Upper- and lower-body strength training a plus for runners

The coach of a high school women's cross-country and track team brought his runners to our Nautilus facility for strength training. Three days a week they performed one set of 12 exercises that worked the major muscle groups. Each routine took about 25 minutes.

I'd like to say the strength improvement was responsible for four consecutive New England cross-country championships won by George Rose's harriers. I can't conclude that, of course. But I believe the strength training prevented a lot of injury.

During those four years, there were no shin splints, stress fractures, knee problems, or hip injuries, common among female distance runners. The only injury was a broken ankle due to stepping in a hole.

Many coaches and runners still believe strength training to be counter-productive for running. They think increased strength will increase body weight, decrease flexibility and interfere with running form.

In fact, most distance runners have a lean physique that resists significant increase in muscle size and bodyweight. Two to 4 pounds of extra muscle from strength training is like putting more cylinders in an automobile engine. The weight gain is minor, but the increased power output is highly desirable.

As for flexibility, no study has shown decreased range of motion with strength training, while several have shown improvement in motion. This is especially true for strength training combined with stretching.

In one of our studies, a strength and stretching program for adults led to an average of 4 pounds muscle gain, 4 pound fat loss, 56% increase in muscle strength, and 24% increase in flexibility. The speed of movement in selected tests increased, too.

Many sprinters perform strength training, and they are still getting faster. Running speed depends on stride length and stride frequency, and strength training seems to help both.

You can appreciate the benefit of more upper-body strength during the late stage of a race when your leg muscles are tired and your arm actions keep you moving.

Strength also makes a difference in cross-country and road running on hills. Stronger muscles provide more power for running up inclines. Equally important, they offer better shock absorption, and hence injury protection, when running down hills.

Recommended strength workouts

First, our research with over 1,100 adults shows two strength training sessions per week give about 85% of the benefits of three workouts per week. So I suggest you begin strength training twice a week, on days when you run easily.

Second, single set training seems to be almost as effective as two or three sets, so I recommend one good set of each exercise per session. This minimizes your exercise time and avoids risk of overtraining.

Third, although there is not universal agreement, I suggest because good distance runners tend to have higher muscle endurance, associated with a higher percentage of slow-twitch muscle fibers, you should begin training with relatively high repetitions.

Power athletes thrive on four to eight repetitions per set, but for endurance athletes I recommend 12 to 16 repetitions per set. I believe using an appropriate repetition range may be the most important training factor for successful strength training for distance runners.

Fourth, I recommend you achieve movement control, which is best achieved by moderate to slow repetitions. Fast weight training movements involve momentum, which reduces strength development and increases injury risk.

In my experience, a safe, effective training pace is six seconds for each repetition, which gives one minute for a set of 10 reps. Each lifting move should take about two seconds, and each lowering move should be performed in about four seconds.

When you move slowly, both phases of each repetition contribute to strength building. One set of an exercise performed with six second repetitions requires as much muscle tension as three sets of the exercise performed with two second reps.

The key to building muscle strength is progressive increases in training resistance. When you can complete 16 repetitions of an exercise, increase the resistance by not more than 5% for continued progress.

In general, you should experience a 40% to 50% increase in exercise load after eight to 10 weeks of training. You should notice a significant improvement in muscle function when you run, and you should become more resistant to injuries.

Following my recommended machine or free weight exercises for the 12 major muscle groups. This is a comprehensive program of basic exercises designed for overall muscle conditioning.

Try to make every repetition as productive as possible by moving slowly with maximal range of motion.

Recommended exercises for runners:
(By muscle group)

Machine: leg extension
Free weights: squat (barbell/dumbbell)

Machine: leg curl
Free weights: squat (barbell/dumbbell)

Machine: hip extension
Free weights: squat (barbell/dumbbell)

Pectoralis major
Machine: double chest
Free weights: bench press (barbell/dumbbell)

Latissimus dorsi
Machine: super pullover
Free weights: bent row (dumbbell)

Machine: lateral raise
Free weights: lateral raise (dumbbell)

Machine: biceps curl
Free weights: biceps curl (EZ bar/dumbbell)

Triceps triceps
Machine: extension triceps
Free weights: extension (EZbar/dumbbell)

Spinal erectors
Machine: low back
Free weights: back extension (bodyweight)

Machine: abdominal trunk
Free weights: squat curl (bodyweight)

Upper trapezius
Machine: neck and shoulder
Free weights: shrug (barbell/dumbbell)

Wayne Westcott, Ph.D. is Fitness Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is author of several fitness books, including "Building Strength and Stamina."

Volume 16, Number 3, Running & FitNews
The American Running Association

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