You've Upped Your Strength Training So Why Isn't Your Pace Improving? Here's Why!
Over recent years the information around strength training and its importance in sports like running has significantly increased. Today every running magazine, whether online or printed has a section in it about strength exercises with a message advocating for strength training being part of a runner’s weekly routine. This increasing awareness is clearly a good thing. It’s long been known that runner’s can reduce their risk of injury and increase their running efficiency with strengthening exercises. However every week in our clinic we still meet runners that have been working on strength training but are still not showing the benefits of it in their running.
The issue that is being highlighted here is one of translation (assuming the exercises are performed with correct form). Just performing classical strength exercises regularly, on its own is only half of the story. And will only provide part of the benefit. What’s equally important is how the strength training is translated into the movement pattern of running. In this article I’ll outline a few simple guidelines to bare in mind when incorporating strength training to help draw out the maximum carry over into how you run.
If we assume in this article that you are not under a program of corrective exercises from a medical professional and that you are looking for a general runner strength training program then how the exercises actually relate to running is important. There are certain criteria that we can say, essentially define running movement. Some of these include the statement that it is a linear movement in a forward direction, that it is a repetitive movement, that it is a single leg contact movement, that it requires stabilization at the hip and core areas and more.
Hence it is important to consider which variations of exercises are going to be more appropriate and when. For example, standard lunges versus walking lunges or double leg squats versus single leg or split squats or classical double leg deadlifts versus single leg deadlifts. Early in the training journey you will likely need to start with the simpler variation, however with progression you will find you will gain more cross over benefit to your running if the variation more accurately simulates the challenges in running movement. I.e. single leg variations, compound movement variations and variations involving external forces.
One of the most overlooked areas that I see with many trainers’ and coach’s programs is the thought around the order of the exercises in a given program or series. To have the best translation forward into your running it’s often best to begin with the simplest and least challenging exercises and then gradually progress through to the more challenging and ‘running style’ exercises towards the end. For instance, early on in the session you may tackle simple exercises such as the short foot squeeze or a side plank variation. In contrast later in the session you may work on something like a single leg runner deadlift with a kettlebell.
Equally this progressive approach can also be applied at a finer scale, within a type of exercise and performed as a series. An example of this would be the glute bridge. The first sets would be with double legs, where as the later sets would be with single legs. Or in the case of the eccentric heel drop, the first sets would be with double legs and the later sets would change to a single leg lower with eccentric emphasis. Each one of these stacked sets forming a series.
Finishing with running
One rule that I always apply in an isolated gym session where the runner cannot immediately go on to run a workout after is to finish the exercises with some running. In the gym setting this is most easily achieved using a treadmill. In the clinic I have the luxury of being able to use a curved non-motorized treadmill for this purpose. The concept is that once the runner has woken up the neuromuscular system and trained better utilization and control of key muscles, we then want to use this in running movement before the body ‘cools down’ and drops out of this state.
In a typical session that I would perform daily with runners in the clinic this would involve finishing the strength exercises with the most running specific and challenging exercises of the session. Then after just a few minutes of break, get the runner to the treadmill where they run for up to 5 minutes, often with intervals or strides of higher pace. This treadmill finish is focused on keeping those key running muscles active and encouraging good form and mechanics whilst promoting stability and efficiency of the runner’s stride. Given that the aim is not to burn out the runner, we only do this section of the session for up to 5 minutes.
To finish this article I’ll just quickly give an answer to one of the most common questions I get asked in the clinic every week. When should I be doing these exercises ideally? In answering this I usually split my response into two. Firstly in the world of ‘ideal’, I will advise that the runner does the exercises before workouts. However, in the world of true reality, I often say that just getting the exercises done each week is good in itself. So under ideal conditions why would you want to perform strength exercises before running workouts?
The advantage of getting in some key exercises before a running workout is that you are then able to take the benefits of the strengthening and immediately apply them and hence reinforce your best running mechanics. Over time continual reinforcement of strong and stable running will hardwire this as your new normal. Ultimately if the runner diligently performs 3 strength training sessions a week away in isolation and then goes running on separate occasions with sloppy mechanics, the strength training is ultimately failing at what it is meant to achieve.
I will add that this doesn’t not mean stacking a hard run on the back of a hard gym session. This much fatigue would lead to tired running, underperforming and burn out. Rather the key is to add longer strength training sessions before easy runs and shorter strength sessions before faster, more challenging runs. These shorter cut down strength sessions might just be up to 6 target exercises that aim to wake-up and refine the neuromuscular response just prior to the higher paced, more challenging workout. For a target of 3 strength sessions a week, I’ve found it to be relatively simple to program the strength training before 2 easy runs and 1 faster run.
To close I should also add that there can be advantages in certain circumstances to performing strength training after running workouts. However this is not related to the concept of translation and so isn’t discussed in more detailed here.
Written by Malc Kent - Runfisix