Strength training is essential for runners looking to gain speed and head off injury. Forget the myth that grabbing a barbell leads to a slower, bulkier frame, says Brian Mackenzie, a strength and conditioning coach and creator of CrossFit Endurance. Lifting will not only help endurance athletes increase speed and endurance, it also teaches their bodies to be more nimble on a racecourse.
Strength coaches aren't the only ones vying for runners to hit the weights. Josh Terwoord, running and triathlon coach with RaceLab, agrees: "Strength training should be prescribed early, during base training, to prepare the athlete's body for the rigors of the upcoming season." Building more muscle can help prevent injuries, Terwoord says, and help an athlete to hold good form when fatigue starts to set in.
To illustrate the point, Mackenzie says to picture elite long-distance runners at the end of a race: They're not huffing and puffing for breath. At that point, it's not about aerobic capacity, but strength. To mimic those athletes' perfect upright postures and effortless stamina, Mackenzie recommends focusing on "the basic three" moves — back squat, deadlift, strict press — as well as a few ancillary strength movements. Add them into your regimen, and you'll become a stronger runner in every way.
Performing a back squat will increase hip and ankle mobility and knee flexion — all crucial for dialing in better running form. The movement also helps establish a stronger spine. This is key for a runner because spinal integrity is one of the first things to go when fatigue hits; the shoulders slump forward, and the back begins to curve. Terwoord recommends the back squat for a more obvious reason. "It trains powerful quads and glutes to help propel you forward," he says.
Similar to the back squat, a deadlift builds spine and core strength, Mackenzie says. It also targets the entire posterior chain: shoulder, lats, lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Those are the same muscles you'll use to power up a hill, and to carry you through those repetitive-motion leg and arm swings for miles and miles.
A strict shoulder press may seem like an odd lift to help runners, but Mackenzie says the move can be telling. Pushing weight overhead using only your upper body (no help from your legs, that's what makes it a "strict" press) immediately reveals how stable your spine is. Performing sets of strict presses with an upright, rigid spine will help train your body to hold that same position during your run, and help you avoid the torque-effect you get with sloppy, compensating spinal posture.
Additional Leg and Core Moves
In addition to the basic three lifts, Mackenzie recommends adding a few of these ancillary lower-body strengtheners to your regimen: Box jumps, step-ups, pistol squats, jumping rope, jumping with weights (for example, jumping Good Mornings with a barbell) and step-offs (stepping off a box holding weights and landing in a quarter squat). These all teach the body to land softly and help develop the joint-supporting muscles that you need to stay efficient and injury-free when running long distances.
Finally, Terwoord suggests adding core-strengthening moves such as bicycles, planks, back extensions, and torso rotations. A strong core will help to ensure that your energy is properly transmitted to keep your legs pumping, he says.