Running – “running” – is the main sporting practice for millions of people around the world. Whether you are a complete beginner, aiming to last 5km, or an experienced runner with ambitions to participate in a marathon, you will probably want to improve.
Most training programs focus on increasing the distance traveled. However, to become a better runner, it is not enough to accumulate kilometers: it is important to also include weight training exercises, which a large number of practitioners are not aware of. If you haven’t already, here are three good reasons to start:
1. Performance improvement
Running economy is a key performance factor when doing endurance racing. This parameter corresponds to the amount of oxygen consumed by the body based on the running speed. Improving your running economy can help you run farther and longer. In fact, research has shown that the most “efficient” runners are able to use their energy more efficiently during their runs.
Strength training exercises have been shown to improve running economy. This is because these types of exercises, such as resistance exercises (squats or leg presses) or plyometric exercises, free body exercises (jumps and hops), improve the use of elastic energy: one becomes therefore more capable of pushing one’s body in forward, which reduces the amount of work your muscles have to provide.
Strength training can also help you run faster. This could be explained by the changes they induce in muscle fibers, or because these workouts also lead to changes in the brain and nervous system, which could result in the muscles being better able to exert their strength during movements.
These effects could prove to be particularly beneficial for people destined for middle distance competitions, especially races whose distance is between 800m and 3km.
2. Potentially decreased risk of injury
One of the drawbacks of running is that it carries a relatively high risk of injury to the legs, feet, and ankles, due to overuse of the lower limbs. Some research suggests that in one year of training, about 40% of runners suffer from a similar injury.
But strength training can help reduce the number of these “overuse” injuries in runners. This could be explained by the beneficial changes this type of exercise induces in the muscles, tendons and bones.
Strength training can improve the strength of the hip abductors (which help provide stability during movement), which can reduce the onset of iliotibial band syndrome. Also called “wiper syndrome,” this pain on the outside of the knee is caused by the rubbing of the iliotibial band (a long strip of fibrous tissue running from the pelvic bone to the knee) against the hip and knee bones.
This type of training can also help improve ankle strength, which is important for limiting the risk of Achilles tendon injury.
Evidence that strength training is useful for reducing the risk of injury in runners exists and is promising. However, they remain preliminary at this time, meaning more research is needed to confirm these findings. To protect runners from overuse injuries, however, some guidelines already recommend performing short-duration, high-intensity exercises, such as lower-body resistance exercises (especially squats and lunges).
3. Improvement of the way of running
About 80% of the energy we use when we run is dedicated to supporting the weight of our body and pushing it forward. If a runner can reduce the amount of vertical swing of their center of gravity (the body’s point of balance) while running, they may be more effective.
To understand why, we need to look at Newton’s laws of motion. Gravity exerts a force on our body mass directed towards the center of the Earth, which we counteract by applying an equal and opposite force. The longer it takes to apply this force, the more our center of gravity shifts down and the longer our foot has to stay in contact with the ground, with each step, to counteract gravity.
The stronger our muscles and tendons are, the more we can reduce the amplitude of the vertical oscillation of our center of gravity. The “spring” effect that accompanies each of our strides, when our foot comes into contact with the ground, is so much easier to achieve. Strength training improves the strength of our muscles and tendons and the speed at which that force can be applied. This is a factor that helps improve our operating economy.
Some studies indicate that strength training also improves the biomechanics of the torso and hips, which in theory should lead to more efficient running, and thus also to better running economy. Exercises that help strengthen core and lower limb muscles, such as squats, lunges, and step-ups, could therefore also be beneficial for runners.
Where to start?
For starters, runners are advised to engage in at least two to three weekly training sessions for at least 6-14 weeks. Several types of strength training can be helpful, but the most beneficial in terms of performance enhancement are heavy training (which involves heavy lifting) and plyometric training (jumping, skipping, jumping).
Any runner wishing to start strength training should enlist the services of an expert, and aim for relatively slow progression, focusing primarily on regularity. Low-impact plyometric exercises, such as box jump or hop, are best initially, before gradually increasing the intensity. Strength-training movements that involve the whole body, such as squats, lunges, and step-ups, are recommended, as well as exercises aimed at strengthening muscles that are more specifically susceptible to overuse injuries, such as those in the calves and hips.
And the benefits of this type of resistance training don’t stop at running: practicing it for 30 to 90 minutes a week is enough to reduce the risk of premature death from any cause.