During my “down time” recovering from the Pinhoti 100 mile race and before I start my next training bout leading up to the Georgia Death race this spring, I decided to spend a few weeks focusing on the stuff that I couldn’t do so much of while running 100 miles per week – strength training.
Many runners, myself included, love being outdoors and dread the idea of working out in a gym. However, while the jury is still out on the effectiveness of stretching, there is very strong research that indicates the benefits of strength training for runners in terms of injury prevention. Strength training is one of, if not THE single best thing that we can do as runners to prevent common overuse injuries. One review by Laursen et al (Br J Sports Med 2014) found that, in studies involving a total sample of 26,610 people, overuse injuries could be almost halved with sufficient strength training. That number is pretty incredible if you think about it!
Although the benefits of improvements in muscular strength are well-known, emerging research seems to show that strength training may do a lot more for runners than we think; it also seems to improve the health and strength of tendons, bone and other structures. When you make your muscles work hard under a heavy load, your tendons and bones also see that load. After your workout, your body responds by building thicker, healthier tendons and stronger, more resilient bones. The concept is actually similar to how your body improves the strength and endurance of your muscles.
If you are spending time running daily during the week and also have a job, it can be difficult to fit another thing into the routine. However, it may not take as much time as you think to reap the benefits for running injury prevention. That’s why, during the bulk of my training, I try to be very efficient and just focus on 3-4 exercises in a single session. My normal strength routine takes 20-30 minutes and I do it 1-2xs per week during most phases of training. Here are my bread n’ butter exercises!
#1. Calf raises: It’s simple and it’s one of the single best exercises you can do. This exercise is great for strengthening the calf muscles, Achilles tendon, plantar fascia, tibia (shin bone) and foot muscles (if performed with one leg).
- 6-8 repetitions with approximately 80% of the maximum weight I could do for 1 repetition with good form (1RM), 3-4 sets. When I get to that 8th repetition, my calf muscle is so fatigued that I feel like I could not get through another full repetition. Overtime, as the 8th repetition feels easier, I increase the amount of weight.
- I really like performing these with one leg off the edge of a stair to get that extra resistance and to challenge my balance. I keep a two finger touch on the wall for balance.
- Form – some things to watch for:
- Shaky or aberrant movement, especially when you are lowering your heel back down. Try to make the movement as smooth as possible.
- Your ankle caving outwards. Try to keep your ankle motion straight up and down.
- Inability to come up back up as high. Really try to go through your entire range of motion. If you can’t make it for your 6-8 reps with good form, drop down your weight.
- Your hip opposite the leg you are on dropping down. Try to keep your hips in a straight line parallel to the floor.
- Other similar exercises include calf raise machine at the gym, or you could even use the leg press machine to perform calf raises, which I do sometimes.
#2. Leg Press: great for strengthening the quadriceps,glutes, quadriceps and patellar tendons, knee joint, femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone).
- 6-8 repetitions approximately 1RM, 3-4 sets. Same principle as above. (I use this for most of my strengthening exercises).
- Form – some things to watch for:
- Your knee caving in or out. Try to keep your knee straight and work in a straight up and down motion, like a piston.
- Your knee going over (in front of) your toes.
- Other similar exercises include squats in a number of variations and the leg extension gym machine. If you are new to strength training, leg press is a great place to start because you have less things to focus on to keep good form.
#3. Lunges: great for strengthening the quadriceps,glutes, hip flexors, small foot stabilizer muscles, calf stabilizer muscles, quadriceps and patellar tendons, knee joint, femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone).
- 6-8 repetitions approximately 1RM, 3-4 sets. I like challenging my balance and muscle control more by putting my back foot up on a weight bench.
- Form – Watch for similar things to leg press:
- Your knee caving in or out. Perform these in front of a mirror, especially when starting out to make sure your knee stays straight. If you notice your knee caving in your out, then decrease your weight and/or don’t go as low down.
- Your knee going over (in front of) your toes. You should be able to see your toes the throughout the exercise. If you cannot, shift your weight back or move your foot forward.
- Other similar exercises can be lunges performed in a number of variations. If you are new to this or you don’t have good balance, try with keeping two feet on the ground. This will probably still challenge your balance!
#4. Leg curls: great for strengthening the hamstrings, hamstrings tendon, and one of your calf muscles and tendon.
- 6-8 repetitions approximately 1RM, 3-4 sets.
- Form – watch for:
- Your foot pointing inwards or outwards. Try to keep your foot pointed straight down and don’t let yourself bias the stronger hamstring muscle.
- Your hips rolling upward off the bench. Keep them flat.
- Form – watch for:
- Another great exercise to target similar muscle groups is the Romanian dead lift. I actually like the dead lift better because it targets additional muscle groups, but I find the leg curl machine to be more practical to squeeze in a 20 minute strength session when I am in a time crunch (less set-up time). Leg curl is also a great place to start for newbies.
Some helpful Tips:
- The short list above are some examples of exercises that I do that have worked for me. This is not an all-inclusive list and there are many other types of exercises that can be used to target similar muscle groups and structures and may be just as effective. I encourage you to find what is most fun for you and add some variation to keep it interesting!
- If you are new to doing weight training or it has been a while, I recommend starting without weight, to get the motion down with good form. You may want to start with two legs, not one. Then over time, slowly progress the weight and add the balance component with transition to single leg.
- If you have a history of injury (e.g. knee pain), it does not mean that you cannot perform strength training, but that you may need to make some modifications to exercises (e.g. not flex as deeply into lunges or squats). Consult with your PT and they can help you!
Lastly, I will try to answer a few FAQs:
Q: How much weight?
A: Your goal here should be about 6-8 repetitions, and no more than 10. Your last repetition should be HARD, and you should be close to failure. Don’t be afraid to add more weight once you take some time to get used to the exercise and the movement pattern if you are just starting out. That said, closely monitor your form and stop when you see compromises in good mechanics.
Q: How fast should I lift the weight?
A: Research suggests that long slow repetitions are the best way to load the tendon to promote good changes in tendon thickness and health. Tendons are often a source of running-related injuries, so, from an overuse injury prevention standpoint, I recommend performing strength training in this manner. I typically do a 1-2 second count working against gravity (concentric), 2-3 second count lowering the weight with gravity (eccentric). Be honest with your counting because a second is longer than it seems!
Q: Should I do the exercises with one leg or two?
A: If performed the correct way, using either one or two legs for exercises will be effective. However, I recommend that as you gain strength, you progress towards performance with one leg. You will find that this will really challenge your balance and also recruit additional “stabilizer” muscles like the small intrinsic muscles in your foot, muscles in your calf, and your hip abductors. Strengthening these muscles can also have a protective effect against running-related injuries! Additionally, it will prevent you from unknowingly biasing one leg or another and help to identify some potential asymmetries in strength between legs.
Q: When should I do strength training during my weekly training?
A: There is really no correct answer to this one. I typically do strength training the evening after a hard mid-week morning tempo run and/or the Monday after my weekend long run. But some weeks I just do it when I can fit it into my work and training week schedule. The important thing doesn’t seem to be WHEN you do it but THAT you get it done!
Q: I do yoga/pilates/tai chi every week. Can that count for strength training?
A: The short answer is no. These activities can be beneficial and may potentially reduce your risk of injury through proprioceptive balance training and strengthening of important foot and core stabilizer muscles. However, the loads and impact that your muscles, tendons, and bones are subject to during running are much greater than your body weight. Adding weight is necessary to maximize the effectiveness of strength training exercises from a running injury-prevention standpoint. So keep doing these other activities, but they should not take the place of strength training with added resistance. If you hate the idea of going to the gym or it doesn’t fit into your schedule, purchase some free weights that you can use as part of a home strength routine.
So there you have it – stay in the game and off the sidelines!