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home > training > training tips > a new approach to strength training for runners

A new approach to strength training for runners
I have been a strength and conditioning specialist for over ten years and a runner/endurance athlete for six of those years. During that time a few things have become readily apparent to me about strength training for runners.

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By Gary Lavin
Posted Tuesday, 20 December, 2005

First I realized to win my age group (or even place for that matter) I should have picked better parents since genetics is a big factor. The second thing I realized is that if I have some free time I would rather be outside running. Third and most importantly, it amazes me that very few of the runners/endurance athletes I encounter ever step foot inside the gym. If they do go to the gym it is usually because of bad weather and they need to use the treadmill.

When I ask runners why they do not lift, the answers are invariably the same. They feel that the additional pounds added from strength training will be a decrement to performance. This is a common misunderstanding. The truth is that the additional strength and power output gained from the additional muscle mass far outweighs the stress of carrying a few extra pounds. Furthermore the ability of the endurance athlete to gain lean muscle mass is limited by an endurance based program as well as the fact that most runners (like myself) are not genetically predisposed to great gains in mass (ectomorphs). Others feel that if they have free time they should be out running.

Although it is true that a lot of training time needs to be dedicated to running, you must also take into consideration the efficiency of your running. Specificity is a concept in physiology that says you get what you train for. Therefore if you want to run faster then you should be out running. This is true if the efficiency with which you run can be improved or the power output increased. Then you can easily see that incorporating a strength training program or strength training in a more functional manner can be of great benefit.

The few “thrill seekers” that do enter the gym to strength train usually do so in a somewhat dysfunctional manner. They train in the seated or lying position. They train using open chain exercises (foot not attached to the earth). They train in a single plane of motion (i.e. sagittal) for multiplanar movement and when standing they train on two legs for a single leg event (running takes place on a single leg).

Although any strength training for runners can be beneficial, especially for the untrained individual, training in a more functional manner will produce far greater results. What exactly does this mean? Simply put this means training movements not muscles or training is a functional manner. Functional training has become a buzzword in the fitness industry as of late. What is means is conditioning the body consistently with its integrated movement. The human body works as an integrated unit not one body part at a time and therefore should be trained as a unit. Could you imagine going out for a ten mile run and not bending your knees to isolate your hips. Of course this does not make sense, so take the same philosophy into the weight room.

Below are some old running myths. Let’s take a look at each one.

Old Running Myths

  • Runners need more VO2, not strength.
  • Strength training makes you bigger, muscle-bound and slower.
  • High running volume should dominate a runner’s training scheme.
  • Running more is the only way to become a better runner.

In the world of running there is a lot of hoopla about VO2. This is one of those good news bad news situations. The bad news is that VO2 is approximately 80% genetic according to Exercise Physiologist Neal Henderson, Coordinator of Sport Science at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado. The good news is this means it is trainable. The bad news is that if your VO2 is at 45ml/kg-/min (average) your best may only be 52 ml/kg-/min (slightly above average, Lance Armstrong checks in at about 80ml/kg-/min). The good news is that functional strength training will lead to better running economy so VO2 becomes less important.

As for strength training making you bigger, muscle bound and slower, it is just not going to happen on a high volume endurance based program. Furthermore training functionally is more likely to bring about more neurological adaptations (muscles working together in concert) than actual muscle growth.

When considering volume one needs to step back and look at efficiency again. When efficiency improves then volume can decrease. You are essentially getting more bang for your buck!

Lastly we see the myth that running more is the only way to become a better runner. Once again I think we have previously dispelled this myth. It all comes down to efficiency.

Basic Running Facts

  • Running occurs one leg at a time.
  • Running is a game of GROUND reaction.
  • Running is made possible by the body’s structural and neuromuscular CROSS-WIRING of the shoulders and hips; we run shoulder to opposite hip.
  • Running speed = stride length x stride frequency.
  • Stride length is the dominant factor in running speed.
  • Stride length is a function of strength, power and flexibility.
  • Running efficiency is the great equalizer; less VO2 needed to run faster.
  • Collectively, stability and balance are the guiding system of the power needed for a longer stride length.
  • We run from our bellybuttons out (i.e. from the inside out) – not from the bottom up.
  • The core of the body is “command central” during all human movement, especially running. The CORE controls the rotational mechanics between the upper and lower extremities (running efficiency and stride frequency) and the force production of the lower body (stride length).

Mainstream Strengthening Programs

  • Performed bilaterally – 2 legs / 2 arms simultaneous movement.
  • Performed sitting or lying down.
  • Performed symmetrically – 2 limbs doing the same thing at the same time.
  • Performed in the sagittal plane –front to back movements.
  • New programs (e.g. over-speed program) focus on stride frequency not stride length.
  • Do not address balance or stability in any way.
  • Concentrate on muscular endurance – not power or DYNAMIC flexibility.
  • Do not train running economy in any way.
  • Limit core work to crunches and extensions which have little to do with running.

A New Approach to Strength Training for Runners

  • Incorporate single leg training (e.g. one leg squat).
  • Train predominantly in a standing position.
  • Train in diagonal patterns – opposite hip to opposite shoulder – just like we run.
  • Emphasize the transverse (i.e. rotational) plane of motion – it dominates running.
  • Focus on “pulling,” not “stomping” power for improved stride length.
  • Focus on foot-plant balance and stability to minimize “power leaks” at foot plant.
  • Focus on power and metabolic conditioning.
  • Training contra-lateral timing to enhance running economy.
  • Focus on initiating and controlling running from the core of the body downward.

Law of action-reaction – Isaac Newton.

These exercises represent Fitness Redefined’s (FR) eclectic training approach to improving running performance.

The above exercises provide single leg power, stability and balance. They also train the core of the body to generate a better pulling action. What does this all mean? It means an increase in core strength and a longer, more efficient stride length!

For more information on how to become a stronger runner, run injury free or just get in better shape, please call FR Endurance at 561-926-0208 for a consultation with one of our Performance Coaches or e-mail Gary at

Gary Lavin received his Bachelor Degree in Exercise Science and Wellness from Florida Atlantic University. Gary is a member, a CPT and a CSCS with the NSCA. He is also a USA Triathlon level II coach, a USA Cycling Level III Coach, a USATF level I Coach, as well as a USAW Club Coach. Currently, Gary is Director of “FR Endurance”. FR Endurance is a performance enhancement and consulting company dedicated to overall fitness but specializing in endurance sports.



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