Strength training and running technique

The total relationship between strength training and good running technique:

One of the great running truisms of the past sixty years has been that training for strength leads to improved athletic performance.  But how does it work?  Is it just about getting stronger, larger muscles or are there other factors at play?  Strength training for runners, perhaps popularized by Percy Cerutty’s barbell way, has been used successfully by many runners from Cerutty’s star pupil Herb Elliot through Sebastian Coe to almost all modern day elite runners.  In this article I look at the deeper benefits of training for strength that can help bring about profound improvements in running technique and economy as well as provide a sound foundation for movement patterns that help runners avoid injuries in the longer term.

Coordination

One of the most overlooked aspects of strength training is the value it has on improving coordination of movement through better underlying muscle activation patterns.  It’s relatively easy to understand the role of stronger muscles and connective structures such as tendons in better running performance.  Additional power can increase the distance covered for every stride, thereby reducing the aerobic cost of maintaining any given pace and general strength can help build greater resilience against injury.  Training of the muscles also stimulates strength and responsiveness in the tendons – a key aspect of harnessing and using the relatively free energy created with every stride and contact with the ground.  If these were the only benefits of strength training in running there would be ample reason to ensure that you included significant strength work in your training program.

However it’s less obvious that there are other important reasons for doing a few squats or lunges. When it comes to strength training the benefits around improving your overall coordination, movement pattern and ultimately running technique are equally as valuable.  In fact, if you are a regular jogger or club runner struggling to find ways to improve your running form to avoid injuries or boost competitive performance, then the coordination aspects of strength training should be one of your main priorities in training.  This article introduces these concepts and begins to explain how they can be linked to better running technique.

Be cautious; as practicing an incorrect movement and muscle activation pattern or executing a strength exercise using poor posture could reduce its effectiveness and potentially lead to injury.  The type of strength training you choose to integrate into your program is all important, movements and postures must be closely related to running to maximize their benefit and ability to transfer to better running technique.  For more information on selecting the right strength based exercises please refer to chapter 9 of my Book: Running Technique.

Support and stability

To be well coordinated during running, a combination of large and small muscles must be simultaneously activated to maintain good posture and avoid joints being placed into weak positions.  In running, these tend to be dominated by the muscles at the hips (buttocks and hamstrings), spinal erectors and the often discussed core of the superficial and deep abdominal muscles.  For example, training the smaller muscles such as glute medius, in concert with their larger bedfellows (glute maximus and the hamstrings) can bring about significant improvements in the capacity of the larger muscles to exert their full strength and prevent injuries by ensuring the muscles work within their natural range of motion.  Without the glutes firing at the right time the thigh may not track directly under the hips allowing for the diversion of force laterally and therefore loss of energy sideways rather than directing thrust behind the runner.  If the hips are stable this scenario is less likely to develop.  Training for coordination and stability around the hips allows the full strength of the hamstrings and glutes to be expressed with every stride.

Posture

Underestimate the importance of posture on your running technique at your peril.  Positioning the key joints in your body into the right positions at the right time allows you to generate more power from each stride.  On a scientific basis, this has been measured and demonstrated where more muscle power is evident when a joint is positioned in the most advantageous posture.  It’s easy to test this yourself in the gym: using the leg press machine as an example, you can push more weight when you start with flexed knees and hips.  It’s much more difficult to generate power when your legs are straight.  Adjust your hip and knee posture by moving the seat closer or farther away from the plate.

In running, the equivalent analysis is running too upright with too little flex at the hip and knee joints during the preparation and contact phases.  Therefore better running technique involves getting the posture of the hip, lower back and knee joints right just prior to and during contact with the ground.  Allowing the muscles to express their maximum strength in these moments is critical to developing a powerful and efficient running technique.  Strength training allows you to practice holding a posture that involves keeping the lower back relatively straight and the hips and knees flexed.  In truth you need to be stronger than you might think to adopt this more efficient running form.  Exercises such as bridging and squats (of all varieties) help build the strength required to adopt and maintain these postures and good technique during running.

Reduction of antagonist co-activation

An aspect of strength training that is perhaps not well known or understood is the benefit of practicing movements under modest loads to element wasteful and destructive activation of muscles that should be silent or playing minor support roles.  A classic example in running is over-activity in the Tensor Fascia Lata muscle or TFL that can tend to activate at the same time and in competition with the glutes and hamstrings.  In this case what we have is a muscle involved in flexing the hip turning on at the same as the muscles trying to send the thigh backwards behind the hip into extension.  A muscle pulling in the opposite direction is both generally fatiguing, restricts range of motion and is potentially injurious.

Muscle activation speed and power

Training the muscles also trains the neurological pathways, nerves fire faster, muscles fully contract more quickly.  Training the muscles in many different ways keeps them stimulated and continues to build effective strength rather than heavy muscle bulk.  Yet another good reason not to let your strength training program descend into monotony and boredom.  Keep it fresh and reap the rewards.

Bringing the strength concept together

You do need the base strength to get the posture right and to enable the supporting muscles to fire in concert with their larger counterparts.  So we can see that while posture and coordination helps improve strength and coordination so does strength help posture and so on.  All of these factors are closely related and feed off each other.  In totality they make up the phenomena loosely called strength but as I’ve discussed strength is the product of the ability to express the maximum capability of the body to product power and force.  This means strength is much less about having big muscles than what many people might expect, posture, coordination and the efficient activation of the muscles all combine to produce movement that expresses maximum force for minimum energy expended.

The role of form and technique in strength training: transference.

You can think of strength training as a way of programming your body to react well under stress, you are coding movement patterns into your muscles and neurological pathways, ones that become second nature, your preferred way of moving.  That’s why you should only do exercises that are functionally related to good running technique.  To do otherwise is to program in the wrong pattern or an incomplete series of muscle activations.  It’s a good idea to practice some low intensity strength training exercises before you run – this helps get the right muscles firing and transfers the pattern used in the exercise more directly to your running.  One example I use frequently is a few bouncy body weight squats – this helps gets my somewhat lazy butt firing.

Summary

In summary, strength training while today being a major focus at the elite level of running is still largely ignored by regular runners as being important.  However, amongst professional athletes it is receiving more attention than ever.  A few months back in Melbourne I had the chance to briefly pick the brains of Jerry Schumacher (the coach of leading American runners Chris Solinsky and Sharlane Flanagan) on the topic of strength training.  His group based in Oregon will do as many as five strength related training sessions per week.  This is a serious commitment and underscores how important strength training is to better running performance.  If you’re a regular jogger, participate in fun runs or club competition then seriously consider adding an intelligent mix of strength training into your routine. This does not mean throwing around lots of heavy objects in the gym, or trying to get big muscles, many of the most beneficial exercises can be done without any equipment using body weight alone.  Remember the focus is on practicing movements that mimic good running technique – any strength work that deviates too far from this rule of thumb should be approached with caution.

For more information please refer to chapters 7 and 9 of my eBook Running Technique.

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