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The Five Components of Fitness for Runners

By: Kurt Ward, Ph.D. and Coach at runcoaches.com

Article originally featured in Run Utah Magazine Summer/Fall Edition 2018.  Click HERE to download Full PDF version of the Magazine.

The five components of fitness are essential to the overall performance of an athlete.  I often see people focus exclusively on one or two of the five components of fitness. For example, many young men often gravitate toward muscular strength with a tad of muscular endurance. In contrast, many women focus on flexibility through yoga and dance while neglecting muscular strength and cardiovascular endurance. As a runner, I have found myself guilty of neglecting other components of fitness besides cardiovascular and muscular endurance. It was during these times of neglect that my performance suffered and I often became injured from muscular imbalances. Over the course of this article, each of the five components of fitness will be reviewed and evaluated to help you understand how each can be assessed and strengthened. As a quick refresher, the five components of physical fitness are: cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and body composition. These five components of physical fitness are used to evaluate the overall fitness of an individual.

Furthermore, these five areas provide a balanced approach to physical fitness; it is simply not enough to be strong in one area alone. Your individual goals and desires will determine what components are a higher priority for you and thus your area of focus. However, this does not imply that all other components should be neglected. For the purpose of this article the five components will be discussed with a distance runner in mind.

Cardiovascular endurance is the heart and lungs’ ability to work together to provide oxygen to the body during sustained exercises. This can be measured in several different ways but perhaps the easiest way to do this (without breaking the bank on expensive equipment) would be to perform the Cooper test. The Cooper test is a simple test that can be performed on a track or any flat area. To perform the Cooper test simply run as far as you can in 12 minutes. The test measures the cardiovascular fitness of the person taking the test and the outcome is based on the distance run, the individual age, and sex. For example, a 42-year-old woman that can run 2200 meters in 12 minutes would be considered to have good cardiovascular fitness. After performing the test for yourself, you can see how you stack up by simply searching google for the cooper test and examining the table for your distance, gender and age.

For an endurance runner, cardiovascular fitness is critical to your training. Depending on your age and running goals, this will likely be the major area to focus on during your training. For example, if you want to run a half marathon under 2:00 hours it will be critical to incorporate training runs that will improve cardiovascular endurance. These types of workouts might include intervals, tempo runs, fartlek, and other pace-based workouts.  

Being a runner for over the past 15 years, this has been my main area of focus. However, as I will discuss below, focusing on this area exclusively was when I experienced injuries and set backs in my training during my college running years. These injuries likely could have been avoided if I had taken the time to add more muscular strengthening and endurance activities into my weekly workout routine.

Muscular strength refers to the force a muscle can produce. One rep maxes for squats, leg press, or bicep curls are examples of muscular strength tests. Muscular strength and muscular endurance are often easily confused. Assessing Muscular strength is typically done independent of muscular endurance by using a 1-rep max. Simply stated: what is the most weight you can squat during 1 rep? This is an all-out effort to see how much force you can produce in a single effort. However, it is not recommended to test beginners with a 1-rep max for several reasons. First, as a beginner you likely do not have a good grasp on your current muscular strength and lack the knowledge on where to start. Second, this lack in knowledge in your current strength may result in overestimating your current level leading to an injury. While muscular strength alone is not critical to your success as an endurance runner its relationship with muscular endurance may help you become a better runner by preventing injuries from muscular imbalances.

Muscular endurance is the muscle’s ability to exert a submaximal force repeatedly over time. Examples include pushups, cycling, elliptical machines, and of course, running. As mentioned earlier, muscular endurance and strength are closely related. For example, if you are the stereotypical runner with a weak upper body (no judgement, you are in good company here) you might only be capable of lifting yourself a couple of times. This is likely due to a lack of muscular strength in the muscles you do not use as often. In this example, an individual’s strength is so low that their muscular endurance cannot be accurately assessed. It is quite common for endurance runners to have great lower body muscular endurance but lack upper body muscular endurance.

So how do you know if you are assessing muscular strength or endurance?  When looking at muscular assessments and trying to evaluate if it is a strength or endurance test, there is one key difference to identify. If the test is all out in one push, (i.e. 1 rep.), this is measuring muscular strength. If the test requires the same movement, more than once, then it will begin to evaluate endurance. One can begin to see how muscular endurance and muscular strength go hand and hand. For example, if  a runner wants to improve their upper body’s muscular endurance they first must improve their upper body’s muscular strength.

With the endurance runner in mind, the area of focus should be on exercises that help your running efficiency and increase your stamina. Therefore, muscular endurance should be a major part of any endurance runners’ weekly workout routine. However, you may find that you first have to increase your strength to work on your endurance. I recommend implementing exercises like non-weight squats, lunges, sit-ups, push-ups and pull-ups two or three times per week. If you find that you can only do two or three of an exercise, do not fret and keep building more each week as you continue to build muscular strength on your way to improving muscular endurance.

As mentioned earlier, during my college years I experienced several injuries. I dealt with a knee tracking issue that would cause pain on the bottom inside of the knee when going down stairs and within 5 to 10 minutes of a run. After nearly two months of trying to resolve the problem with ice, anti-inflammatories and plenty of time off. It was discovered that my abduction and adduction muscles of my upper legs were much weaker than my quads and hamstrings likely resulting in the issue. Fortunately, by adding in muscular strengthening and endurance exercises I was able to get back to running within a few week of adding the exercise into my morning exercises. Fortunately, I haven’t had any knee pain since. By strengthening the muscles that are often neglected I have been able to stay healthy and strong even while adding more miles.

Flexibility is the ability of each joint to move through the proper range of motion for that specific joint. There are two types of flexibility: static and dynamic. Static flexibility exercises are large-range motions at a joint without any movement. For example, the toe-touch or the sit-and-reach test are both of static stretches. Dynamic flexibility is large-range motions at a joint with a movement. Examples of dynamic stretching includes drills such as leg swings, skipping leg extensions, bounding and even lunges. Distance runners should focus on dynamic flexibility exercises that help develop functional flexibility specific to the sport of running.  These dynamic stretches will also help strengthen and improve running form. There is a time and a place for static stretching as it can provide much needed rest and repair for your muscles and may benefit you after hard efforts (avoid static stretches before warming up!).

By adding drills to my distance runs I have noticed quicker recovery times, smoother form late in races, and a better kick. Similar to the muscular strengthening exercises, I believe post run drills have helped me avoid injuries and improve my times over the years.

Body composition is the amount of fat mass compared to bone, organs, and muscle mass an individual has. This can be measured in a variety of ways from skin folds, to bioelectrical impedance found on several at-home scales. However, these all have a certain level of error associated with them and should be regarded as an estimate and not an absolute. An endurance runner will obviously want to have more lean mass than fat. However, if your focus is on improving your cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance, flexibility and muscular strength, your body composition will improve as you see your lean mass increasing and fat mass decreasing. Simply adding exercise into your daily routine helps but another factor that will contribute to your body composition is a well-rounded diet.

Each of the five components of physical fitness is important to your success and individual goals as a runner. However, depending on your own current goals certain components might require your attention more than others. Currently, my focus is on improving my cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance as I prep for a fall half marathon. However, as my goals change so will my main areas of focus. In my experience as a coach and athlete, I have found it to be important to assess myself in these five areas. First to see if I am working toward my short term and long term goals. Second, to avoid injury, that is often due to a lack of muscular strength in my lateral and medial leg muscles. Finally, to maintain a level of fitness that allows me to do the activities that I find personally rewarding. These can be beneficial to you too!

 

Kurt has a Ph.d from Auburn University in Kinesiology. He is currently an adjunct professor and assistant coach at Weber State University as well as a cofounder of runcoaches.com with Paul Pilkington. He is married to Taylor Ward and lives in Ogden, UT. While working on his undergrad at Weber State he competed in mid-distance events as a member of the Track and Cross Country team. He continues to run today and races all over the country with his wife. When he isn’t running he enjoys playing basketball and rock climbing.

THIS ARTICLE WAS INITIALLY A PART OF RUN UTAH MAGAZINE SUMMER 2018 – CLICK HERE TO RETURN TO MAGAZINE

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Should I weight train my legs to help my running?

Perhaps a better question would be “should I strength train my legs to help my running?” Weight training implies use of machines or free weights while strength training could also include body resistance exercises, Pilates, Swiss ball exercises, plyometrics, hill repeats, etc.  For this article, however, I will just address weight training.

In general, my answer to the question would be “yes”.  I believe that weight training can be a big benefit to all runners.  How can it help provide an advantage?

  • A good, consistent, overall program can improve running posture and mechanics.
  • Running speed is the result of stride frequency x stride length.  Stride length can be improved through increased muscle strength and flexibility.  Various “quick” or “explosive” lifts can also help improve stride frequency.
  • An increase in strength can help improve joint stability and balance.  This results in less “sinking” or “collapsing” with each ground contact.
  • Stronger muscles are more efficient.  Over the course of a long race, this can be a huge advantage.
  • While this question concerned weight training for legs, a good program would also incorporate lifts that provide overall strength training improving core strength and posture.  It is impossible to separate upper and lower body efficiency.

Read More….

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