Strength Training Program for Runners

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There are at least three good reasons for distance runners to acquire a sizeable level of general strength in both the legs and the upper body. First, workloads of greater intensity can be managed more easily.

Second, greater muscular strength decreases the risk of joint injury or overuse strain by minimizing connective tissue stress (bone, ligament, tendon, or cartilage) which plays a part in maintaining joint integrity. Third, a progressive resistance exercise program helps strengthen these connective tissues, making the entire support system more durable.

Why Weight Train?

As an example of the benefits strength training can provide, recent studies have shown that as few as six weeks of proper weight training can significantly reduce or completely relieve kneecap pain or "runner's knee."

It also reduces the recurrence of many other common injuries, including nagging hip and low back pain. By strengthening muscle, as well as bone and connective tissue (ligaments attach bone to bone; and tendons attach muscle to bone), weight training not only helps to prevent injury but also helps to reduce the severity of injury when it does occur.

In addition to injury prevention, weight training improves performance. Studies show that with as little as ten weeks of weight training, 10K times decrease by an average of a little over one minute. The research has also shown that running economy defined as the steady-state oxygen consumption for a standardized running speed (milliliters per kilogram body weight per minute), will be improved due to weight training.

By improving running economy, a runner should be able to run faster over the same distance due to a decrease in oxygen consumption. Improved running economy would also increase a runner's time to exhaustion.

Developing Training Cycles and an Annual Plan

Intelligent strength training for runners is based on the idea of periodization. Periodization is the gradual cycling of blocks of time in which specificity, intensity, and training volume are varied to achieve peak levels of fitness.

Dave Martin, Ph.D., in his book Better Training for Distance Runners, (Human Kinetics, Inc., 1997, Champaign, IL, 435 pp.), describes three components of a strength training period. A macrocycle is a developmental period of considerable length directed towards peaking at maximum performance fitness. For many athletes this requires nearly a year.

A training macrocycle is divided into several smaller developmental periods called mesocycles. A mesocycle has a specific developmental objective, such as increased lactate threshold or increased strength. A mesocycle lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months.

All mesocycles consist of at least one microcycle that is a period of roughly one to two weeks during which a meaningful block of training provides balanced development for the runner.

Strength training for the runner can be divided into three time periods-pre-season, in-season and post-season. During these blocks of time, the volume and number of sets performed changes to keep pace with the different seasonal demands that running presents.

The greatest benefits of strength training for runners should be gained during the pre-season. This is the time to maximize your strength for the upcoming race or higher-mileage season. Volume (sets times repetitions) should be the highest during this time of year, which compliments the lower running mileage.

When trying to increase strength maximally, a protocol of three sets per exercise (with about a two minute rest between sets), and five to six repetitions per set has been shown to be most effective for athletic populations.

A common mistake would be utilizing a repetition load that is too light. Determining the amount of weight to use is somewhat a trial and error process. The last repetition should feel as if you couldn't do another. If your last repetition seems easy, add five to ten percent more weight. Total body training two to three times a week during the pre-season will suffice, giving adequate time for full recovery after workout.

The in-season for most runners comprises the greatest portion of the year. It could last from mid-April to mid-October. Even for non-racers, this time of year would be those months in which you do most of your running volume.

The goal of the in-season strength program is to maintain as much strength as possible. In-season lifting mainly requires one to two weight-training sessions per week with only one to two sets of eight to ten repetitions per exercise.

Take great caution to avoid overtraining by either lifting too much volume (sets times repetitions) or too much frequency (number of workouts per week) during the in-season.