running.
Single leg work is also key, we are only ever on one foot or the other as a runner, so unilateral strength training will help iron out any imbalances you have – it also has the benefit of greater core engagement – a win-win! Single Leg Deadlifts, Split Squats and Calf Raisers are all great exercises to include in your weekly programme.
- DOMS is not a badge of honour
For many gym bunnies regaling stories of how they couldn’t walk for 3 days after their last gym session is seen as kudos. For us runners this is likely to mean we would have had a number of poor runs and ruined our training week. If you are new to strength training, Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is likely to linger for a few days in those early weeks. But if you are constantly sore for days after, you need to scale back the weights and reps in the gym.
- Build up, ease down
Your strength programme should follow similar principles and structure to your running training. Every 5 – 6 weeks have a lighter week in the gym, use lower weights or more body weight or even leave the legs alone for a week. As you approach your next race, make sure your strength work tapers in line with your running volume. In the week of a race, a light core activation session will help keep those legs fresh for the big day.
- Get an expert
Working with a qualified Personal Trainer to develop a bespoke weekly strength programme for you can be a worthwhile investment. But choose wisely, many PTs will come from a cross fit or weight lifting background and often dish out a ‘beasting’ to their clients! Ideally choose a PT who is, or works with runners and understands your needs and wider training plan.