Strength and conditioning for runners
Head to Google on your browser and type in the phrase 'training for a marathon'. I personally found over 74 million search results and none of those on page one even mention strength training at all.
The typically accepted focus of half or full marathon training is a schedule of stretching, resting, walking and running. When people think of marathon training, they think of lacing up their trainers and hitting the road to progressively clock up miles over a 12-16 week period towards their event.
This is an article about strength training - I want to briefly describe the huge benefits as well as examine the role of strength in endurance running. I hope to save you a lot of time and suffering in training for your next event and even dramatically reduce your risk of injury.
Marathon world records:
The record for men was set in 2014 by Dennis Kimetto with a time of 2:02:57.
The record for women was set by Paula Radcliffe at 2:15:25 in 2003.
There are many qualities of fitness and strength is certainly the most under-rated in endurance events. Take this example: Imagine you have two marathon runners of equal ability in every aspect of fitness (flexibility, endurance etc). Make one of the runners twice as strong as the other. Who wins? The stronger runner, of course. Because each time his/her foot hits the floor, they need only use half the force of the other to propel themselves along the ground. By increasing in strength, they have increased their endurance. Why do men produce faster marathon times than women? Because they are (generally) stronger.
Three exercises to master…
The Bent-Knee Deadlift:
Benefits - The bent-knee deadlift is a classical strength training movement in which the large muscles of the legs and hips are used to lift a barbell from the floor to a standing, upright position. The reason that this movement is so beneficial for runners is that it maximally recruits and strengthens the large, powerful muscles involved in hip extension; the gluteals, lower back and hamstrings. The stronger these muscles become, the faster you can propel yourself along the ground.
Technique - Begin by standing with your toes under the bar, around hip width apart. With a flat spine, lean forward and descend to grab the bar with your hands shoulder width apart. Maintaining a 45 degree angle in your back, push through your legs and lift the bar to a full, upright position.
The Split Squat:
Benefits - Split squats are an important exercise to master for two main reasons. First, it allows you to train the thighs and hip complex dynamically, in their stretched position (as required when running). Second, the split squat is a fantastic exercise for restoring mobility to the hip complex, often lost through distance running, and stability to the ankle and knee. The split squat is a key corrective exercise, aiding in injury prevention.
Technique - Begin buy standing in a squat position; feet shoulder width apart. Take one leg forward and one backwards until you feel a gentle stretch in your hips. Holding your back leg relatively straight, start to descend forwards sitting on top of the heel of your front foot. Whilst maintaining a vertical back position, push from the front heel back and upwards to the start again.
The Hyper Extension:
Benefits - Hyper extensions are performed on a bench found in almost all commercial gyms and are very simple to master. The exercise uses the same primary muscles used in the bent-knee deadlift but without any involvement of your quadriceps. This is a great exercise to start building basic strength in your posterior chain, without having to worry too much about precise technique.
Technique - Position yourself on the bench so that your knees are completely straight and hip width apart. With a perfectly flat back, look up slightly and descend towards the floor, pivoting from your hips, and lift to the starting position. Focus on producing force through your hamstrings by pushing your thighs in to the bench as you lift up.
A key definition to understand in strength training is 'intensity'. Intensity is often confused with something being "hard work". Running a marathon is hard, but it is not intense. A sprint or vertical jump are both intense as they involve absolute maximal effort, which can only be sustained for a very short duration.
In order to be effective, strength training must be intense. This means working at a high percentage of your maximum in terms of the amount of weight lifted. Whilst beginning with relatively light loads and high repetitions is obviously essential at the start of your training (to build strength and conditioning in ligamentous tissue and tendons) the benefits of strength training for running occur when working with heavier loads.
Performing deadlifts for sets of 15 repetitions will certainly aid in developing your endurance. However, big jumps in strength occur when performing six repetitions or less with heavy loads.
Note: technical proficiency and a certain amount of conditioning should be ensured before working with near maximal loads.
Putting it together
Muscular Endurance is your body’s ability to repeat a movement or activity with your current level of strength. This is the most easily trained quality of fitness, repeating/enduring what you already possess!
Significant increases can be made within a relatively short period of time (6-8 weeks) and similarly, you can reach your potential for muscular endurance relatively quickly.
Muscular strength, on the other hand, has huge potential for improvement in the previously untrained and impacts dramatically on your endurance efforts. My advice is, before you begin to focus your training on endurance, first develop strength to endure.
Any running program would benefit significantly from two well-structured strength training workouts each week. The workouts need be no more than one-hour in length and focused on only a few compound exercises in each session (using my recommended exercises as a starting point).
My opinion is that using a simple strength training program as the foundation of your half or full marathon training will not only help keep you injury-free and improve your time in your next event, but continue to improve race times year-after-year with less road time required overall.