Strength training for running: planning and strategy

A few weeks ago I continued my coaching education by attending the Level 3 Athletics Australia course for Middle and Long Distance running coaches. In amongst some great learning was an informative presentation and demonstration by one of the leading strength and conditioning coaches of elite athletes in the country. Ross Smith works at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and personally supervises the strength training of many senior athletes within a range of sports, including track & field.

The professional approach of Smith and the AIS conditioning experts has added to my knowledge in this area and it was reassuring to find a lot of consistent practice between what I’ve been writing on this blog and using in practice with runners.

In this article I’ll explain my take on the AIS strength and conditioning methodology and overlay some of Ross Smith’s excellent advice given on the day and add in my thinking around this important, but often overlooked aspect of training for middle and long distance runners.

Planning and analysis – where it all begins and ends

Needs and gap analysis

It starts with the athlete and the requirements of their event – simple but perhaps sometimes forgotten, what qualities and attributes does the runner need to develop in order to achieve their goals?

Once you’ve established this, then what follows is a gap analysis between where the runner is today and how they need to evolve to be the athlete they need to be tomorrow. Easy right? Well not really, on first analysis limiting factors might be hard to identify, this is where consideration of the all the contributing factors leading to previous success or failure need to be considered.

You don’t need to be elite to follow this process. You are the athlete no matter how fast or slow.

Injury history and observation of current movement patterns

Taking on board the runner’s injury history is vital: are they currently injured or is there a chronic problem that keeps arising despite rest and treatment? Both factors will influence the composition and trajectory of the strength training to be contemplated. Rehabilitation and prevention strategies should be considered.

The injury history gives you clues and a source of corroborating evidence for what comes next – running technique analysis and assessment. Ross was emphatic on this point, he will not begin working with a runner until the running technique (movement patterns) have been observed and analyzed. Weaknesses need to be noted and appropriate strength training considered to help correct any issues identified. I’d also add that observation of competitive performances and hard training will help fill out all pieces of the puzzle.

Timeline and periodization – what strength training to do when?

Finally, a time horizon and long term plan is designed around the future goals of the runner. This is likely to be longer than you think – months and years actually. If you were thinking a few weeks or months was going to do the trick you will be in for disappointment. Like running, strength training is a long term proposition that works best with consistent application.

The goals of the athlete and the time available to prepare for them drives how you will organise the composition and progression of strength training to be undertaken. As with general running training, the longer you have the better the results will be.

Ross indicated that one Olympic sprinter he was working with would achieve maximum benefit two years after commencing his program.

My experience with this is most runners are in a hurry and you need to be practical about what you throw at them with looming races and a heavy running training load. Also it’s important to explain that additional strength work is likely to have equal or more benefit that completing another less important running session in the longer term. It’s best to consider the strength component well out from any important competitions to allow adequate time to see the performance gains begin to flow.

In essence this is further planning, where the program is broken down into:

  • yearly
  • training phase (off season, pre-season and competition)
  • training blocks (three – six weeks)
  • weekly program
  • daily activities

This is a great way to map out the long term progression of the runner and how different types and intensities of strength work will be used at various stages to complement training and competitions. As I’ve mentioned previously good strength training will vary considerably and this variety is stimulus for improvement in itself. Changing the mix throughout the year and season is vital, strength work volume and intensity can be higher during base-building running phases, but you’ll need to adjust the composition, intensity and volume as heavier running training commences and especially approaching key competitions. If you consider a four year plan, each year provides an opportunity to build on previous foundations, with the composition of the program changing to match the progression of the athlete.

Exercise selection – how to choose the right exercises

So which exercises did Ross choose to demonstrate? The selection was all based on simple running movement patterns, so old favorites of mine such as bridging and squats of various flavors were on the menu. After these movement patterns are mastered using body weight, various stimulus and overloads were discussed involving speed, weight and adding more challenging exercises such as dead lifts and explosive plyometric movements. Here’s the AIS guidance on the subject.

  • Exercises and training protocols should be selected with the specific sport development of the athlete in mind.
  • Understand the exercise and training protocol and the effect it will have on the athlete: increases in strength, power, endurance, general fitness or hypertrophy
  • Use multi-joint free weight exercises where possible (and where safe) as they are more effective for the development of sporting specific qualities.
  • Lifting weights can be beneficial for all athletes (including endurance athletes and female athletes) and if done correctly will not increase muscle mass at all.
  • Athletes should first develop good technique before attempting to increase load. Athletes should also learn the basic lifts before progressing to more complex lifts.
  • Failure in lifting weights is not when a weight is dropped but when technique breaks down (lifting an extra 10kg but sacrificing technique will not benefit training results and will increase the potential for injury).
  • All training programs should make small variations in load, volume or intensity to continually challenge the athlete and progress their development.

If in doubt don’t get too far away from running like postures and movement patterns. For more information on this please refer to chapters 7 and 9 of Running Technique.

Other items of interest discussed

Some other teachings that stuck with me from the day included:

  • the Ross ratio of 2 glute and hamstring exercises for every 1 quad based exercise
  • a 60/40 split between conditioning work inside the gym versus outside
  • the importance of working with running coaches (must be on same page)
  • plyometric exercises done on grass and sand as additional overload
  • continued observation of running technique (movement patterns) during conditioning work
  • technique must be mastered first before speed, weight and other overloads are introduced

Conclusions

The key with all of this is simplicity, but look for perfection inside simple movement patterns, don’t stray far from running postures and functional movement, and do any exercises with total focus on technical mastery before progressing to the next level.

As ever the importance of planning and strategy can’t be underestimated, and it underscores just how difficult it can be finding the right balance between strength training and running training. It can’t be haphazardly approached, nor should it be treated as an optional extra. Peter Coe puts it right out there in his excellent book Winning Running which faithfully documents the methods used to coach his son Sebastian Coe to numerous world records and Olympic medals. He argues that the counter to those that say strength training is unnecessary for runners because they have been successful without is this:

they would have been even better had they adopted strength work into their overall training mix.

If in doubt err on the side of caution when devising your plan and executing the training, especially when important training sessions are scheduled or competition is approaching. When I spoke to Jerry Schumacher coach of Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher (two marathoners headed to London on the US Olympic Team) in Melbourne a couple of years ago, he acknowledged the fine line that elite runners tread, they need the strength work, but on occasion it can be overcooked such that important running sessions are occasionally compromised. This isn’t desirable so it needs to be kept in perspective.

Certainly as a recreational runner or someone competing at lower levels of competition there’s no need to put yourself in that situation, careful scheduling of strength work away from tough training sessions and planning harder phases of strength work in the base building phase of running training are both good approaches.

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5 Responses to Strength training for running: planning and strategy

  1. Greg Strosaker July 27, 2012 at 5:50 am #

    Really great summary Brian, definitely going on my best-of-the-month post. I’ve not seen anyone really post a framework for building a strength-training regimen for runners – most writers jump right to posting a workout routine (guilty as charged). Seems logical that a periodization approach would be just as relevant for strength training as it would for running.

    • Brian July 27, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      Thanks Greg, appreciate the feedback. For a lot of runners doing something is better than nothing so not a big problem fitting in less structured training, but if you’re taking running a bit more seriously (even if you’re not that fast) then this type of approach is the way to maximize benefits.

  2. Pro Gait Analysis July 26, 2012 at 11:24 pm #

    A very good read, many thanks for sharing!

    • Brian July 27, 2012 at 7:19 am #

      No worries, glad it was helpful.

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