Strength training for runners

14. December 2017

There is no question that people need muscles, otherwise they could not even rest on a chair. And strong muscles are also a necessity for athletes. Endurance training strengthens the heart, circulatory system and metabolism. Strength training builds up the muscles. A runner needs both. However, the following is also true: fast running and oversized muscles are only compatible to a limited degree. The build of really fast runners is automatically lean and graceful, which therefore raises the question; what is the best way for runners to build strength? Here are the most important factors at a glance:

General information on strength training 

Strength training usually consists of several exercises that are completed in series. Depending on the weight selected, series of 1 to more than 100 repetitions are conceivable. Doing a few repetitions with appropriately heavy weights is called maximum strength training (intramuscular coordination training). If it is possible to do around 8 to 15 repetitions, then this is referred to as hypertrophy training, since the volume growth of the muscles is at its highest within this intensity range. So-called strength endurance training is when you do around 20 to 40 repetitions. In this instance, you train both your strength and ability to use this strength over a longer period of time. It is possible to do 50 repetitions and more when there is even less resistance. In this case, it is not so much considered strength training as inter-muscular coordination training. 

Strength training starts with easy exercises and moves on to difficult ones. An example would be starting a new inter-muscular coordination training exercise with a low weight, then moving on to the strength endurance range for a while, and then further intensifying the training right up to the hypertrophy range. The maximum strength range is not usually required for amateur endurance athletes. Rest periods are inserted between each series (usually 2 to 3), which become longer the more intense the exertion. During hypertrophy training, rest periods of 5 minutes may be required. And when the muscle is completely fatigued, you should no longer continue to train this muscle. During strength endurance training, the rest periods lie between 45 and 90 seconds. 




Do endurance athletes need maximum strength training? 

Maximum strength training is strength training at an extremely high intensity, i.e. using the heaviest weights. For hypertrophy training (i.e. body building, which brings about the highest circumference increase in the muscles), weights are chosen that can be lifted approximately 8 to 15 times per series. This kind of training naturally also influences your maximum strength. Maximum strength training uses even heavier weights, so that only 1 to 3 repetitions are possible. It then makes sense for endurance athletes to combine maximum strength training with hypertrophy training if their high-performance sport calls for short-term maximum performance peaks. Or if injuries and or performance deficits conclude that there is not enough muscle strength for the running motion sequence. Particularly sensitive muscle groups are, for example, the hip abductors (small and medium-sized gluteal muscle), which are responsible for safely stabilising the pelvis on the respective standing leg. In most cases, however, exercises that allow 10 to 15 repetitions are sufficient.

Training with heavy weights can be done throughout the year. But you need to be aware that such training can temporarily reduce your running performance. So, you should stop doing strength training at least two weeks before a competition and runners who are inexperienced in strength training should stop even earlier beforehand. However, strength training can be easily integrated into your annual programme in the form of one or more blocks. Preferably, of course, during the preparatory phase or when there are no competitions on the horizon.

How beneficial are exercises using your own body weight? 

Using your own body weight for strength training is a desirable and easily accessible form of training that can always be done wherever you are, even during your running training. However, the dosage is not quite so simple because many exercises do not easily lend themselves to much variation. In the case of effective and popular support exercises, which are mainly isometric and done in static positions, the load can be varied by merely changing the leverage. The advantage of these exercises, however, is that they integrate the whole body, placing a practical strain on the muscles. Complex exercises with a motion sequence are suited to using your own body weight. They not only strengthen the body but at the same time it has to cope with demands in terms of flexibility and coordination.

What is the advantage in going to the fitness centre? 

Doing exercises on equipment in the fitness centre is popular, and not without good reason. Training on machines makes it possible to strengthen virtually every muscle individually. And because the machines perform the movements beautifully, you can’t really go wrong. A strength circuit on the machines is therefore highly recommended for general and versatile strengthening. However, understanding your own muscular weaknesses is a prerequisite for targeted training. And knowing which muscle in a chain of several (e.g. the leg extensor chain consisting of the toe flexors, calf muscles, knee extensors, and hip extensors, etc.) is too weak so its function can be partly taken over by other muscles, is often difficult to define. In many cases, it may make more sense to strengthen all of the muscles in their actual movement and to not isolate them. The individual muscles are usually trained separately in the fitness centre and it remains unclear as to whether this is to the advantage or disadvantage of the body’s overall function. 




Strength training before or after running training? 

On each respective training day, you should start with the training that you want to place particular emphasis on. Thus, if you want to make progress in terms of muscle strength and strength training constitutes the most important training measure, then start with that and run a few kilometres afterwards. However, if the focus is primarily on the effects of endurance and strength training only serves to maintain the previously gained skills, then complete the continuous run first and lift a few weights afterwards. It goes without saying that you already need to be well trained if you want to complete two units on the same day.

How long do you need to recover after strength training? 

Strength training, especially when done in the so-called hypertrophy range (i.e. performed at extremely high intensities), taxes the muscles significantly more than endurance training. This is why a break of 48 to 72 hours is advisable before completing the next similar strength training program. Whereas daily, and in the case of top athletes, twice-daily endurance training can be managed without difficulty, you need to be more cautious when doing strength training. Otherwise there is a substantial risk of sustaining overexertion injuries and you won’t make the desired progress. Endurance athletes should therefore not do any real strength training more than three times a week. In contrast, gymnastic strength exercises can be done as often as you want.

Dumbbell training at home?

Dumbbell training is a highly effective form of strength training and is particularly popular with top athletes. Dumbbell training can completely train entire muscle chains (e.g. squats), uses the auxiliary muscles (for balancing the weight), and the movements can be varied at will and adapted to those of your core sport. Such training can be easily done at home and particularly keeps the financial outlay in check. For beginners, disadvantages lie in the high coordination requirements and the knowledge that is needed to perform the exercises. Doing an exercise properly with the free barbell is considerably more difficult than using equipment to move a lever around a defined axis as is the case in the fitness centre.

In summary, it can be said that strength training for endurance athletes is an important or indispensable supplement to their endurance program and should be done two to three times a week, at best in blocks. The closer the strength training movements are oriented towards those required in the primary sport, the more effective it will be.