Strength training for runners
Rebecca Qumon is one of the many runners who are members of The Training Station Gym. She normally laces up her sneakers, walks past all of the strength equipment, hops on the treadmill, does her run, and walks past all of the strength equipment on her way out the door.
But she recently asked me about strength training for runners.
Generations of runners, at every level of running, have wondered if they should do strength training. One way of answering, is to look at how the body adapts to strength training—what long-term happenings occur as a result of strength training. Then, we can decide if we want those adaptations, or not.
Researchers have repeatedly identified the following long-term adaptations:
- Increases in the force-generating capacity of trained muscles
- Muscle soreness
- Relatively small increases in bone mineral and mass
- Stronger ligaments and tendons
Will those things make you faster? Will they give you more endurance?
Strength training for runners interested in greater muscularity
Strength training tends to produce muscles that are stronger. They’re stronger because muscle fibers grow thicker, more numerous, or both. Sometimes the growth is visible—you look buff—but there’s no guarantee that it will be visible. Visibility depends on your genes, they control how much growth happens and where it happens. It also depends on the different ways that light can bounce off your skin and refract onto the retina.
If strength training makes you look buff, enjoy the look!
It’s not necessarily the case, however, that stronger muscles will make you faster or more enduring.
For example, let’s say that you have a faulty running technique. If you add stronger muscles to that already-faulty technique, you’ll probably do the fault with more gusto than you did when you weren’t as strong.
In that case, although you could run faster, there’s also a chance that you could find running the same speed harder than it was before. You may even run slower.
There are some runners who swear that running was harder after strength training. They think that their muscles became too heavy. But I suspect that the added strength made their pre-existing mistakes even worse.
I do think that stronger muscles may improve your ability to endure. This can happen if the extra strength improves your resistance to running fatigue: you may be less fatigued on inclines, you may feel less fatigued at your normal running pace, you may overcome wind resistance with less fatigue, etc. The point is that stronger muscles may fatigue slower than comparatively weaker muscles, and less fatigue can equal more miles.
Strength training for runners will likely involve muscle soreness
Muscle soreness has nothing to do with running faster or longer, but it is a topic that deserves a brief remark.
You will find yourself experiencing less and less soreness over time if your strength-training program is properly designed. You should get to the point where you experience soreness only occasionally, and maybe not all. On the other hand, try not to use muscle soreness as a gauge of the workout’s effectiveness. You may do a good workout that creates no soreness, but that doesn’t mean that you didn’t do a good workout!
Strength training for runners concerned about bone mass
Increased bone mass is a benefit that we all should want, especially women. Bone is a highly active tissue, and its role in human locomotion is obviously important. Adequate bone mineral content is a mark of good health.
But more massive bones have not been shown to be directly proportional to speed or endurance.
Improved bone mass equals good health, but perhaps not more and faster miles.
Strength training for runners who want stronger ligaments and tendons
Strength training can increase the resilience of ligaments and tendons. It should be said that, between endurance training and strength training, endurance training causes the greatest increases ligament and tendon strength.
Ligaments attach bones to bones and tendons attach muscles to bones.
Tendons play an important role in the way that muscles express their strength. They are part of the chain of structures that are responsible for the production of force, and since a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, stronger tendons are going to help you apply more force as you run. That may or may not make you faster, but there’s a good chance that it may help you resist fatigue, which could lead you to run more miles.
Perhaps more importantly, stronger ligaments and tendons can withstand a relatively greater load before rupturing. That means that they will resist injury more than they would if they were weaker. Think about the benefit this way: If you’re hurt there’s little chance for improvement. If you’re healthy there’s an opportunity for improvement. So improving your resistance to injury will help keep you on the roads, which is the key to improving your running.
Strength training for runners: in summary
- Done correctly, you can reasonably expect strength training to improve your resistance to fatigue, which will probably lead you to run longer, or perhaps just run the same distance but more comfortably.
- Strength training may or may not make you faster, depending on the soundness of your technique, and how the increased strength is incorporated into that technique.
- There is no doubt that strength training will improve your health over and above running by itself.
- And if all the stars line up the right way, you may wind up looking better than ever!