Full body functional strength training for runners

Apr 22, 2020

runner doing strength training

As runners we tend to have the attitude of “I’m fit and strong, I can run a sub 4 marathon” or a 45 min 10km, but does that actually make us fit and strong? Fit, yes definitely! Strong, well not so much. Yes, you will develop a certain amount of muscle from running but as your training increases, you will also lose a certain amount of muscle. Strength training is a vital part of any running programme. It helps to prevent injury and illness as well as help us to go faster and further easier.

A lot of runners who do incorporate a strength training programme generally focus on the legs and maybe do some core muscle training. The upper body tends to be forgotten. Upper body training is essential for all runners because it improves basic running posture which ultimately helps us to breathe better. When we get tired, we round our shoulders and lean forward, lessening our lung capacity and shortening the hip flexors. This leaves our lower body to do all the work and this will make you more tired quicker.

Running is a full body sport. Strong shoulders, back and core muscles keep you stabilised and more efficient. Strong arms improve your arm drive which will improve your pace. Strong glutes, hamstrings, quads and calf muscles will improve your driving force. All together these will make you a faster, stronger and more efficient runner. This is not to say that all runners should now take up body building because we definitely don’t want to build heavy bulk muscle. Runners require lean muscle and endurance strength. This will support the skeletal frame and increase power and help protect against injury. Extra strength is also important when the big training blocks kick in and then the taper, where if not done correctly, is often where an athlete will find themselves prone to sickness. The high volume of training can lead to an increased metabolism and the body often will ‘eat itself’, due to a lack of glycogen stores (this is also due to nutrition, but that’s a topic for another article). The increased muscle load bolsters the immune system and therefore helps to reduce illness. The stronger and fitter our running bodies are, the quicker we will recover, which is another good reason to include cross training into your running programme.

Below is a list of basic exercises that should be included as a beginners strength guide for running. All exercises must be done using correct technique and weighting as to prevent injury.

Basic upper body strength exercises that should be done are:

  • Shoulder press
  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep kickbacks
  • Push-ups;
  • Bent over dumbbell rows
  • Single arm dumbbell rows
  • Lat pull downs

Basic core muscle exercises that should be done are:  

  • Leg raises
  • Bicycle crunches
  • Russian twists
  • Medicine ball sit ups
  • Crunches
  • Windscreen wipers
  • Dead bugs
  • Clams
  • Glute kickbacks
  • Balancing on uneven surfaces and other proprioception exercises
  • Leg kick outs
  • Bridges
  • Single leg bridges
  • Fire hydrants
  • Donkey kicks

Basic lower body strength exercises that should be done are:

  • Lunges
  • Squats
  • Deadlift
  • Calf raises
  • Step ups
  • Hamstring curls
  • Side lying adductor lifts
  • Hip burners

These exercises should be done for 6-8 weeks before moving onto more advanced, explosive type of exercises, such as burpees and box jumps. Explosive strength exercises activate the quick fire muscles that improve speed and hill running. Explosive warm-ups could include jumping jacks, high knees, butt kicks and leg swings. Doing warm-ups like these before events and strength training sessions, wake up the muscles needed for running.

Strength training should be done twice a week in the off season and once to twice a week during training season to maintain strength and muscle tone. During training season, strength training can be skipped the week of a main race and the week after races to facilitate with recovery. Cardio cross training during the off season, such as rowing should also be considered.

It is important to note that initially you may feel like your running is getting worse when you start with strength training. This is due to the change in biomechanics and will improve in a few weeks, where all of a sudden you will find that running feels smoother and easier on the body and that all the strength work is worth it.

Therefore to become a more proficient runner and to be able to improve over time and not reach a plateau, a good running programme should include full body functional strength routines.

Bronwyn Holmes

Bronwyn is a Personal Trainer and Performance Coach at Paceline Gym and Performance centre. She assists runners with personalised running and strength training programmes and offers face to face or Zoom sessions for guidance and technique assistance. Read more about Bronwyn here

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