Running too much, too fast, too soon is a recipe for injury.
strength training for runners. I think it’s excellent and full of useful information. If you’re a coach or trainer who works with runners, or if you’re a runner with an inquisitive mind who wants to improve your performance then you will enjoy it.
(This problem of excessive training isn’t confined to runners. Almost anyone from bodybuilders to cyclists to golfers with a zest for physical activity and competition, who believe himself or herself to be eternally bulletproof and able to withstand superhuman levels of grueling hard work may succumb. I think social media exacerbates the problem.)
I often write about aches, pains, and how to recover from injury. Much of what I do with clients involves doing specific exercises to either mobilize a joint, increase his/her movement skill, or get stronger in a specific way. My thinking (and I don’t think I’m the only one) goes that if this hurts then that exercise will fix it. That may not be the best way to approach a problem though. To get a full picture, I need to always remember to ask the question, “What happened before you got hurt.” Unless someone suffered an acute injury, it’s likely that he or she increased their training suddenly and did more work than his/her body could handle. Smart training is the best protection and that’s why hiring a coach to help you with your training is a good idea.
A few weeks ago I attended a running seminar with Jay Dicharry, a physical therapist and running/cycling coach. It was a superb course and I got to revisit some biomechanics and running technique concepts to which I’d been exposed in the past.
We discussed stacking the ribs over the pelvis while running. This posture helps take pressure off the lumbar spine and it puts the pelvis in a position to optimize the use of muscles that attach to the pelvis, especially the glutes. This posture enables a runner to use the glutes to propel the runner forward which is an efficient way to run in that the gluteus maximus is the largest muscles in the body.
I realized during this discussion that though my running technique had improved, I could improve it a little more. Specifically, I saw that I wasn’t using my glutes enough to run and as a consequence, I was using my calves and probably my adductors (which extend the hip along with the hamstrings and glutes) too much. Forward propulsion wasn’t being distributed evenly among these muscles. The glutes weren’t doing their fair share to create hip extension and the abs weren’t helping maintain good pelvic position. The calves and adductors were doing too much work. The overexertion was causing excessive strain on the Achilles and plantar fascia, and causing early fatigue of the adductors which led to cramps.
I believe I can also trace my ~10 years of low-back pain to this faulty running technique. Again, my lack of glute contribution demanded that I use lumbar extension to get my leg behind me.
This position brought on low-back pain, hamstring/adductor cramps, and Achilles/foot pain.
I’ve been running a little differently lately. I’ve become more aware of where my ribs are positioned in relation to my pelvis. I’ve also tuned in to my glutes. I work to feel them contract to push me forward. I’m aware of my ribs being stacked over my pelvis as I run.
This position is better for me. I’m stronger, more efficient, and I don’t hurt. The glutes and abs are doing their job.
This isn’t the first time in my fitness career that I’ve reexamined something I thought I understood only to realize I’d missed something significant. Coming back to information like this is similar to reading a good book a second time in that I see the same information in a different way. This second exposure to core and glute function expanded my understanding tremendously.
Near the beginning of the race – looking back at the Whetstone Mountains.
It’s seven weeks to the Grand Traverse Trail Run, my first ultramarathon. (Also, seven weeks remain to raise $3000 for Running Out of Time, my effort on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Do you want to help save the outdoors? Can you donate? Please do!) I ran a little over 40 mi. last week, which is high mileage for me. I’ll run about 35 mi. this week. That’s included some hard intervals, hill climbs, and heat. I’m also fitting in a few bike rides. I am feeling all that hard work. Deeply. I fade early in the evening, sleep hard, and wake up tired. (But I LOVE the process!) This isn’t alarming. It’s 100% normal for this stage of training. Consequently, I have little left for weight training.
Typically I do well with twice-weekly weight workouts. With all the running though, I’m averaging a weight workout once per week, and sometimes those workouts are minimal with just one or two exercises. I only have so much time and energy to expend. I can’t put my all into everything. This is the reality of resource allocation when it comes to physical activity.
The timing of lifting sessions and running workouts is important. Lifting compromises running performance in the short-term due to soreness and a diminished ability to generate force through the legs. I need strong legs for speed workouts and long runs, so I need to be strategic in planning runs and lifting sessions. This article from Runner’s World discusses research pertaining to lifting and running. It suggests several ways to combine them:
Run first before lifting if running and lifting on the same day.
Separate runs from lifting sessions by at least six hours
The benefit to constrained lifting opportunities is that I’m forced to focus on those lifts that will benefit my running the most. I must drill down to the essentials. Constraints like this are benefits disguised as obstacles.
Balance and strength on one leg is essential for successful running.
Consider three truths:
1) Running is a series of hops from one foot to the other. Upon landing, you perform a partial, one-leg squat in preparation for the next hop.
2) Research suggests that strength training aids running performance, and
3) The principle of specificity says that to improve at a given physical task, training should resemble that task.
Given these truths, it seems clear you can benefit by including single-leg squats as part of a regular strength program. The hop-and-land sequence of running demands strength and stability in order to perform well and avoid injury.
I ran the Collegiate Peaks 25 Mile Trail Run on Saturday 5/4. My wife and I stayed in Salida, about 30 min away from the start in Buena Vista. That meant a dark and early wake-up of 4:30 am. Such is life sometimes.
We had superb weather: sun, clear skies and temps in high 30s at the start and highs in the 60s. Views of the Collegiate Peaks (above) were prominent and dramatic. For me, this is going to church.
The well-marked race course was mostly non-technical and followed Forest Service roads. There were some prolonged sandy spots which made for slow going at times but it wasn’t terrible. The sand was much less of an issue than the sand in Moab at the Behind the Rocks Race. A few of the climbs and descents were steep but most slopes were mild. The final few miles came through some fun singletrack of medium technicality. (I MUST come back with the mountain bike!) Here’s the course elevation profile:
Collegiate Peaks Race profile
Runners encountered a shin-deep water crossing at about mile 10. I brought extra socks with me and changed into them soon after the crossing. I thought about gambling and continuing to run in wet socks but I didn’t want to risk blisters. My cold hands made removal of tight compression socks aggravating though. It took a little longer to change than I wanted but again, such is life.
This was a small race with 212 finishers. I finished in 5:05:38. That put me just in the top half overall and among men. I finished just barely out of the top half of men in my age group. I hoped to do better in that category but I’m not overly distressed. I prepared well, ran hard, and did my best. I do this for the experience, not with the expectation of winning.
I’ve had some bad adductor and hamstring cramps in both legs in some longer races. I’m pleased this time that cramps only happened in my right adductor. They were minor. A sudden cramp hit with maybe three miles to go. I stopped briefly and stretched the area. I continued to sort of stretch it in a weird way while running. The cramp vanished in a few minutes and didn’t bother me any further. Minimal cramping in a long race gives me confidence that I’m on the right track with my strategy of direct strengthening of my cramp-prone muscles.
Metatarsalgia or ball-of-foot pain in my left food reared its head in the final few miles. I’ve battled it in the past. It hasn’t been an issue at all since I’ve placed metatarsal pads in my shoe inserts. This could be a problem for the Grand Traverse. I plan to take the same approach as I have with my cramp-prone muscles and the calf: strengthen it. I have some ideas on how to specifically strengthen the toes.
Overall I had a fun experience. I liked the course, I liked the small size of the race, and my wife and I both liked Buena Vista. We look forward to a return. If you want a full-on Colorado trail race experience then the Collegiate Peaks Trail Race fits the bill.
Research supports the use of weight and plyometric (jumping) training to aid running performance. Read all about it here, here,here, and here. I lift and jump about twice a week. I expect specific outcomes from the exercises I use. This is a discussion of my strategy.
In running, the muscles and tendons act as springs. As the foot hits the ground, the muscles and tendons of the feet and legs lengthen and store energy from impact. The stored energy is then released, propelling the runner forward through the gait cycle. (The Achilles tendon is an especially powerful part of the SSC equation.) This process is called the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC.) Plyometric training is a way to build stronger springs. There are many plyometric exercises to choose from. I use two exercises.
single-leg hurdle hops: This consists of hopping over six low hurdles as quickly as possible. I try to land and balance in control on the very last hurdle. I rest then hop back on the other leg. I accumulate 50-70 contacts on each leg.
two-leg pogo hops: This is a new drill for me. It’s different from a two-leg jump. I pull the toes up toward the shins when I’m in the air. I slap the ground hard on impact—using only the ankles—while keeping the knees nearly locked. I do 10 reps (20 foot contacts) x 5-7 sets for 100-140 total foot contacts.
Key strength exercises
Calf raises: I worship at the altar of lower leg strength. I’ve been injured there and I want armor the lower legs against injury. A calf raise is a great catchall for not only the calf muscles but the foot muscles and tendons too. Twice a week I do some sort of calf raise or jump rope. I work high weight/low reps and moderate weight/moderate reps.
Step-up: I’m a trail runner so I step up. A lot. I’ve also had cramping issues in my adductors. My strategy for cramping is to a) go right at the cramp-prone muscles and make them stronger, and b) strengthen the supporting muscles so the cramp-prone muscles will have more help doing their job. This exercise does both. I work 5-10 reps typically for 2-3 sets.
Various lunges: Running and lunging are biomechanically somewhat similar. They work the hip adductors, abductors, quads, and glutes very well. I lunge forward, sideways, and I rotate left and right to lunge. This is one of many lunges, the offset lunge.
4. Leg curl: Cramps have been a problem in my hamstrings too. This exercise should help strengthen the hamstrings appropriately. It’s also a good glute exercise. I’m able to do almost 20 reps in the single-leg curl. That’s a little high for strength work. I need to find a way to weight this exercise but I’m not sure how…
Other strength exercises
I consider these exercises less vital to running but useful nonetheless. First and foremost, I enjoy lifting. I also like to stay generally strong and resilient and I want to maintain my lifting skills.
Back squat: I like to squat. Squats build general total-body strength. I work up to three heavy sets of three reps. This keeps me from being very sore and doesn’t overstress my nervous system.
Incline press, standing press, or dips: I like to maintain some general upper body pushing strength. I work various rep ranges from 3-10.
Pull-ups: Same as above.
Ab wheel rollout: It’s one of many good ab exercises. I do two to three sets of 10-15 reps.
Hitting the heavy punching bag: I’ve done a little boxing training with another trainer and I watch boxing videos. Hitting the heavy bag, throwing combinations, and doing something very different from running is a lot of fun.
Road cycling and mountain biking: I’m a cyclist! Gotta pedal the machines sometimes. I’m happy if I get two rides per week.
When to lift?
I get the lifting in when I can fit the lifting in. I aim to lift twice a week. I prioritize the calf work and the plyometric work as I believe those are the most important to my running. Running, work, and other responsibilities dictate that some weeks I may only get one day of lifting in.
A common phrase among coaches is, “Make the hard days hard and the easy days easy.” Thus, I try to lift on the hard running days, which are Tuesdays and Thursdays. The problem is I feel better when I have 48-72 hrs between lifting sessions. That means I often lift on easier days. I typically try to do plyometrics on easy days. Plyos should be done in a non-fatigued state. On some lifting days, I feel tired or sore from running, or I may not have time to do everything, so the workout may consist of only one or two exercises for one or two sets. Other days, I feel great and I have plenty of time so I get more work done.
In the grand scheme, I’m more concerned with being consistent, and less concerned about following a precisely perfect schedule. Brad Stulberg has good thoughts on consistency:
CONSISTENCY means showing up, even when you don’t want to. It makes you better at not only your craft—via compounding gains—but also the skill of exerting effort itself. Sustainable peak performance isn’t about being consistently great. It’s about being great at being consistent.
I’m running the Behind the Rocks 30k in Moab, Utah on March 23rd. It’s my first race of the season and my first race since my calf injury last year. I’m happy to report that all my parts feel strong. I’m pleased and proud to have overcome the problems from last year. Strength training aimed directly at the calf has been the key.
I use several different weight and rep schemes for the exercises:
Heavy loads for <6 reps. This builds strong muscles and strong, stiff tendons. Stiff tendons are like stiff springs. Stiff tendons absorb and transmit forces efficiently which makes for efficient running.
Moderate loads for 8-15 reps. This builds muscle bulk. More muscle mass helps make muscles strong and durable.
I may go as high as 20-30 reps for the mini-squat. That’s due to the soleus muscle (the main muscle in that’s worked in the exercise) being comprised mostly of endurance muscle fibers. I typically put a barbell on my back.
For the jump rope, I’ll mix two- and one-leg jumping and I’ll jump for about 1 minute x 5 sets.
Other key exercises
The hip hike and offset lunge are great exercises for lower legs, quads, glutes, hip adductors and hip abductors.
Finally, Coach Andrew Simmons of Lifelong Endurance has been indispensable. He listens to me, pays attention to detail, and inspires confidence. I’m grateful to have his guidance. If you’re looking for a running coach, I recommend him highly.
I’m fortunate to be able to run in the Rocky Mountains. Every trail run features ascents and descents that are often long and/or steep which means significant changes in pace. I often run with a group and I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon for runners to run too hard on the ascents. It’s easy to hit the redline on ascents, to burn out, and have the run reduced to a stagger. (Sometimes I’m the one running too hard.) This isn’t optimal for racing or training. Running harder isn’t always better.
Is my goal to “win” a training run of no consequence? Or is it to train effectively for a specific race? The answer is the latter. Put another way, the purpose of a training run is not to prove fitness, but to improve fitness.
(There is a time and place for hard running. The training plan may call for harder efforts: hill intervals for instance. That’s a different topic.)
What I think I’ve learned
At some point walking up a slope is more economical than running. Running economy matters more as races go longer. For a short race, running up a steep hill may be fine because I’m not limited by energy reserves, but for long races, conserving energy matters a lot.
“The study found that ‘on inclines steeper than 15.8°, athletes can reduce their energy expenditure by walking rather than running.'”
“While that study looked at relatively fresh athletes, it’s likely that the optimal grade for walking decreases as the length of the race increases and muscles fatigue. In long ultras, like 50- and 100-milers, most racers are hiking on anything over eight to 10 percent later in the race—grades they’d usually bound up. So if you are doing a short race with steeps or a long race with normal hills, knowing how to walk can save energy. Here are three form tips to unlock your hiking prowess.”
Walk early. Walk often.
For my purposes, I’ve translated the research into this: Walk early. Walk often. I start walking/power hiking well before I blow up. I stop running and start hiking before I truly need to start hiking. I start before the slope gets very steep. This is similar to efficient uphill cycling in that a rider should shift into a low gear early and before he or she struggles at a very low cadence.
I find that I can keep pace with and often pass other runners when I hike instead of run. They work harder yet we move at about the same rate. The ascent often resembles a slinky type of process where we pass each other a few times before we hit the peak. Often, the other harder working runners are completely gassed at the top while I can resume running.
I’m not an elite-level runner, so there’s no question that I will spend significant time hiking and walking during my races, especially during the 40-mile Grand Traverse Run. Therefore my training should resemble the race. If I prioritize my low-end speed, get faster at going slower, then that should help my performance more than developing higher-end speed.
A calf injury derailed this previous racing season. I’m taking steps to avoid a repeat. Primarily I’m making my calves and feet stronger, not just the muscles but the connective tissue as well. My process is detailed in an article for Competitor Running. Every week, twice a week I spend time working on the lower legs. I treat it like religion. The work isn’t especially exciting but if I don’t do it then I can expect more problems. Thus, I don’t give myself the option to avoid the work. Here are the main features of my lower-leg workouts:
The Benefits of the Single-leg Tubing Squat is for runners who want to build leg and hip strength that will transfer to running. This exercise may help you overcome knee and hip pain as well whether you’re a runner or not. There are three variations on this exercise and all are discussed in the article. This is my second article for Competitor Running. (Those pretty pictures were taken by my wife with her fancy new camera.)