Solely running can be effective for helping you reach specific goals, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room or benefit for non-running strength training, sometimes referred to as “functional strength training”, which is different from strength training meant to increase muscle mass.
The problem most runners have with strength training is that it ISN’T RUNNING, and so trying to find value or enjoyment in the activity doesn’t come as easy. What tends to happen when avoiding strength training, however, is a vicious cycle of progressive running, which can lead to muscle imbalances and weaknesses, then injury, then a trip to the Sports Therapist, who prescribes a routine of strength training. The runner does the exercises, cuts mileage, alleviates the pain, stops strength training, gets back to running, and injuries return. I have rarely seen this cycle stop without the introduction of consistent strength training in one’s plan.
This doesn’t mean strength training has to be an annoying, unpleasant, but unavoidable part of run training. I have worked on developing a plan for myself which involves body weight exercises that can be completed almost anywhere, but involves very specific movements which mimic running form. The motions exaggerate the running form, so you know what benefit you are creating. The routine psychologically is less about not running and more about enhancing running progress.
The most common reason runners include strength training (ST) into their plans is for injury avoidance. This is a great benefit to ST, but leaves something to desire psychologically. It’s hard to understand how this extra work is helping you avoid injury when you’re not actually injured. Runners are more motivated when they are trying to work away from an injury and getting back to running, but runners won’t have to work away from an injury if they aren’t injured in the first place. ST creates the muscular symmetry and strength to PREVENT injuries in the first place, and that should not be forgotten. If you aren’t injured during your training, then the ST is working and you are doing something right! Stick with what works!
Muscular endurance is another significant benefit to ST for runners, but is also an elusive benefit. Anyone who has broken down towards the end of their longer distance training or races (1/2 to full marathons) can tell you how bad it feels when muscular endurance has not been established. Form fails, impact increases, and the muscular damage can become performance compromising and/or halting. ST helps establish increased muscle fibers to utilize and hold off that difficult pain and weaknesses that shows itself towards the end of a long, difficult effort. Again, if you don’t experience these difficulties, the ST is doing it’s job!
The benefit I like to establish and recognize with ST, however, is muscular power and honed running form. Instead of seeking the value of ST at a later point, say during a goal race, the exercises I perform carry a value that can be understood during each workout. While we work on cardiovascular capacity through run training, the ability to propel ourselves forward allows us to cover more ground in the act and remain strong enough to hit our cardio ceiling with each attempt. Muscular power is most often established through various run training workouts (hills, tempos with intervals, long runs, etc.), but to enhance this muscular strength throughout the training cycle is only going to help progress develop. In addition, these exercises exaggerate and repeat the running form in ways that maintain muscular symmetry, but also train the body and mind to find the fluid, symmetrical movements crucial to running efficiency, whether through knee lift, arm swing, toe-off, etc.
ONE AT A TIME
Every lower body exercise in this plan involves utilizing one leg at a time. This is important for runners as the imbalances that can be created through repetitive running motions must be corrected as quickly as possible so as to avoid a rapid backslide into weakness and then injury. As one leg weakens due to a running form imbalance, leg length discrepancy, or other aggravating factor, the opposite leg will compensate and take the majority of the running induced impact, therefore causing an ultimate strain or injury. Concentrating on one leg exercise at a time will quickly manage the leg that is weak, while maintaining and easing the burden of the leg that is strong and/or overworked. With consistent work on these plans, the muscle groups will come closer into equilibrium. Two legged exercises, in contrast, will continue to repeat the compensation of one leg for the other that got us into this problem in the first place.
RUNNING MOVEMENT REPETITION
To reiterate, completing these ST exercises feels less like NOT RUNNING when they mimic and enhance the running form. Specifically the lunges, step up bounds, and calf raises help train our bodies to repeat proper running form during training and racing, especially when we begin to weaken overall towards the ends of our workouts or races. Knowing what it feels like to engage proper arm swing, knee lift and toe off goes a significant way to reducing impact and gauging effort during our runs. These exercises exaggerate those movements and keep us tuned to small adjustments in form.
Just as we try to create balance between one side of the body and the other, we also touch on creating a balance between the upper body and lower. Admittedly, the upper body is not AS important as the lower body with running fitness and efficiency, but a weak enough upper body can completely ruin one’s running goals as the strains get shifted to the lower body muscular groups, in effect compromising form, increasing impact, and potentially ending a run from increasing muscular damage.
During longer races, as the impact and distance breaks down the weaker muscle groups, the upper body is most often the first to go. The shoulders slump, the arms lose forward swing and instead come across the front of the body, and the core fails to the point that the pelvis is tilted improperly, the weight is shifted backwards and the legs compensate by over striding, causing significant strain on the hamstrings, other muscle groups, and increasing overall impact through a heel-striking “braking” movement instead of a mid-foot, forward propulsion. This chain of events all started with the failing of the upper body.
In the lower body, with these exercises, we specifically hit the quads, hamstrings and glutes, calves and ankles, and hips. In the upper body, we hit the shoulders, arms, and core.
PLANS AND PROGRESSIONS
What follows is the specific exercise plans I give my runners, and progressions as the athlete outworks the reps and sets. These movements are all very basic and increases of strain can be achieved through additional movements (lateral), weights, or sets and reps.
20 Walking Lunges
2 x 10 Single Leg Calf Raises
3 x 5 Off Balance Single Leg Squats
2 x 10 Push ups
3 x 10 Step Up Bounds
Planks to fatigue
2 x 10 Clam Shells
30 Walking Lunges
2 x 15 Single Leg Calf Raises
2 x 10 Off Balance Single Leg Squats
4 x 10 Push ups
3 x 15 Step Up Bounds
Planks to fatigue
2 x 15 Clam Shells
40-60 Walking Lunges
3-4 x 15 Single Leg Calf Raises
3-4 x 10 Off Balance Single Leg Squats
3-4 x 20 Push ups
3-4 x 20 Step Up Bounds
Planks to fatigue
2 x 20 Clam Shells
60-80 Walking Lunges
3-4 x 20 Single Leg Calf Raises
3-4 x 15 Off Balance Single Leg Squats
4-5 x 20 Push ups
4-5 x 20 Step Up Bounds
Planks to fatigue
4 x 20 Clam Shells
2 x 50 Mountain Climbers
Walking Lunges – Quad / Hamstring / Hip / Glute strength. Raise the knee high and toe off when stepping out of the lunge and into the next. Step out far enough that the knee doesn’t extend past the grounded foot when lungeing.
Single Leg Calf Raises – Touch a wall for stability, but don’t use it to pull yourself up. Lift off the ball of your foot and keep big toes touching the ground. Don’t roll to the outside of your foot when getting tired towards the end of the reps. Maintain the idea of “toeing off” through your stride and lift.
Off Balance Single Leg Squats – Dip as far as is comfortable during the squat, using your non-tensioned leg to point in a new direction with each squat. This will cause you to make micro adjustments in the ankle and foot in order to maintain balance, strengthening tiny, neglected muscles in those areas. Gently lock the knee when coming out of each squat in order to achieve full range of motion.
Push Ups – There are no secrets to push ups, as the neglected upper body will surely feel any strain you place upon it. Complete the necessary reps and increase them (or sets) if you are no longer reaching significant fatigue in the effort. Don’t overdo it initially as the effort can really compromise movement in the shoulder area after the strain has been achieved.
Step Up Bounds – Concentrate on “toe off” during the bound portion of the Step Up. Lift the non-strained knee high at the apex of the movement, while also exaggerating arm swing upwards and back. Resist rolling to the outside of your foot when fatigue builds. Try to keep the movement fluid and rhythmic throughout. You should notice significantly increased heart rate during your rest period between sets. Use a stable step device, high curb, or stair case to do this exercise. The higher your step device, the more difficult the exercise will become and more benefit you will receive.
Planks – The most basic plank can be carried out on your hands or elbows. Either plank to fatigue or add dynamic movement with rocking planks, reaches, leg lifts, etc. Continue to isolate the strain on your core and resist shifting weight to your shoulders or sagging your back. Try coughing two or three times before the exercise to feel the muscles you want to engage in your core.
Clam Shells – Lay on your side with legs bent and feel the increasing tension in your hip muscles as the reps increase. For quicker strain, lift your entire leg upwards to engage the specific hip muscle.
Mountain Climbers – A full body exercise, Mountain Climbers will work the lower body, core, and upper body as you stabilize yourself through the dynamic movement. Bring your knees as far forward as possible to engage full range of running movement.