Sunday, November 11, 2012

I don't need to lift weights, I'm a runner. Right?

Nearly every running magazine contains some kind of resistance training routine. Whether it be a perfunctory core routine consisting of planks and side planks or a more comprehensive leg routine of lunges, single leg squats, and even plyometrics; every month it is part of the content.

But do most runners actually do any of these routines? Is resistance training in any form part of their training program? And does it have to be?

With limited time the first thing most recreational runners drop is a weight training program, then if they are doing any speed intervals or track work that is the next thing to go if time is short. Most runners training for half marathons and marathons will have a long slow run normally at a weekend, they are loathed to drop this, but if they have to this will be the next thing to go. Until all they are left with is the standard 4-5 mile moderate run, which is relatively easy to fit in, but out of all the training sessions achieves the least amount. This should be the first thing that is dropped.

So with limited time is it worth integrating resistance training into your program. To be part of your training it needs to achieve three things:

  1. Help prevent injuries and bulletproof your body
  2. Help you run faster and possibly further
  3. Not injure you (many strength coaches seem to miss this point, if the strength program injures the athlete they are definitely never going to do it again)

But Kenyans Don't Lift Weights?

It is well documented that Kenyan runners generally don't lift weights (Tanser 2008, Finn 2012). They do intervals, fartlek, track work, they run up hills and they live at altitude but they don't lift weights.

In the USA half of all Olympic Marathon Trial qualifiers were found not to do any strength training and the other half averaged 1 to 1.5 strength training sessions per week (Karp, 2010)

So if someone of the best long distance runners in the world don't lift weights why should you?

Isn't Running Hills Like Strength Training?

Some running coaches like Brad Hudson don't believe in strength training for runners. Hudson thinks hill sprints are all the strength training that runners need. Much like strength training, Hudson thinks hill sprints will strengthen muscle and connective tissue, hence prevent injury. In addition he calls them 'muscle training', they help neuromuscular adaption and should make your running more efficient and improve running economy. Hudson outlines how to do them here.

In essence you do short 8-10 second sprints up a hill with a gradient of at least 6% (or if you're like most people just find a hill that looks steep). You build up to 10 sprints. They key is these are not hill repeats, they are all out efforts, so recovery time is long, 1 minute or more, or an easy walk back to the start between reps. You would do this session twice a week.

For most distance runners this is a great session to incorporate into your training. It will add much needed speed and strength and it is a relatively short session. Most distance runners ( and by this I mean 10k, half marathon, marathon and ultra) do no speed work or sprint work, and even if you do no resistance training these hill sprint sessions would be a great addition to your training.

But Hang On, Mo Farah & Scott Jurek Lift Weights

Steve Magness, the former scientific advisor to Mo Farahs training group coached by Alberto Salazar, states that Farah was put on a strength and conditioning programme when he arrived in Oregon (Halford, Athletics Weekly, 2012).

"Salazar has said that Farah was the 'weakest athlete I'd ever trained' when it came to doing press ups, sit-ups and single leg squats, so that was put right with three or four hours a week in the gym." (Halford, 2012:61)
Although Farahs actual program isn't outlined, we can get a hint of it from the quote above, I have also seen TV footage of him doing front squats and single leg work. Also, the amount of time devoted to strength training shows that Farah wasn't just doing one session a week. The results of his program are there for all to see, no one else could live with him on the final lap of the 5,000m or 10,000m in the London Olympics.

The one at the front lifts weights

In his book Eat & Run Scott Jurek recommends doing supplemental strength training and core work. This is interesting, as the distances he is running are 50 or 100 miles plus, so the concept of having to have a powerful sprint finish as Farah would need in the 5,000m is not the main rationale.

Interestingly in another article Jurek outlines something he calls 'super reps' ( see here )

"Leg strength workouts can vastly improve fatigue resistance without running a step. Low resistance super-reps are the best type of strength workout for runners. Super-reps are completed with low resistance for two to five sets of 50 to 100 repetitions or more. Get off the machines and perform functional exercises, such as one leg mini squats, lunges, step-ups and step-downs, to get the most benefits" (Jurek, 2012)
 This is an interesting idea, it would go against what most strength coaches would consider strength training, and there appear to be no studies investigating very high rep training. However, the concept does makes sense to me if you are training to run 50 miles and more, these type of exercises would help to build up connective tissue, and maybe we could even surmise some extra capillaries, and mitochondrial development.

Scott Jurek - one of the greatest ultrarunners of all time recommends you do resistance training

Interestingly, this has something in common with an idea  that JB Morin has, a professor and researcher in sprint biomechanics and speed development. In an interview with Bret Contreras (see here ) Morin recommends that sprinters train the ankles for endurance

"take a 20lb barbell on the shoulders and jump from right foot to left foot while on the balls of your feet, or jump with a high frequency on one foot only for 20 reps, then on the other, and so on, or from right to left over a lane line, etc…. Do this for 3 minutes – they’ll burn like crazy. This will build tremendous ankle endurance. In addition, these muscles are involved in our overall balance while standing, so they have a high endurance, don’t hesitate to “burn” them until you can not stand on your feet, they recover very fast." (Contreras, 2012)
 In my opinion this would be an excellent drill for endurance runners, as in long distance running the amplitude of the movement is much smaller than sprinting and much more reliant on ankles and calves. I would start with no weight and do simple bounces on both legs, focusing on ankle springiness, with minimal knee bend (like you are skipping), several of these drills are outlined by Bosch & Klomp in their DVD Hardlopen - BK Method (I think hardlopen just means running in Dutch, but hey hardlopen sounds way cooler).

Okay, But What Does The Research Show?

Coaching is a blend of art and science, and we can learn from what individual elites do, but what does the research show? What is the evidence?

The first thing to note is there isn't that much research (Sargent, 2007), and most of it involves distances of 5k or less, so we can try to extrapolate to longer distance as most recreation runners are probably entering events of 10k or more and probably aren't entering 1,500m or 3,000m races.

Johnston et al (1997) studied strength training in female distance runners. They did a 10 week strength training program in addition to their normal running mileage, in comparison to a control group the strength group had a significant increase in running economy. This basically means they were using less energy at any given speed than they were before, this reduced oxygen demand

"may allow one to run longer at the same speed or faster with the same relative effort" (Johnston et al 1997:224)

The strength training regime they followed was nothing fancy, it consisted of squat, seated press, hammer curl, weighted sit up, lunge, bent-leg heel raise (calf raise I guess), bench press, latpulldown, knee extension and knee curl. Reps ranged from 20 for the calf raises to 8 for the leg curl & leg extension and 6RM for squat, press, curl & lunge. I know that some strength coaches are crying at this programme right now, Leg extension - heresy! But it worked. They did this three times a week and it improved running economy. Also importantly for paranoid females and runners, they didn't increase body mass or body circumference measure, they didn't 'bulk up' but they did get stronger. Also they didn't improve their VO2 Max but they did improve time to exhaustion. Improvements in running economy can make you faster with no increase in VO2 Max. The strength may have improved their running style, therefore making them more efficient with less energy leaks or wasted energy.

Paula Radcliffe - the fastest female marathon runner of all time - doing back squats and not bulking up

In another study Paavolainen et ak (1999) studied elite male cross country runners. They gave the runners an explosive training program consisting of plyometric exercises like jumps, 1 leg jumps, hurdle jumps ( with and without weight)  as well as leg press and knee extensor-flexor exercises (whatever this means), reps were between 5-20 with less than 40% 1RM. After 9 weeks they improved their 5k time and running economy by 8.1 and 3.1 respectively. To put this in context there is typically less than 2% difference between times of the 1st place person and the 5th placed person in every Olympic distance up to and including the marathon (Sargent, 2007). This means a 3% improvement in time is the difference between winning and coming 5th.

In the Paavolainen study again there was no increase in body mass which many runners are so afeared of. This could be because plyometric & explosive muscle contractions are too short too induce hypertrophy.

Spurs et al (2003) improved running economy using only plyometric exercises like squat jumps, double leg bounds, single leg bounds, depth jumps. They improved running economy in just 6 weeks, and the subjects were running 60-80km per week. This running volume is more typical of good level club runners and those training for marathons and more.

Millet et al (2002) gave elite level triathletes a pretty basic strength program consisting of Leg Press, Leg Curl, Leg Extension & Squat in the 3-5 rep range for 3-5 sets. These elite triathletes improved running economy by up to 6.9%, which is pretty big if you're already elite.

So it seems both basic strength training & plyometrics improve running economy and 5k times. Though plyometrics seem to work quicker and appear to be more sports specific as running is essentially a sport that happens on one leg at a time.

Well trained athletes seem to hit a ceiling in VO2 max and endurance performance. Noakes suggests that performance may be limited not only by oxygen uptake but by muscle power (Paavolainen, 1999).

But does this work for recreational athletes?

Ferrauti et al (2010) did an 8 week strength program intevention on recreational marathon runners and it made no difference in performance. This is one of the few studies I could find that looked at any distance over 5k. Kelly et al (2008) did a 10 week strength program study on female recreational runners and 3k performance. Again it made no difference to  running economy or run time. It should be noted that it didn't make them worse, it just didn't improve. The important take home message here is that if you are a new runner or haven't hit a ceiling yet, the old adage of to improve running you need to run more still applies. And if you are running for recreational purposes you can add in a strength program and it wont hinder your performance, plus you get all the benefits of a strength program and a rounded fitness regime.

How About Injury?

What we don't know from the studies above is if the strength training and plyometrics prevented injury and more importantly if they increase the rate of injury.

Runners get a lot of injuries, and most runners have appalling movement screens (and I include myself in this). If you start loading this population in squats and explosive plyometric exercises what happens? This is where appropriate coaching and exercise selection come in. Some runners just wont have the mobility or motor control to do a loaded squat, and many will have appalling plyometric technique with valgus collapse and poor spinal position. However, there is an irony here that a runner may be afraid of plyometrics but  is doing well over 1000 plyometric foot strikes per mile. This leads to another question, could we improve running economy and reduce injury just by improving technique? The answer is probably yes.

Could it be that strength training & plyometrics that are properly coached will improve running technique and improve resilience of the body.

Some simple exercises can help to prevent the most common injuries. For example, Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS) is the most common run injury and can be caused by heel striking, overstriding and internal rotation of the hips (Tucker & Dugas, 2009). Irene Davis at the University of Delaware gave a small group of runners  a gait retraining program for 4 weeks,  teaching them to strengthen and activate the external rotators of the hips. All participants rated their pain at zero by the end of the study, it was 5-7 out of 10 at the start (quoted in Tucker & Dugas). It seems logical that exercises to strengthen the external rotators like clamshells, and side lying abductors would help. And then progress to squats and one leg strength exercises, emphasizing external rotation. The same exercises could also help prevent or treat ITB syndrome.

Achilles issues like tendinosis are common in runners, especially those increasing volume or going faster. This type of injury is not inflammation, the Achilles needs to be remodelled and strengthened. Swedish researcher Alfredson found that eccentric calf raises are one of the best treatments for this. It would seem prevention is always better, so adding in some eccentric calf work and then adding load to it, should be part of an distance runners strength/prehab/bulletprooofing program.

And The Core

Running magazines love a core training program. Planks and side planks are staples. Though it makes sense that there is a connection between a strong core and running technique, posture and increased injury rate, I'm not aware of anyone making a concrete connection. Michael Fredericson of Stanford University has done a fair amount of work in this area ( you can get a free download core program here ). There are some good things in this program. Personally I would avoid the crunch and wobble board work (unless you have a history of ankle sprain) and focus on dead bugs, pallof presses and I would say loaded carrys should be done by runners as well. To do a loaded carry put a weight in one hand (kettlebell, dumbbell, sandbag) and walk up and down (simple, thanks Dan John) while keeping symmetrical. If you think about it, this is like a standing side plank, a more functional side plank if you will. McGills work on this exercise has been with strong men, but thinking logically I like this for endurance athletes too.

This is one of the first pictures that came up when I put kettlebell carry into google. Apparently this person is famous too. I prefer doing this with one kettlebell - like a vertical side plank but more functional. And doing it on a ledge will help prepare you for trail running

Meanwhile In The Soviet Union

As you would expect the East Europeans tried strength training and explosive plyometrics with their middle distance runners way before anyone in the West. In his book The Block Training System in Endurance Running Verkhoshansky (2007) outlines a whole program. In typical Soviet style it is a very complicated and long winded way of telling you to use essentially 2 exercises - the squat jump and scissor jump. (He does also mention using a kettlbell jump & fast hip flexor movement with a cable attached). The Soviets  tracked their athletes for a long time, three years of data not just 6 weeks. The training program they employed using these 2 exercises plus the usual fartleks, hill repeats show an improvement in the runners doing it compared to a control group. Though the distances concerned are what I would consider middle distance, 1500m and 3000m, distances rarely done by anyone whose not a track athlete.

Also, on the front of the book Verkhoshanky has a picture of Ovett & Coe. This is somewhat bizarre, as these two athletes regularly beat all the East European runners and didn't use any of these methods! It is well documented that Seb Coe was ahead of his time in using strength training, and this would have been back in the day of the old school multi-gym. It seems unlikely that either Coe or Ovett or any Kenyan were following a complicated block training system approach. Of course, this doesn't mean it doesn't work, the research shows plyometricsd are effective.

Coe & Ovett didn't follow a block training system, but apparently they were still pretty good at running. And Coe did lift weights

What I like about the Verkhoshansky program, is the purity, just 2 exercises. Any runner should have time to fit these in.

A few other lessons can be learned from the East Europeans. Bondarhcuk was one of the top throwing coaches but his principles can be applied to any sport (Bingisser, 2010). A few principles to consider

  1. athletes have limited time & energy
  2. general strength often isn't the answer
  3. special strength often is the answer
  4. pay attention to individuality
  5. discover the role of regularity
  6. always remember technique
  1. We have seen already that many runners don't have much spare time and coaches are often reluctant try and add in strength training. Remember it doesn't have to be a long session, Verkhoshansky used 2 exercises.
  2. There is a concept of redundant strength. There is a point where having any more upper body strength will not make you any better at running, in fact, too much muscle mass could make you worse. But don't forget that in the studies outlined above, many runners benefited from general strength training to begin with, as many of them had no background experience in resistance training, the initial neural adaptions helped them.
  3. The exercises should be specific to improving endurance running. Many strength coaches miss this point, they write exactly the same training programs for endurance runners as they do for sprinters and explosive sports, this is probably because it is what they are comfortable with and what they know. Running is a single leg sport, and endurance running doesn't have much hip flexion or knee bend, remember that.
  4. Individuality in strength training for runners is important. If they don't have the technique for plyometrics or they have injuries or weaknesses, you need to address those first. If you are training yourself, be very honest about what you need to work on.
  5. Bondarchuk & Verkhoshansky have very simple programs in terms of exercise selection for sports, and they didn't change that much. The exercise programme should help you run further or faster and prevent injury. Its not about getting better at Olympic lifting, or Squats or entering a powerlifting meet or how high you can box jump, its about getting better at running. You get better at something by doing it repeatedly not by changing it too often.
  6. Technique is especially important if the runner is a novice at resistance training. Also think about your running technique, what will improve it.
Putting It All Together

At last, if you read all that, well done. In summary

  1. Any basic strength training program should improve your running economy
  2. Plyometrics seem to work quicker and are more specific, and you wont 'bulk up'
  3. If you are a beginner, to get better at running you need to run more but strength training wont make you worse and has many additional benefits
  4. If you really don't want to do strength training do hill sprints,but you really should lift weights
  5. It doesn't have to be complicated, 2 to 4 exercises, 2-3 times a week will have an effect
Based on this, a simple program could look like

Day 1

Mobility work to begin with: Clamshells, side lying abductors, glute bridge, 1 leg glute bridge, hip flexor stretch, cat camel

Strength - I like single leg work, but squats and machines all worked in the studies outlined

A1 Single leg RDL 3-4 x 6
A2 Bulgarian split squat (rear elevated split squat) 3-4 x 6

B1 Press Up 3 x 10
B2 TRX Row 3 x 10

C1 Core: Pallof Press, loaded carries to finish.
C2 Eccentric calf raise

Single leg RDL with kettlebell. If you're lucky enough, you can do this on a beach. I don't know who the person in the picture is

Day 2 - or a progression from day 1

Dynamic warm up - leg swings etc

Squat Jumps 3 x 10
Box Jump  3 x 10 - keep knee angle the same when landing as when jumping
Single Leg Bounds 3x5 each leg
Double leg bounces - stay springy - use the ankles - minimal knee bend like skipping

Single leg hops JB Morin Style with or without weight - 3 mins on each leg

Scott Jurek Hi rep finishers:
Single leg mini squat x 50/ side

Core: dead bug variation

Add in some flexibility work and away you go. Of course the above is generic, but it shows you what can be done. The options and progressions are limitless, but keep it simple people.


The research shows that resistance training does improve running economy in distances up to 5k. No one knows the optimal dosage or exercises or the best ones to do, that's where the art comes in. There is very limited research in this area, and research relating to Olympic lifts and running and ultra running and any type of strength training is non existent (if anyone wants to fund my PhD on this, let me know).

Run coaches have been reluctant to add in resistance training due to lack of time, lack of knowledge and if it ain't broke don't fix it attitude. But we have seen that Mo Farah and some of the best runners in the world do lift weights.

Strength coaches have more or less based their long distance running programs off of traditional sprint programs, making runners faster at sprinting. Which is okay if you are elite and are sprinting at the end of the race to be top 3 but are much less applicable to the average 10k runner who wants to improve their PB, and avoid injury.

Resistance training in any form, just twice a week is a worthwhile addition to nearly every training schedule. It can improve your running economy, help prevent injury, make you faster, improve your posture and doesn't have to be complicated.

So go out and run (and lift some weights too).


Bingisser M (2010) Simplifying Bondarhcuk. Modern Athlete & Coach. 48(2) 27-31
Ferrauti et al (2010)
Kelly et al (2008)
Finn A (2012) Running With The Kenyans
Halford P (2012) The Appliance of Science. Athletics Weekly. October 4. 60-61
Johnston R E et al (1997) Strength Training in Female Distance Runners: Impact on Running Economy. Journal of strength & conditioning research. 11(4) 224-229
Jurek S (2012) Eat & Run
Karp JR (2010) Strength Training for Distance Running: A Scientific Perspective. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 32(3) 83-86
Millet GP, Jaouen B, Borrani F, Candau R (2002) Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and VO2 kinetics. Med Sci Sports Exerc 34 (8): 1351-1359.
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