Frequent Runner? Be sure to Include Strength Training in your Fitness Routine.
Runners can be a stubborn bunch - I've been one. Come rain or shine, pain or injury, it can be hard to ween us off our pavement pounding endorphin rush. And it’s easy to understand why: running is a great form of exercise that has a great many health benefits, but as the sole activity of an exercise programme, it misses some key areas of fitness - ignored in our never ending quest for better numbers on the stopwatch.
Being 'fit' takes into account not just the efficiency of your heart and lungs, but encompasses strength, flexibility, mobility, agility, power and endurance. Every element has its part to play in both sport and day to day living, and by excluding some of these components in our fitness activities, we are leaving ourselves less prepared for occasions when they may be called upon. This is especially important nowadays, when more of us want to enjoy an adventurous and active lifestyle as we age.
And like any sport, running is not without its injury risks: Knees, ankles, calves, hamstrings and lower backs are all prone to injury through the thousands of foot strikes on every run. It can take just one untimely pot-hole to trigger a sudden change in movement that, if you're not prepared for it, could finish your run, and consequently your fitness programme for days or weeks. Adding some other activities to a fitness routine may leave you better equipped to handle such surprises.
It all comes down to simple adaptation, and the body adapts well to what it does the most: If you sit all day in a chair, your body will eventually adapt to better facilitate this position. This might be through shortening of the hamstrings and hip flexors, or lengthening of the upper back muscles, if you have a tendency to slouch. And it's not until you attempt something at the other extreme - let's say taking up yoga - that you really experience the limitations of these postural changes. The same applies to running, or any other activity repeated frequently enough: the body will adjust to suit the movement, and any unplanned, sudden diversion from this will expose those ingrained motor patterns and their limited ability to control loss of balance, or expedite a sudden change in direction.
So what can be done? Well I’m certainly not advocating giving up running; if this is your thing, and you enjoy it, then keep it up - the health benefits are well documented, as with many other forms of exercise. However, if you're a frequent recreational runner, you should consider including a couple of sessions of alternative training into your weekly routine, even if this means dropping one or two runs... Yes! That means NOT RUNNING as often... And I know this is a hard pill to swallow if running has been your staple exercise for years, but hang in there... this doesn't mean you're going to get slower, and you're certainly not going to lose your fitness, or your runners high - so don't contact Endorphins Anonymous just yet.
A great way to complement your running programme is with strength training, and one of the great things about strength training, is that you don't need to spend hours at it to achieve some useful results. And strength training doesn't always need weights and machines, so just like running, you won't need much equipment to get started.
Not only will strength training help prevent injury, but depending on the type of training, it may also improve your speed and performance. Improvements in core strength and hip & knee stability will improve the efficiency of your gait, and allow you to apply more power through your legs when you need it. This might translate into stronger starts, better leg drive on hill sections, or better control on descents. Corrective strength training will also help improve posture, which in turn will lead to improvements in body position and arm carriage - further enhancing performance on the road.
A simple way to get started with strength training for runners, is with a basic 5-exercise routine that will challenge your whole body in a circuit format. The right combination of work and rest will also ensure you are still working your heart and lungs effectively, so by replacing a couple of your regular runs with this routine, you won't lose any hard won cardiovascular fitness. Be sure to seek instruction from a fitness professional, and include a progressive warm up before each session, ending your training with a gradual cool down. Start with just 2 rounds of the circuit, then add a third once you feel ready. The amount of work and rest between exercises depends on your current fitness, so give yourself enough to perform each exercise with good form, and without becoming breathless. Sessions should be separated by at least 48 hours.
No.1 The Suspension Trainer Row. Strengthens the upper back, scapular stabilisers, arms and core. Will help with posture and arm carriage when you run.
No.2. The Body-Weight Squat. Strengthens legs and glutes whilst involving the core musculature. Will help improve leg drive, hip and knee stability on the road. Perform 10 to 20 repetitions with good form. If you can do 20 with ease, then move onto the dumbbell variation in the second video and increase the weight as you get stronger.
No.3. The incline push-up. Strengthens chest, shoulders, arms and core. Will help with drive during starts and fast hill sections. Perform between 10 and 20 repetitions. If this variation doesn't challenge you in the last 2 repetitions, then move on to the full push-up in the second video.
No.4. The Walking Lunge. This is a great exercise for improving hip & knee stability, and leg drive. It translates well to running, and will help with control on descents. If you suffer from knee pain, you can drop this exercise, limit the depth of each lunge, or see my post on knee pain for an alternative movement. Perform 10 to 15 steps on each side.
No.5. The Incline Plank. A great way to improve core strength without flexing your lower back. This will help protect your back and improve body control on the road, allowing you to run more efficiently. Be sure to brace your core musculature and squeeze your glutes whilst maintaining a neutral spine. Start with 15 seconds and add time as you get stronger. Once you're over a minute, progress to the full plank in the second video.
Happy training, and thanks for reading.