Strength work plays a crucial role in a runner’s training. While current practice by runners and coaches is mixed, improvements in the performance of athletes who have integrated weight training into their training programmes is significant. Take Mo Farah. When Alberto Salazar began coaching Mo Farah, Salazar noticed the athlete had a lack of muscle strength. He therefore integrated a weight-training regime into Mo’s training to develop his physical strength – a game-changer for Mo and arguably the reason behind his record-breaking 1500m time at the Diamond League in Monaco.
Leading personal trainer and Wheyhey ambassador James Potter is a huge advocate of weight training for runners. James lists the decreased risk of injury, increased muscular power and prolonged time to exhaustion as some of the reasons why regular strength training is great for runners. James’s multi-discipine background combines training elements from CrossFit, weight-lifting, high-intensity training and performance fitness.
Here’s five resistance exercises James recommends runners should integrate into their training plans to improve performance. For runners who have not used weights as part of their strength training before, we would recommend carrying out these exercises without resistance to start off with to develop strength in the legs, arms and core. All exercises involving weights should be carried out under the observation of another person.
The number one exercise for runners! The deadlift will strengthen and improve neuromuscular control of the lumbo-pelvic and hip complex. In other words, it will strengthen the hips and lower back, teach you to feel your pelvis tilt and to be able to control your pelvic position (which has been shown to correlate directly with efficient running mechanics and a decreased risk of injury).
To perform a deadlift:
- Begin with the bar on the floor
- Position your feet underneath the bar (hip width apart)
- From a standing position, tilt the pelvis backwards (stick your hips back) bend at the knee and grip the bar
- Make sure the spine is locked flat and that you don’t round the back at any point in the lift
- Hold your breath and keep your eyes looking straight in front of you
- Focus on pushing your feet into the floor as you begin to lift and drive through the hips as much as possible
- Lift the bar until you are standing completely upright with the hips fully locked out (be careful not to hyper-extend and lean back excessively)
- Exhale and lower the bar back to the floor
- Pause for a second on the floor and then begin the next repetition (do not bounce the weight off the floor!)
- Front Squat
The front squat is a great lower body exercise to strengthen both the legs and the lower back / hip complex. The front squat requires much more spine and ankle mobility than the more traditional back squat and also reinforces a much more upright torso position. Both of these factors will positively impact on running performance.
To perform a front squat:
- Hold the bar across the front of your shoulders, either with an Olympic front rack position or if flexibility doesn’t allow, just cross the arms over the top of the bar to form a shelf
- Set the feet about shoulder width (where exactly depends on the flexibility of the performer and personal preference) with the toes pointed slightly out
- Hold your breath and lower yourself down so that your hip drops just below parallel at the bottom
- Keeping the elbows and chest up, drive up explosively back to a standing position
- Nordic Curls
This exercise is one of the best hamstring exercises around. It involves eccentrically loading the hamstrings, meaning tension and force is applied whilst the muscle is lengthening. This has been shown to result in significantly more muscle growth and strength compared to traditional concentric (or muscle shortening) exercises.
To perform a Nordic curl:
- Kneel on your knees and wedge your ankles under a stable surface that is able to support your body weight
- Stick your hips back and lock the spine flat
- Begin to slowly fall towards the floor contracting your hamstrings and glutes as hard as you can throughout
- The goal is to fall as slowly as possible using your hamstrings to resist
- Have your hands out in front of you and when you get close to the floor. push yourself back to the start position and repeat
- Dumbbell Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
As the mechanics of running require you to be on one leg for a short period of time, it makes sense to employ a single leg exercise into your routine. Not only does this fix any muscular imbalances you may have, it also helps with ankle and hip stability (poor hip stability has been shown to lead to injuries in runners).
To perform a Single Leg Romanian Deadlift:
- Hold a Dumbbell in one hand and raise the opposite foot off the floor
- Letting the DB fall below the knee, hinge at the waist and lower the torso until it’s parallel to the floor
- Maintain a flat spine throughout and focus on feeling the hamstrings lengthen
- Lower for a count of four seconds and then forcefully contract the hamstring and the glute to drive you back up to a standing position
- Plank Variations
Poor core strength and stability has been shown to negatively impact running efficiency and increase the risk of injury. Core training is essential for any runner looking to improve their performance. The most important exercises to focus on are isometric holds, which target the deep core muscles that help with trunk stability and posture.
To perform a Plank and its variations:
- Rest on your toes and your elbows on the floor
- Position the feet just outside hip width
- Keep the pelvis tucked under and the spine flat
- From here, to perform a suicide plank, move from the elbows to the hands one at a time, making sure that the hips stay square and the abs remain tensed
- To perform a superman plank, maintain plank position and raise one arm out in front of you. Aim to keep the hips square and do not let the torso rotate
- Transition from one version into another without rest
On carrying out these exercises James Potter adds:
“For an improvement in strength to be seen, the weight must be challenging enough to force the body to adapt but not too heavy that technique falls down or that you start to use momentum to cheat the weight up.
“Keep reps in the five to eight range for three to four working sets (not including warm-up sets) and rest for one and a half to two minutes between sets. I’d suggest maybe adding two to three strength and conditioning sessions a week into your running schedule.”