In the first of this three part series I suggested that an integral part of Nike coaches Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert’s approach to strength training for running hinged on the variety of exercises being performed by their athletes on any given day.
Some interesting research I have read suggests that the more complex the physical activity, the greater the level of potential for improvements to be gained through neurological adaptations.
Running is about as complicated as it gets, therefore there’s ample opportunity to improve micro-components of your running biomechanics. With this in mind, running specific strength training is probably about as effective as it gets as a means to improve running technique and practice proper running form.
What are neurological adaptations and why are they important for runners?
Neurological adaptations are when the body gets stronger by learning how to perform movements more efficiently and effectively. Anyone who has undertaken some form of gym training will know that you can improve quite quickly in the early phases of taking on new exercises. For example: the gym instructor shows you how to use the bench press machine for the first time. Over the course of the first six weeks you improve the amount you are able to lift each time you go to the gym.
Sorry, but you’re not Arnold Schwarzenegger yet. While you are stronger and you have added some muscle to your scrawny runner’s frame, a large part of the strength gains you have made are due to these neurological factors.
You got better at doing the exercise. Your posture was better, you engaged some supporting muscle groups more effectively and your brain delivered the message to the right muscles faster with improved coordination.
It’s all about these neurological adaptations – your body gets smarter and thereby stronger by learning new and challenging exercises. In mastering a demanding activity such as running this pays big dividends because of the total improvement potential from making multiple small gains in very small components of a large and complex movement pattern. It’s really a case of the pennies taking care of the pounds.
Imagine turning up to training and having new exercises thrown at you day-in day-out, your body is going to be always on a steep and continuous learning curve that maximizes this potential for rapid neurological strength adaptations. Every time you get a new running related exercise you are improving your posture, stability, muscle activation patterns etc in slightly different ways. This all adds up to better running coordination and strength development over time – provided that the exercises are at least in some way identifiable with or related to running.
Variety prevents plateaus in performance
So if you’re going to have strength related training scheduled five days per week, like they do in Oregon, you can bet your last dollar that it’s going to be different each day. Repeating the same exercises day-in day-out is not only a recipe for boredom for gym hating runners, but it also a slower way to progress. You’ll quickly plateau and limit your ability to obtain these rapid neural adaptations.
Running Technique Tips strength training framework
In the absence of a spy in the Schumacher camp, I’m going to lay claim to a theory on what they might be doing as my own. Let us call it a hypothetical Oregon Track Club strength training framework for building the variety that we’ve already discussed. There are five elements in it. Strength sessions could be built around having a singular focus in each session or blending elements of each into each and every session. If I had to have a bet, this is something like what I reckon they do in Portland, Oregon.
Overview of the elements
Running coordination and posture: exercises that have very similar postures and muscle activation patterns to that used in proper running technique.
Circuit training with an endurance focus: a demanding mix of exercises done under pressure during the session. Must practice good exercise technique for as long as possible.
Strength and power: more traditional barbell and machine work to build main strength and power.
Plyometric and explosive exercises: movements that demand the rapid loading and unloading of the muscles and tendons. Traditional exercises can be modified to include these elements.
Core work and dynamic stability enhancement: exercises focused on building stability through the trunk and also development of strength in muscles needed to prevent the dissipation of forces laterally in running.
I’ll dig into some examples of each style of strength training in the final part of this series. For now getting some perspective around the principles behind using the framework is going to take up the rest of this post.
Some more slow motion video from the 2011 Melbourne IAAF Track Classic
Features: Kaila McKnight, Jemma Simpson (OTC), Georgie Clarke and Bridey Delaney
Underlying principles for constructing a program and sessions
Using this type of framework is useful because it’ll always give you a reference point to begin designing a program or individual strength training sessions. Remember you need to keep the individual athlete in mind when designing a program: age, training background, past injuries and relative progression should all be taken into account.
1. gradual progression and management of intensity
Five sessions of strength work and the demands of elite running training means that in any given session it’s unlikely the athletes would work to exhaustion, especially when in a harder block of running training or approaching competition. Although Jerry did mention a few times runners had turned up to running sessions slightly worse for wear. The inevitable consequence of pushing the envelope at the elite level.
In my eyes strength training is very much like running – it should be generally approached with gradual progression in volume, difficulty of the exercises, increase in intensity and volume over the years. Accumulating strength gains and better coordination at the same time as practicing running and getting cardio fit keeps all areas of your running fitness in good balance.
2. program the day’s work around running
If you know you’re going to be running 6 × 1000m at your 5k race pace in the evening, then heading to the gym over lunch and maxing out on heavy lifting is not going to be conducive to good running. Keep the demands of your running schedule in mind when deciding what type what strength work you do around key workouts.
3. don’t do the same exercise or even similar exercises on consecutive days
Now that you have five styles of strength training to choose from, there’s no excuse for doing the same old boring routine every time you go to the gym. Not only are you limiting your potential for improvement there is also the risk of developing overuse injuries or muscle imbalances from hyper focusing on a single type of exercise.
4. keep the focus of the exercises on running
Don’t fall into the trap of creating variety for its own sake. You can be extremely creative in developing new strength based exercises and still make sure they are in some way related to running. By this I mean the postures, muscle activation patterns and ranges of motion should resemble those used in running. Exceptions can be made with certain exercises that help develop stability through lateral movements. However, in my opinion these should not be over-done in the overall program.
5. alter the focus depending on your training and racing build-up
Without being too prescriptive it makes sense to change the focus of your strength work to complement your yearly plan (yes you should have one). For example: it could be beneficial to focus on heavier lifting an development of absolute strength in your base building phase. You’ll be running easier aerobic miles and not needing to tap into your strength reserves too much in running, so sneaking in a bit more hard work in the gym will be possible.
In the final part of this series I’ll provide examples of each of the five elements I have described in this article.
Written by Brian Martin
Read parts one and three of this series:
Jerry Schumacher’s strength training secrets: part 1
Jerry Schumacher’s strength training secrets: part 3
Other articles of interest you may enjoy: