If you actively reading this blog on the regular, you are probably not surprised by my (Jordan’s) topic selection. Predictably, I’d like to discuss the merits of strength training in the context of how it will affect distance running performance. This topic is quite pertinent given the likely rise in runners now on the streets as a result of the annual calendar change. Regardless of whether you are an elite level marathoner, or someone running their first 5 km race this spring, I’d like to think this blog post is applicable to all. I will try to keep it light on the science business, but when such a potentially controversial topic comes up we need science to guide us.
Please chime in if you have other thoughts on this, but I think the primary concern around adding strength training to your program when you are primarily a distance running revolves around the concern that strength training will increase body mass through muscle accumulation. I assume the thought here is that more body weight results in lower efficiency and faster fatigue since you are moving more body weight when you run. This belief is likely perpetuated if you have ever watched an olympic distance/marathon race, where we often see ‘lean’ athletes throughout the athlete field competing for gold.
So first off, I am not suggesting you become as strong and muscular as an elite sprinter (see American sprinter Justin Gatlin for reference). Most of us will probably have a very hard time getting to this physique. This is also the accumulation of YEARS of dedication to deliberate training and diet (and maybe some genetic predispositions), likely dictated by a variety of coaches. The metabolic demands of sprinting vary considerably from distance running as well, so it would probably be overkill to strength train to this level. Regardless, SOME strength training is likely to benefit most distance runners, and there is evidence to show this.
Before we hit the research, I want to remind everyone of the injury risk-reduction effects of strength training through this blog post from 2019 (https://bodycotoronto.com/stretching/). So if you find any benefit from strength training, it is likely to AT LEAST reduce your risk of injury, which to me means you can run more (which is probably what you like to do). It will also make you an all-around better human, because you might be able to run from zombies for a while with your current routine, but eventually they will catch up to you so we need other means to defeat them (i.e. STRENGTH AND POWER).
If you are still reading, you are probably ready to learn about what benefits strength training has on your distance running (thanks for sticking it out to this point!). Generally speaking, the quality of these studies varies, but there were no negative effects to distance running when a strength training program was employed. Additionally, some of the articles analyzed TRAINED or ELITE athletes, so the effect on novice/intermediate runners may not be exactly the same. Here are some specifics:
- Running economy (amount of oxygen used at a steady running speed) and time spent running at a maximum aerobic speed improves with an 8 week strength program that incorporated ONLY heavy resistance half squats, 2-3 times per week (1)
- Improved running speed (measured for 800m, 1.5 km, and 5 km runs) was seen with the addition of interval sprints and high repetition single leg jumps over a 5-7 week period, 1-2 sessions per week (2)
- Improved running economy, peak velocity, and 3 km time improved in a study on elite male runners over a 12-week training period, 2 sessions per week (3)
- Running economy was shown to improve in a systematic review (literature that analyzes a body of research), with study protocols utilizing plyometric exercise and/or low-to-high intensity strength training (4)
The exact mechanisms as to why strength training improves distance running outcomes are not directly proven in what I have read. It is suggested though that more strength results with training, leading to more efficient muscular activation (nerves fire more efficiently when you contract your muscles) as well as higher load tolerance in your muscles (1). So say for example that you were originally able to squat 75 lb on a barbell before strength training, and after training for 8-12 weeks you were able to squat 100 lb, plus your body weight did not change. The force exerted on your body as you run likely did not change in 8-12 weeks, but the forces your body can withstand before fatigued has now increased. Therefore the ratio of force applied to force tolerance as you run has decreased, which means you are further from your fatigue ceiling with each stride. Sounds like a win-win to me.
Hopefully this stimulates some thought on your end as I know it did mine (…as well as confirmed some of my biases around how great strength training is!). If you are interested in learning more on this topic or would like to discuss a safe and effective introduction to strength training to bring your distance running to the next level, drop us a line and get a new perspective on running in 2020!
Thanks for reading!
Are you ready to improve your running performance? Is your New Year’s resolution to add a personal best to your race circuit this year? Perhaps you just want to increase your distance or run more comfortably. In all cases a functional assessment and strengthening plan can go a long way to optimizing performance.
Book an initial assessment with Jordan today where he will analyze your gait and mechanics and help you come up with implementable strategies to make 2020 your fastest year yet.
Jordan Fortuna, Manager of Clinical Services
Jordan is a graduate of the University of Toronto Physiotherapy program and has since been practicing in orthopaedic settings. He has developed an interest in sports physiotherapy through his many years as an athlete, participating in baseball, golf, snowboarding, and more recently rock-climbing, cycling, and strength training. He has worked with a variety of clientele including athletes from disciplines such as competitive dancing, running, rock-climbing, and mixed-martial arts, as well as non-athletes of a wide age range and ability. Regardless of activity level, he is dedicated to improving mobility, optimizing function, and strengthening to help achieve your goals through the use of an individualized exercise prescription and manual therapy. He also has additional training in acupuncture and sports taping.
- Storen, O., Helgerud, J., Stoa, E.M., and Hoff, J. Maximal Strength Training Improves Running Economy in Distance Runners. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. 2008. 40(6): 1087-1092.
- Hamilton, R.J., Paton, C.D., and Hopkins, W.G. Effect of High-Intensity Resistance Training on Performance of Competitive Distance Runners. J. of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2006. 1(1): 40-49.
- Sedano, S., Marin, P.J., Cuadrado, G., and Redondo, J.C. Concurrent training in elite male runners: The influence of strength versus muscular endurance training on performance outcomes. J. of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2013. 27(9): 2433-2443.
- Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., and Grivas, G. V. Effects of strength training on running economy in highly trained runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016. 30(8), 2361–2368.