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Strength Training for Runners - A Waste of Time?

marie catherine bruno owenr of the sole mate

By Marie-Catherine Bruno, BScPT, Cped(C).

Photos by Scott Lemon

I have heard it all: “getting bigger would make me heavier and slower”; “strength training increases a runner’s risk of injury”; “it’s the cardiovascular system that limits the running speed and endurance, not the muscles”… and more; a lot more. But I have some news for you, and good news they are. Start saving your money for a gym pass if you don’t want to eat my dust!

It has always been a debate as to whether longer distance runners should use strength training as a regular part of their training regime or not. I have to agree, for us orienteers, the prospect of lifting weights in a crowded smelly gym has nothing even remotely attractive compared to the thrill of running through the forest. But what if I told you it could help you stay injury free, and, help you run faster through the forest? Sounds better already, doesn’t it?

Research has shown that most injuries associated to running are the result of repeated strains coming from the ground force. In other words, each time you hit the ground a force goes up your leg. If your body does not dissipate those forces properly, eventually they get absorbed by your tissues (bones, ligaments, muscles…), and the result is damaged tissue, also known as injury. There are well known and well used agents to help you reduce those forces: running on softer surfaces and with a proper technique that helps dissipate shocks, buying appropriate running shoes and keeping them in good condition, and shedding off extra pounds. But what if you have all of those items checked on your check list and you still get injured? Maybe it is time to think about strength training.

Runners dissipate ground forces by bending the knee and ankle upon landing. The ankle seems to be particularly important in this impact-force attenuation (a good reason to keep stretching your calves). However, those absorption mechanisms are most effective when your muscles are not fatigued. Studies have demonstrated that strains on the leg can increase by up to 30% when the muscles are tired and not responding as quickly. Also, by being more tired and slower to react, muscles cannot decelerate joints properly, therefore increasing the load on joints by up to 40%. So the recipe to avoid injuries? Either stop running as soon as you get tired, or build up those muscles so you can run longer. A good positive side effect is that your legs will be stronger, meaning that hills will be a lot easier to climb. Also, for a lot of runners, speed will come more easily. There is another bonus to strength training: strength training tends to increase the bone density, reducing the risk of stress fractures and osteoporosis.

So let’s get started. There are quite a few muscle groups that should be targeted by your strength training (running specific):

  • Quadriceps (bends the knee, flexes the hip, decelerates knee flexion upon landing)
  • Hamstrings (stabilizes the knee, flexes the knee)
  • Hip extensors (stabilizes the pelvis upon landing, extends the hip)
  • Calves – Soleus and Gastrocnemius (lifts up the heel, decelerates the tibia upon landing)
  • Core – abdominals and back extensors (keep your pelvis and trunk upright upon landing and breathing)

I will now describe a 30-minute routine that should ideally be performed twice a week. There is no need for expensive equipment, and it can be performed at home if the gym does not appeal to you. This routine targets the principal muscle groups used in running. There are quite a few other muscles that could be included if one wanted to be more thorough, but the longer the routine, the least likely you will follow - that’s the trade-off.

30-minute workout with Marie-Cat (remember Jane Fonda?)

Split squats

Back leg on a step, front knee aligned with ankle, drop down until knee makes a 90 angle (or less if your knees are sensitive).

Hold weights if too easy.

Repetitions: 8-12 each leg Sets: 3

split squats
split squats

V-Crunches

Lying on your back, knees bent, left ankle on right knee, lift up right shoulder towards left knee. Change sides.

Repetitions: 10-15 each side Sets: 2

v crunches

Single-leg Squats

Ball against wall, left hip against ball, single leg stance on right leg. Bend ankle, hip and knee so knee is bent to about 45-50 degrees. Go deeper if your knees allow. Change sides.

Repetitions: 8-12 each leg Sets: 3

single leg squat
single leg squat

Belly burners

Lying on your back, hips and knees bent at 90 degrees, pelvis tilted so your low back is flat on the floor. Lift shoulders off the floor, maintain that position and lower one leg at a time. Do not let the low back peel off the floor.

Repetitions: 10-15 each leg Sets: 2

belly burner exercise
belly burner exercise

Hamstring Curls

Lying on your back, feet on the ball, lift up pelvis as high as possible. Bring ball towards you. Keep pelvis up. Progress to one leg at a time when balance allows.

Repetitions: 8-12 Sets: 3

hamstring curls

The Plank

Lying face down, bring your body up and stand on the tip of your toes and elbows. Do not let your pelvis drop. Hold the position while you lift your foot off the floor.

Repetitions: 10-15 each leg (or until you sink) Sets: 2

planking

Full Calf Raise

Standing at the edge of a block (or stair), keep your balance on one leg. Drop the heel, and lift up on your tiptoes as far as you can go. You can hold a weight if necessary. Try not to hold on to anything for a good balance workout as well.

Repetitions: 10-15 each leg Sets: 3

*You should take a 2-minute break between each set to let your muscles recover. A good way to maximize your time is to do your core sets in between leg sets while your legs recover.

full calf raises
full calf raises

So, next time you hear that strength training is a waste of time for runners and orienteers, you are allowed to chuckle. If the person proclaiming those not-so-wise words happens to be one of your closest competitors, there is no need to try converting them. If however it is a lost soul that you wish to rescue, go ahead and spread the good news.

Marie-Catherine has helped many Canadian orienteers to reach the podium at World Masters Orienteering Championships over the years.