The little things can add up to big things.
After the 2012 Chicago Marathon, I received a Facebook message from Patrick Rizzo, a professional runner who trains in Boulder, Colorado. He finished 21st in 2:15:44, which is just over 5-minute miles for 26.2 miles.
Rizzo's message said that he didn't do much strength or ancillary work (i.e. non-running work) during his marathon build-up and, in the future, he wanted to get back to doing more of that work. I share this for one simple reason: Once you've done strength work, you'll see the results in your running. And the converse is also true, as Rizzo's comment points out: If you stop doing ancillary work, you won't feel as strong on race day.
Let's take a step back and discuss the reasons to do running-specific strength work, then get into some specific exercises and routines that you can do.
How Runners Benefit From Strength Training
The rationale for strength work is two-fold. First, if you do ancillary work, you can safely handle more miles. Second, it will allow you to run more intense workouts safely. If you think about it, these are the two variables that most coaches and athletes try to change throughout a training cycle. If you can run more, or if you can run faster during workouts and stay injury-free, you'll end up racing faster. You could also argue that strength exercises help you stay consistent in your training. If you ask the best athletes in the world what's the secret to long-term success, many will point to consistency as the goal of intelligent training.
What Is Running-Specific Strength Training?
So what's ancillary work? On one end of the continuum are exercises from the world of physical therapy and athletic training—routines could include simple balance moves that improve proprioception and the intrinsic muscles of the feet. Watch the foot and lower leg of a friend as he or she balances on one foot barefoot—the muscles and tendons of the foot and the arch are very active. The feet are the first point of contact when running, so it makes sense that we should do some extra work to strengthen the feet and lower legs.
Flexibility and strengthening of the minor muscles also falls at this end of the continuum. For more information on this work, study the work of Jim and Phil Wharton; they've worked with over 100 Olympic medalists, and their approach to Active Isolated Flexibility—an elemental part of my coaching—is fantastic.
On the other end of the continuum: intense exercises such as squats, Olympic lifts and plyometrics. This type of work has gotten a lot of press in the last couple of years from CrossFit and, specifically, CrossFit Endurance. While there are numerous studies that show that strength training—specifically plyometrics—improves running economy, which is the best indicator of racing performance, intense lifting and plyometric work needs to be administered and overseen by a qualified coach. You shouldn't jump into plyometrics if you don't know how to land properly; don't know how many ground contacts you should do daily, weekly and monthly; and if you don't know the difference between simple exercises like ankle flips and depth jumps off a high box.
It's not rocket science, but you do need a qualified coach—and this is key—who has worked with runners for the simple reason that all of the ground contacts during running need to be accounted for when designing a plyometric program.