Strength Training for Endurance

July 25, 2017

One thing I often hear myself repeating to beginning runners is “running alone does not give you the strength to run well.” This is something I’ve come to firmly believe after 25 years of running, and often spotty self-rehab and strength training. I believe that runners trying to push their bodies to new and higher levels, whether that’s completing your first 5K, hitting your half marathon PR or running a 100-miler, need to be well-rounded athletes. They need to be able to move correctly in order to train over long periods of time.

If running is what stiffens us up and prevents movement, strength training is the catalyst that can get us moving correctly and return our range of motion.  As endurance athletes, we often put too much emphasis on our aerobic engine, when we should be spending as much time on getting our mechanics to be as powerful and efficient as possible. Both efficiency and power can have great performance benefits.

An effective and quality strength program doesn’t need to be complicated or leave you wiped out for the rest of your runs. A good program should work with your running to enhance it, with elements focusing on different aspects of improving your mobility and strength.

This past week I spoke with Joey Jacinto of Central Oregon Strength Academy about the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes (full disclosure: Joey is my trainer, and a damn good one). Recent scientific literature suggests strength training holds many benefits for endurance athletes such as increased economy (you can run faster using the same amount of oxygen) and increased power and speed. Joey goes further to suggest that you’ll also gain better “spinal control and a lower/upper body connection” in addition to benefits like “increased joint stability, which helps increase mobility and decrease injury.”

Back in high school and even beyond, I used to believe that strength was only to get bigger muscles, when in reality (it was a long time ago) I would come to find out it actually increases your range of motion and body awareness, and helps me keep some of that muscle mass that is going to fade away as I get older.

The elements of a good program are simple in nature. Jacinto’s programs for an endurance athlete follow a basic progression with a definite purpose in each phase. The warm up has an obvious purpose but works to mobilize hips, activate core and gluteals, and prepare for more dynamic and powerful movements. Key components of the warm up include a heavy weight carry to help activate core, and whole body, yoga-type stretching progressions to activate and stretch.

The warm up is followed by a plyometric phase that will work on fast powerful movements, and further prepare for the next power phase. Key plyometric movements in Jacinto’s program are all low weight and include core medicine ball work, jumping work, and a triple extension exercise where all leg joints (hip, knee, and ankle) are in an open position.

Max showing his strength as he makes his way to a win and new course record at the Chuckanut 50K. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama Photography

Next we get into the meat of the workout with a power set. The power set increases weight so that movements are quick but also require power to perform with the goal being to recruit the maximum number of motor units (muscle fibers) as possible before fatigue sets in.  This set will include key exercises like kettlebell swings, medicine ball throws, and more complex movements like the clean and snatch. The power set is done before any “real” strength work so that you’re fresh and not yet fatigued.

Finally, we get into the strength set. This is the phase that most endurance athletes need, but don’t do. Lifting heavy weight has many benefits for endurance athletes, especially as we age. This phase stimulates the endocrine system to produce growth hormones, activates more muscle fibers, and stimulates the nervous system to recruit more muscle fibers. All the effects that lifting lighter weight does not have. The key exercises for endurance athletes like bikers and runners are deadlifts and squats.  Lifting heavy weight also requires a lot of rest between sets, so Jacinto likes to force rest by incorporating a few upper body and “correctional” exercises (movements that work on an individual’s deficiencies such as tight hip flexors in runners) into these sets.

Working a strength training program into your routine can have immense benefits to your performance, but also your overall well being.  For most endurance athletes, two sessions a week is optimal though even one session a week will have benefits as well. A structured program like this does require some degree of knowledge and understanding of correct movement patterns and technique. I would highly encourage you to seek out information from a professional trainer certified with a NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) and/or CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) as well as online sources. The consequences of lifting heavy weights can and will result in injury if not properly performed. I don’t mean to scare you off, but learning how to do the movements first is important. After you’ve learned how to perform them properly and put together a functional program, you can then supplement your training with periodic sessions. A good trainer can incorporate different movements that work to change movement patterns, fix deficiencies in your running form, and help progress your lifting to keep it beneficial.

The basic goal of a good strength program according to Jacinto is to “develop a better overall athlete” so that you can “be fit to run, not so that you’re running to be fit”.

A huge thanks to Joey Jacinto for help putting together a strength program and for sharing the information in this article.

Max King lives in Bend, OR and runs for Salomon. He’s been strength training for 2 years and has seen real benefits from being a stronger athlete…though he’s still in a daily struggle to activate his glutes.

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