Long distance runners are always looking for ways to get leaner. They think lighter means faster and in many cases it does, but certainly not at the expense of strength. Total body strength is essential to efficient running form and injury prevention. You don’t just run with your legs, it truly is a total body activity. Especially when you get to the end of your race, a strong runner will hold his form better and have more left for the kick in the end. The key is to develop strength without putting on the muscle bulk that will be dead weight for your long miles. Here are some general guidelines and areas to address to structure your supplemental strength work.
If you are only going to perform strength work on one are of your body, that area needs to be core. My coach used to tell me “as a runner, you can never do too much core.” While there is obviously a limit to where core work may begin to negatively affect your running as you will be too sore to train, it is almost impossible to reach that limit. Therefore, you can never do too much core. The great thing about core is that you will not put on bulk in your core so you don’t need to worry about overdoing it and adding dead weight muscle to your frame. You are probably familiar with all the different kinds of front and side crunches so I won’t bore you with those details but one thing you must include in your core routine is planks. Those are the most effective for runners as they teach the core to stay engaged for prolonged periods of time, keeping your body stable and efficient while you run. My recommendation for a core routine is to do a couple sets of 5 minutes of crunching, switching to different types of crunches each minute, and then performing one to two minutes of plank. This routine a couple times a week will be plenty to receive the core benefits as well as providing you with killer abdominals! And as I mentioned earlier, you can’t do too much core, so feel free to add extra sets or extra core days.
Upper body strength works needs to be performed with some sort of moderation and control. Some athletes will be able to put on a lot of bulk with ease and it will negatively impact their running. Most runners however, lack in this area and stand to gain a lot by performing some upper body lifting. It helps by keeping your posture strong and making sure your arm drive is strong. Arms are what keeps you going at the end of the race when your legs begin to falter and thus, strong arm drive can be very beneficial. Be sure to keep your upper body weight training to body weight activities and light weights. My recommendation is to add a couple sets of push ups and pull ups on your core days as well as some shoulder work with 3 lb weights. You will feel the difference in your runs and speed work as your arms seem to propel you forward.
Leg work is the most risky area to perform strength training in as a little too much work can leave you sore and tired for your runs. There is a large upside though as you can experience great benefits from some work. Lower body work needs to be adapted to individual athletes though as some athletes need it while others are strong enough already. If you feel you are weaker in the legs or experience a lot of injury then you should implement some light leg work. Good things to include are calf raises, wall sits, and single leg squats. The reason I say single leg squats is that you only run on one foot at a time, not two, and it is still difficult without the need to add weights. It may seem somewhat odd but do your leg work on your hard workout days after your run. The reason for this is that if you do legs on your recovery days, you are preventing your body from recovering and in a way turning every day into a hard day. The mantra here is keep your hard days hard, and your easy days easy.
When incorporated correctly, strength work can take your running to a whole new level you have never been to before. You need to be cautious however and not get greedy. A little bit of strength work goes a long way!