While the first six strength training benefits should be self-explanatory, you may be intrigued by improved running economy. In a 1995 study at the University of New Hampshire, the women cross-country runners who did strength training experienced a significant improvement in their running economy. They required 4 percent less oxygen at sub-maximum running speeds (7:30, 7:00, and 6:30 minute mile paces), meaning that they could run more efficiently and race faster than before.
With so many advantages, why do so few runners regularly perform strength exercise? Consider these four concerns that keep many runners from strength training:
Let's take a closer look at each of these issues.
- Increased bodyweight
- Decreased movement speed
- Less fluid running form
- Fatigued muscles
Very few people who perform strength exercise have the genetic potential to develop large muscles. This is especially true for distance runners, who typically have ectomorphic (thin) physiques. Strength training increases their muscle strength and endurance, but rarely results in significant weight gain.
Decreased Movement Speed
With respect to running speed, our studies and many others have shown that greater strength results in faster movement speeds. We need only look at sprinters and middle distance runners to realize that strength training has a positive impact on running speed, as essentially all of these athletes perform regular strength exercise.
Less Fluid Running Form
Running involves coordinated actions of the legs and the arms, and one cannot function without the other. Your right arm moves in mirror image with your left leg, and your left arm counterbalances your right leg in perfect opposition. That is why it is almost impossible to run fast and move your arms slow or to move your arms fast and run slow. By strengthening the upper body muscles, you more effectively share the running effort between your arms and legs, resulting in more fluid running form.
It is true that a strenuous strength training session can cause a considerable amount of muscle fatigue that could adversely affect the quality and quantity of your runs. That is why we recommend brief strength workouts that do not leave you feeling enervated or exhausted. Remember that you are strength training to enhance your running performance, not to become a competitive weightlifter. Our program of strength training requires just one set of exercise for each major muscle group, which does not take much time and does not produce much lasting fatigue. You may also choose to strength train only one or two days per week, which should make muscle fatigue even less likely.
Runners' Strength Training Program
The strength training protocol followed by the Notre Dame athletes, and all of our runners, is a comprehensive conditioning program that addresses all of the major muscle groups in the body. We do not attempt to imitate specific running movements or emphasize specific running muscles, because this typically results in an overtrained, imbalanced, and injury-prone musculoskeletal system.
For example, the calf (gastrocnemius and soleous) muscles are used extensively in running. Due to their involvement in every running stride, many people think that runners should strengthen their calf muscles. Indeed they should, but it is even more important to strengthen their weaker counterpart, the shin (anterior tibial) muscles. If you strengthen only the larger and stronger calf muscles they will eventually overpower the smaller and weaker shin muscles, which may lead to shin splints, stress fractures, achilles tendon problems, and other lower leg difficulties. With this in mind, our runners always conclude their strength workouts with a set of weighted toe raises to strengthen the shin muscles and maintain balance within the lower leg musculature.