Runners: don’t let strength be your weakness!

How strong should runners be? James Marshall looks at the scientific evidence and the recommendations of some of the world’s leading coaches to come up with some surprising answers

What do runners consider as being strong? Do they even think about being strong? Runners of yesteryear were often fit before they started to run, and they realised the benefits of being strong. Today, many recreational runners – and even top club runners – just run to get better at running. Some may think about ‘injury-prevention’ exercises, which will include some strength work. But only a very few will think about trying to develop optimum strength for performance.

How strong is strong for a runner?

Perc Cerutty coached Herb Elliott (see figure 1) to a Gold Medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, setting a 1500m world record of 3:35.6. He also coached John Landy to an Olympic bronze 1500m medal in 1956 and Betty Cuthbert to an Olympic 400m gold medal in 1964.

In his book ‘Middle distance running’ from 1964, Cerutty suggested some strength targets that few recreational runners would be able to achieve today1. These are:

  1. Being able to hoist your own body weight above your head in some fashion (that could be clean and jerk, or a standing military press).
  2. Curl your own body weight (bicep curl in today’s language).
  3. 100 sit ups repetitively.
  4. Prone press your own body weight 20 times (bench press).
  5. Deadlift 2-3 times your own body weight.

That is an impressive set of work if you can do it (bear in mind though that these targets would have been achieved as the result of extensive training- you should not attempt any of these exercises without proper coaching and supervision)!


FIGURE 1: HERB ELLIOT CHASES HIS COACH PERCY CERRUTY UP A SAND DUNE


Cerutty liked his runners to work hard. In order to run a 2:30 marathon he suggested doing longer runs of up to 30-35 miles at 6-min mile pace to build stamina. Cerutty also dismissed muscular endurance type circuits commenting: “nothing could be more futile, except not exercising at all.” Instead, he suggested using the heaviest weight the athlete could handle for 5-10 repetitions as the starting weight. As the athlete got stronger, they would increase the weight and do 3-5 reps. Cerutty was considered as a maverick with very strict rules on discipline and fitness – but he had considerable success using them.

Another pioneer

In the 1950s John Jesse was another pioneer of weight training for athletes2. Whilst sprinters and hurdlers of this era generally understood the need for strength training due to the greater forces produced, middle distance runners were less enthusiastic. The common misconception then, and even perhaps today, was that strength training added bulk and slowed runners down. Jesse however was much more detailed than Cerutty about what exercises worked for runners.

He advocated a strength development programme for the first half of the winter training, consisting of two hours a week. Exercises were to be performed for three sets of six repetitions (Ed: very similar to the latest scientific recommendations – see issue 366). The athletes were then encouraged to progress to either a power sequence or muscular endurance depending on their event. Note that following a strength training programme, the athletes then did an in-season maintenance programme. This is a concept that is still misunderstood. Three of the category-B cyclists I work with are still told by their coaches that they don’t need to do any weights from February onwards, and yet are still expected to be strong in August!


CASE STUDY: Jenny Meadows – strength in action

I recently spoke with Jenny Meadows. Jenny won the bronze medal at 800m at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin with a time of 1min.57.93secs. She said at the time she could back squat 135kg at a body weight of 45kg. That is three times her body weight, which is very strong by any standards. How does that compare to the average club runner? Do they ever do any resistance training at all, or are they solely concerned with running?

Back in 2003 I was asked to design a series of exercises for athletes. The company brought in a young distance runner to be the model for the video. He was a pretty good runner, but I was surprised at how unstable he was and how he wobbled doing the exercises. I told the company that we wouldn’t be able to use those video clips. Subsequently, the runner moved abroad to the US, and his new coach put him through a rigorous strength routine. The runner has done pretty well since then. His name? That’ll be Mo Farah!


Strength training programme

A recent meta–analysis of research (a study that combines data from a number of previous studies) into strength training for middle-distance runners recommended that to improve strength and running economy, a ratio of three endurance sessions to one strength session for a period of 8-12 weeks is effective3. This research suggested that runners should include two strength sessions and some plyometric exercises also each week.

There were many variations of exercise quoted within this research, some useful, and others of questionable transfer. Bear in mind too that it focussed on middle-distance runners, rather than pure distance runners (who wouldn’t need quite the same volume of strength training). However, the principle of developing strength for performance remains, and the programme that follows is a good place to begin.

Structural integrity

The starting place for all endurance athletes is to develop structural integrity, which we have discussed previously in Peak Performance (see figure 2). This serves to counteract the sedentary lifestyle that most of the population now experience. Cerutty used to recommend hard physical labouring as preparation for his training, such as building work or earth moving. But for those of use that don’t have physically hard manual jobs, some basic conditioning such as core work and exercises to improve mobility and posture are recommended prior to hitting the gym.

Once you’ve got these fundamentals in place, the following programme will be suitable for the start of your off season. You will need access to some free weights and also someone who can coach you safely in the technical points of the lifts. It’s important to remember that these sessions won’t make a difference to your current PBs or Strava times! They are designed to get you stronger in order to help your running NEXT season. If you are currently running for around eight hours a week, doing two hours of strength work for 6-8 weeks will be a worthwhile investment. Once you have got these 6-8 weeks under your belt, you can look to reduce the time you spend strength training, but maintain the intensity for the rest of the season.


FIGURE 2: STRUCTURAL INTEGRITY, THE FOUNDATION FOR PERFORMANCE

Runners who have a sedentary job are recommended to undertake some general conditioning to develop improved balance, posture, core stability and mobility before commencing a serious strength programme.


The programme (see exercise descriptions below)

There are two sessions outlined. Both start with preparation work, which is getting you ready to train. The adaptation work is the strength focus in these sessions. A short application phase follows to help your body revisit running patterns. Lastly the regeneration exercises help get your body back to its resting state, ready for your next running session. Here are the two sessions:

SESSION 1

PREPARATION:

  • Walking medicine balls and heel slides

ADAPTATION:

  • Overhead squats: 5 reps, 4 reps x 3 sets
  • Back squats: 10, 8, 6 and 4 reps x 2 sets
  • Behind the head press 10 reps x 3 sets

APPLICATION:

  • Hinges, Step ups 3 fast each leg, 2 sets

REGENERATION:

  • Inch worms, Lying leg rotations

SESSION 2

PREPARATION:

  • Multi planar warm up (donkey kicks, sit throughs, scorpions).

ADAPTATION:

  • Dumbbell jump squats: 5 reps, 4 sets
  • Back squats: 5 sets of 5 reps
  • Military press: 3 sets of 5 sets
  • Inverted rows: 10 reps x 4 sets

APPLICATION:

  • Leaning towers

REGENERATION:

  • Back rotations

Progression: keep the sets and reps the same, but look to increase the load. The load should be the most you can do safely and with strict form through a full range of movement. The application is progressed through the speed of the movement and the quality of the control at the end. Avoid doing extra sets that lead to fatigue and poor movement.


EXERCISE DESCRIPTIONS

Here are exercise descriptions for the sessions above:

PREPARATION EXERCISES

*Walking medicine balls: Use a 2-3kg medicine ball to perform these three movements – first in standing, then moving forward and backward over 10metres.

  • Loops: five each way, moving the ball above your head and below your knees in a circle.
  • Side to side: keep the ball as far away from your body as possible and move it from side to side at about shoulder height.
  • Kayaks: start with the ball above your right shoulder and then move it down past your left knee then loop it to above your left shoulder and then down to your right knee and return to start above right shoulder. Do five that
    way, then five starting from the left shoulder.

*Heel slides: Assume the press-up position and then move your heels towards your bottom, and then return five times. Then do this on your side with only 1 hand on floor, then other side. The last set is with hips facing up and fingers facing your toes.

*Multi-planar: 10 reps each of:

  • Donkey kicks: keep hands on floor and lift both feet off the floor and then back down.
  • Sit throughs: start in a wide leg press up position, pass your right foot under your left leg and reach
    as far as you can with it. Then lift left hand off the floor and bring down so that your hips are now facing to the ceiling. Continue with your left foot passing under your right leg and reach as far as you can with it. Then lift right hand off floor and return to start position. Reverse starting with right leg.
  • Scorpions: Lie face down on floor with hands stretched out to the sides level with your shoulders. Slowly lift your right foot off the floor and move it towards your left hand, keeping your chest on the floor. Then return and repeat on the other side.

ADAPTATION EXERCISES

*Squats – All squats are done with feet shoulder width apart, and toes either facing forward or slightly outwards. The knees must move in line with the toes at all times. Hips should drop to below knee height. Don’t increase the load until this can be performed safely.

  • Back squat (figure 3): Place barbell across the back of your shoulders in the squat rack then walk back two steps and squat. Breathe in and brace the stomach before you start the descent and maintain until you are upright again, breathe out and then repeat.

Figure 3: Back squat


  • Overhead squat (figure 4): Place barbell on back of shoulders from the squat rack and then do a push press to get the bar above your head. Keep arms straight and then squat. When finishing let the barbell come down to the back of your neck and bend knees slightly to absorb the weight.

Figure 4: Overhead squat


 

  • Dumbbell squat jumps: Hold the dumbbells at your sides and jump as high as you can, landing as gently as possible. Then repeat. The gentle landing will mean you bend your ankles, knees and hips correctly.
  • Presses: Keep your body still, squeeze your buttocks to maintain a solid foundation, move the bar above your head, looking forward as you do so.
  • Military press (figure 5): starts on the front of your shoulders and you need to move your head out of the way of the bar as it travels upwards, moving it forward at the end so it is underneath the bar. The same applies on the return down to your shoulders; keep your elbows pointing forwards and up so the bar can rest on your shoulders rather than on your wrists.

Figure 5: Military press


 

  • Behind-the-head press: the same overall movement as above but starts with the bar on the back of your shoulders.
  • Inverted rows (figure 6): Use a barbell placed in the squat rack or some hanging straps to pull yourself up from the floor until your chest touches the bar. Keep your body in a straight line throughout. An easier method is knees bent to shorten the lever length. A harder version is to keep legs straight and elevate feet on a step or do one handed rows.

 


FIGURE 6: INVERTED ROWS


APPLICATION EXERCISES

Hinges: Stand about 20cm away from a wall and push your bottom towards the wall keeping your back straight and with a slight bend in your knees. Return to standing quickly. You may have to adjust the distance slightly until your back can get parallel to the wall (depending on flexibility).Then try the same exercise standing on one leg with the other foot placed on wall with knee bent.

Step ups: Start in a hinge position and then quickly snap back up and swing right foot onto a small step and then push down hard and move left foot from floor to underneath your bottom. You are now in a single leg stance on right foot on the step. Repeat on other side. Aim is to move fast and control the stance on the step. You can then progress by starting this exercise on left leg with right foot extended in air behind you.

Leaning towers: Stand facing a wall just over arm distance away. Fall forward with arms outstretched and tense your whole body – especially both buttocks – as your hands touch the wall. This will brace you and your body will be in a straight line without sagging. Your heels will be off the floor slightly. Return to standing. Repeat until you have mastered this exercise. A progression is to do the same exercise, but lift one foot underneath your buttock with foot tensed just before your hands touch the wall. Move the foot fast. Then progress further by having just the opposite hand touch the wall from the lifted foot (this requires practice as your body will sag or rotate at first).

REGENERATION EXERCISES

Inchworms: Start in press-up position and walk feet forwards towards your hands, then walk hands out and look up at ceiling. Your back will flex and then extend.

Lying leg rotations: Lie on your back and bring your right foot over towards your left hip, pull down on your left knee with your hands. Repeat on other side. Then do this with the leg straight so your foot is further away from your body.

Back rotations: Stand with back to a wall, knees bent slightly and turn upper body so that both hands touch the wall. Keep knees pointing forward. Repeat on other side. Experiment with different hand positions so the stretch changes.

References

  1. P.W. Cerutty. Middle Distance Running. Pelham Books: London (1964).
  2. John Jesse. Strength training for runners and hurdlers. The Athletic Press: Pasadena (1981).
  3. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research:  30(8) p 2361–2368 (2016).
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