Imagine a scenario that places you at the starting line of the Ogden Marathon. The past nine months has been a trying ordeal of 4:30 a.m. training that included tempo runs, interval training, and fartleks, all aimed at producing a marathon personal best of 2 hours and 50 minutes.
You have been unwavering in your commitment to weekend long runs despite missing birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and your kid’s soccer games. You’ve even developed an appreciation for gels and look forward to sneaking a few during your lunch break at work. Fast forward to mile 22 of the marathon, you survived the “wall” by logging massive training miles and a smart nutrition strategy but you begin to notice that your once eloquent stride of a 6:30 pace (think antelope on the Wyoming high desert) now resembles an oil pump jack that has you slogging at 10:15 pace. The last four miles of the race are a test in mental fortitude, that PR of 2:50 turned into 3:30 and some change. After the race you sit down and analyze your training plan. It seems all there, the mind numbing tempo runs, the vomit inducing intervals, and not to be forgotten, a near addiction to vanilla-ginger gels. You’re dumbfounded and disgusted with yourself. You make a vow to never race again, especially the marathon distance.
How could this scenario have been turned around into that personal best? Simple–strength training. In the past, runners have eschewed barbells and dumbbells for fear of “bulking up” or that the extra time devoted to strength training would be better spent on improving ones VO2 max. These fears and ideas have been supplemented by quality research showing that concurrent endurance training and strength training produce a more efficient and faster runner.
In a study conducted by Storen (2008), the conclusion was that well trained men and women improved running economy (RE), time to exhaustion, maximal aerobic speed and rate of force development. None of the subjects in either the experimental group or the control group showed an increase in body weight or VO2max. The intervention in this study was the half squat performed at high loads three times per week for eight weeks.
The importance of this study is three fold. First, the researchers used both men and women. The positive outcome from strength training shows that both genders benefit from strength training. Second, the volunteers for the study were well-trained distance runners with a mean VO2max of 58. Another study conducted by Millet (2002) used elite triathletes whose mean VO2 max was 67-69 ml/kg/min and the results from 14 weeks of heavy resistance training were similar to the previously mentioned study, an increase in RE and run performance. Many studies in the past have used untrained volunteers that have shown an improvement RE but it was unknown if the same results would benefit trained runners. Finally, the researchers only used one intervention and that was the squat. Too often researchers design similar studies, but include too many strength variables. When this happens it’s hard to identify which lift made the biggest impact on the results.
The improvements seen in the runners can be attributed to several mechanisms: 1) increased strength improves mechanical efficiency and coordination, 2) the time to peak muscle tension is reduced thus allowing improved O2 dynamics and energy substrate utilization, 3) improved running economy was influenced by more efficient mechanics and less stress on the neuromuscular unit which lead to a decrease in oxygen demand at a submaximal speed, and 4) the increase in the subjects 1 repetition max (1 RM) meant that they where using a lower percent of the 1 RM in their legs with each stride and therefore lowering the demand placed on the motor units.
In conclusion strength training, particularly the squat, improves running economy by reducing neuromuscular stress, improving mechanical efficiency, and reducing the oxygen demand at submaximal running speeds.
Up for next month, I will cover different strength exercises (including the squat) that are crucial to runners and give a sample training plan that you can incorporate into your current training schedule.
Millet, G., Jaouen, B., Borrani, F., Canau, R. (2002). Effects of concurrent endurance and strength training on running economy and VO2 kinetics. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34, 1351-1359.
Storen, O., Helgerud, J., Stoa, E.M., Hoff, J. (2008). Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 40, 1087-1092.
by Joel Hatch – Director of Human Performance for BASICS Sports Medicine | Trail Runner