Running remains at the forefront of many people’s health and fitness regimes. Throughout the last 8 months it has provided many with the mental and physical help they have needed at the end of a long day working from home and therefore has grown in popularity even further.
In a recent blog post I discussed running in depth, whilst talking about the many factors that lead to injury due to the nature of uncontrollable factors that surround the sport. We also discussed such things as muscular weakness, movement restrictions and joint instability which are controllable factors that we can work on to not only reduce our injury risk but to also improve our running economy which will lead to better performance.
What is running economy I hear you ask?
This term refers to the energy that is utilised during running at an aerobic intensity. This means that the better running economy you have, the less oxygen you will take in and use per stride that you take. Research has shown that athletes with the best running economy results (measured via VO2 max tests) consistently perform better than others. We can improve our economy through various training types but the three that I want to look at here are increasing eccentric muscle strength, increasing musculo-tendon stiffness (both through the use of strength training) and reducing ground contact time (via the use of plyometrics).
At this point, it is worth mentioning that if you haven’t read the previous blog on strength training for running I strongly recommend it before continuing with this one.
Back with us? Great, let’s continue.
Following on from the at-home work based on isometrics we’ll start by talking about strength training. We can now progress to more concentric and eccentric focused exercises as we have access to gyms again. If strength training is somewhat new to you, the movements which we will talk about momentarily will be what most of us consider ‘standard’ exercises which involve both a concentric (the muscle shortening) and an eccentric (the muscle lengthening under tension) portion. How we manipulate both these sections of a movement can greatly change the outcome of our training.
The movements outlined below are some of my personal favourites which I use daily with my online coaching clients so that they get the most out of their training. You may recognise some of the movements however I also want to dive into why you must incorporate them into your training and why they will benefit you.
Split squats/lunges: In my opinion these two movements are the kings when it comes to anybody who runs or plays team sports. This pattern of movement trains the quads, hamstrings and glutes, whilst also hammering the core and lower back musculature. All of these muscles are prime movers when running and although the trunk muscles aren’t conventionally contracting when moving, they act as stabilisers and to aid in force transfer so that energy is not wasted whilst moving. Train this movement in the 3-5 rep range and ensure the front leg is your priority when moving. As a side note, these movements are talked about together as they are the same movement pattern. The only difference between a split squat and a lunge is whether you step into the movement or remain static at the top of each rep. Both exercises work excellently, so you are welcome to choose which you would like to use or alternate the movements on a monthly basis like I do.
Romanian deadlifts: The posterior chain is comprised of muscles that run from the back of your head down to the soles of your feet. This chain of muscles play many important roles within the body and initiate movements such as hip extension and knee flexion – both of which are needed when running. Romanian deadlifts work the posterior chain through the movement on hip extension but are brilliant for strengthening the end range of motion in which the hamstrings are stretched. When performing this exercise use a 4-6 rep range and try to incorporate a 1-3 second pause in the end range so that you gain strength throughout the entire range of motion.
Lying hamstring curls: Now that you know how involved the posterior chain is when running, it won’t be a surprise to you that strong hamstrings are paramount due to the number of hamstring tears you see in sport. In a non-contact setting this happens mostly when either coming to a sudden stop or when the muscle is overstretched. Knee flexion, which is the hamstring muscle groups second function (after hip extension) is as important when looking into injury prevention. If possible do this exercise in a prone position (lying face down) due to these machines giving us a larger range of movement but if your gym only has a seated hamstring curl machine that will also be fine. Train this movement in the 3-5 rep range and use a 3-4 second eccentric on every rep to get the most out of it. You’re also very welcome to alternate single and double leg variations of this so that you have a number of initial variations.
Now that we have covered a few of my go-to strength exercises, I’d like to turn our attention to plyometrics. This exercise category represents movements which use rapid and repeated stretching and contracting of muscles. You’ll no doubt have seen or heard of these before but there is much more to these than people usually talk about. As mentioned above, these will help with our running economy by improving force transfer and allowing us to reduce ground contact time whilst moving.
Plyometrics themselves can be very intense and can easily create injury when not treated respectfully. Because of this the exercises below are ones that are usually considered entry level but don’t be fooled, they can still be very challenging if this type of training is new to you. Let’s start with the most simple of all plyometric movements, skipping.
Skipping can be used as an excellent warm up for any type of exercise but can also be used in place of cardio training. A recent study (Garcia-Pinillos et al. 2020) showed consistent 3km time trial improvements when skipping was used as a warm up compared to those who didn’t use skipping when warming up. They found this was due to an increase in relative strength and tendon stiffness. A 2 minute bout of single skips will be more than enough, there is not need for it to be fancy and involve tricks.
The second of the plyometrics I like to use is a skater jump (A video of which will be posted on my Instagram in the next few days). This movement builds similar results as skipping but also introduces single leg stability. They are also fantastic because you can customise them for any level of ability by changing the distance between the lateral jump as well as the speed. I’ll add plenty more information on these when the video is posted but as a rule of thumb I also use these in a 3-5 rep range per leg.
The keys to these types of training are knowing how to use intensity and volume. If you’re a runner or a team sports player it is paramount that you don’t go into an event or big training session fatigued and sore from your assistance training. So that is it very clear, everything described above can and should be used at an 80-95% intensity with very low volume (number of reps). We want to build relative strength through our training and minimally change the athletes physique so using a 3-5 rep range needs to be your go-to. If you’re a runner or team sports player who is still smashing every workout at 8-12 reps you have your priorities (or knowledge), in the wrong place. Make the changes that have been discussed and add in any exercises that you aren’t currently doing so that you make the most out of your training.
Thanks for reading