Running, in any form, has always been the physical activity which has had the highest participation rates. This is no surprise when you need absolutely nothing to be able to do it and us, as humans, have been running for longer than any other sport has been around. Running is also the basis for the vast majority of team sports and the ability for us to run fast, strong or economically can make all the difference to our performance
However, running is not without its problems. Modern day lifestyles mean that, for many of us, running is not natural and far from advisable as a regular form of exercise. This is because factors such as joint impact, muscle weakness, muscular tightness, ankle joint instability, insufficient recovery and even the weather, make running the reason for more injuries worldwide per year than any other sport. Of course, there are some of the factors already mentioned that we cannot control, but some of these are well within our reach and should be countered if we wish to be able to use running as a form of exercise for a prolonged period of time.
The controllable factors above include muscle tightness and weakness, ankle joint instability and the level at which we allow ourselves to recover. Of these, mobility and recovery is spoken about a lot already. Therefore, this article will be directing itself at muscle strengthening in order to reduce the risk of injury from running, but also to improve movement performance through helping our running economy. Running economy is defined as the energy needed for a given velocity of submaximal movement. Strength training can help improve running economy by improving muscular strength and tendon stiffness, which in turn can lower maximal heart rate during activity as well as lowering the amount of oxygen needed to perform sustained bouts of endurance running.
At this point many of you reading might be thinking that strength training only encompasses maximal lifting with a lot of weight but, you are sadly incorrect. Strength training involves a large amount of different strategies which can provide many different outcomes for us. Alongside maximal lifting, both strength endurance training and the use of isometrics and tempo based training can all produce hugely beneficial results for athletes, sportsmen/women and the recreational runner.
Where possible, we must build strength first before we then teach ourselves how to endure it. That gives us a couple of options here; either we can start with isometrics (my preferred starting point) or endurance based training. If you are someone who has exercised a lot but never really undertaken any strength based training then I’d suggest starting with isometrics. If you have strength trained in some way before then a mixture of both of these methods will suffice..
Isometrics don’t have to be performed with weight. Often, a person’s bodyweight will be enough to give them a challenge to begin with. To be specific to running, we can use isometrics to strengthen the hip flexors, the glutes, the core, the quadriceps (especially their tendon), the adductors/groin muscles and the hamstrings. Let me take you through some exercises.
1. A high knee hold – Find a wall for support just using one arm and, with the opposite leg, bring the knee up as high as you can, keeping the angel of your shin vertical. Drive your knee up and work to hold this position for 30-60 seconds. If you have a partner at home get them to apply a little pressure to the top of the knee (going downward) to increase the difficulty. Aim for 3 reps on each side to work the hip flexors hard
2. Glute bridge hold – Lay on your back with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Perform a tiny crunch movement to engage your abs and then push through your heels so that your hips are as high as they can be. Aim for 3 sets of 60 seconds in the top position. Once that is possible you can move to single leg holds and then to doing it off the edge of a bench or a sofa to increase the difficulty.
3. Side plank holds – Lay on your side with your elbow placed under your shoulder and your forearm straight out in front of you. Place one foot on top of the other and have a little knee bend whilst on the floor. Push yourself up and off the floor so your body is straight and you only have your elbow and the edge of your bottom foot in contact with the ground. Ensure your calf/shin does not make contact with the floor. Hold for 30 seconds each side. Once this becomes easy for 3-4 sets you can add weight to the hip or elevate the top leg.
4. Wall sit holds – Start with your back against a wall and your feet about a foot away from the wall. Slide down until you are just above parallel and hold in this position with the pressure on the ball of your feet and your shoulders pinned against the wall. Hold for up to 60 seconds and when that becomes easy you can add weight or move onto single leg holds of the same thing (just hold one leg out in front of you and off the floor whilst the other does the work).
Each of the above movements can be used in one workout and for 3-4 sets each. Use 60 seconds rest between each set and enjoy building a foundation of strong muscles and tendons.
Looking at endurance exercise, it is much simpler and you’ll benefit from using much more common exercises. A simple collection of bodyweight exercises for this part would include: press ups, lunge variations, squat variations, step ups, glute bridges, calf raises and any ab exercises. Obviously, external weight can be used when needed/available but, a simple workout comprising of a handful of these exercises (either done in circuit or superset fashion for reps in the 12-20 range) will provide not only great strength endurance training but also test/train your fitness. If you’ve not done much like this before and think it sounds easy, you’ll change your mind after a superset of 20 squats and 20 press ups! Finally, research has demonstrated great results when alternating strength training days with running training days, so keep this in mind.
There is already a lot to take away from this but, it is also important to still consider mobility and flexibility work alongside any new training plan involving strength work. Some simple flexibility work in the form of stretching should come before and after any bout of exercise, whether it be running or strength training. I won’t delve into this too much as there is a previous blog all about this, which I encourage you to go back and read (if you haven’t already).
One thing that is too often overlooked is how to effectively warm up for running. If you’re going out for a long run, a simple jog to start it off won’t cut it. A short warm up comprised of a light pulse raising activity, some short static stretching, some dynamic based movements to warm up the primary muscle groups that are going to be used and then some movement pattern practice to aid movement efficiency, will be the optimal way for you to prevent yourself from injury and help you optimise your training performance
Let me give you an example of what this might look like. A light 2-5 minute jog is enough to raise anyone’s pulse and get our blood flowing, this could be followed with a 20 second stretch of each of your calves, quads, hamstrings and hip flexors. Dynamic movements, such as walking lunges, would be a nice next part before moving into some ‘A’ skips and some wall sprints. This should take you about 10 minutes in total and you’ll be fired up and ready to perform. All of the exercises above can easily be found on my social media or on YouTube, to give you guidance on how to do them.
Strength training can and should be a challenging exercise modality for us. Whether it be endurance or sprint based, it can provide excellent benefits to us but also be dangerous when not taken seriously and not trained for properly. Research has shown that strength training decreases the risk of injury and can increase our running performance by decreasing tendon stiffness, increasing running economy and increasing our balance capability, all whilst increasing fitness levels and improving speed.
Whilst we have limited choice for exercise right now, the points above will give you the basis of this all so important strength training, so that you can achieve good results in your health and fitness whatever your level of performance may be. As previously stated, the basics have been laid out for you to use going forward, but how do we move beyond basic and really push for amazing results?
That’s where Hybrid Performance Online training comes in. The mobile app gives you 24/7 access to training programmes based around your training goal, specifically made for the training kit you have available and with your health as the priority. Please get in touch for more information.
Thanks for reading!