// Strength training for running success

Strategic use of resistance training can enable you to help running clients improve muscle strength without increasing muscle bulk. Rachel Luff explains how.

One of the more exciting ideas to come out of Harvard University in recent years is the research on the evolution of the human runner: it seems we were born to run. And not just run, but run long distances. Data reveals that the hunter gatherer ran or walked 10 to 15km a day. The average Australian drives double that distance every day. It is not difficult to see why we are living in a society plagued by obesity.

Research has repeatedly shown that running improves health and reduces body fat, so it is not surprising that personal trainers often use running training and outdoor sessions with clients for the purpose of weight loss, increased fitness and vitality, and improvements in running performance. Add to this the importance of goal setting for maintaining motivation, and it’s clear to see why clients are often encouraged to train for events such as the Sydney City2Surf or half-marathons and marathons.

Of course, running is not without its problems: statistics reveal roughly a third of people who take up running will suffer an injury in their first year. Running on unforgiving surfaces, over-ambitious increase in training volume, incorrect footwear and poor body mechanics and muscle balance account for this high injury prevalence. Injury-induced setbacks can take months out of a training schedule and negatively impact a client’s psyche. Luckily, most of the causes of injury can be avoided or fixed. Here, we focus on fixing body mechanics and muscular balance to avoid injury and increase running performance.

Common running injuries and strength training

Endurance sports create imbalances between muscles by recruiting some muscles to the exclusion of others. Running is a prime example of this, recruiting quadriceps isometrically and hamstrings and calves concentrically.

In the 2009 edition of Epidemiology of Injury in Olympic Sports, the major sites of injury in runners are reported to be the lower leg (tibial stress syndrome), the knee (patellofemoral pain syndrome), hamstring and ankle strains and sprains, and tendinopathy of the Achilles and patella tendon. Damage occurs frequently at the junction between the calf muscles and shin muscles, and at the knee, which is the pivot point for the quads and hamstrings.

A method sometimes employed to correct such imbalances is cross-training – typically swimming or cycling. The idea is that these activities will engage different musculature, thereby restoring the body to some kind of balance. Unfortunately, these activities are also cyclical and rather than specifically correcting the initial imbalance caused by running, new imbalances are created and the old ones remain unresolved.

Being muscle group specific, strength training allows problem areas and weaknesses to be targeted. Weight training has the popular perception of increasing muscle size, which can be extremely disadvantageous to power-to-weight sports such as cycling and running. However, lifting weights can also be used to increase muscle strength without size, which is how athletes use it in weight class sports such as boxing and wrestling.

Running performance and strength training

Increased muscle bulk and slowing of times are objections voiced by runners in relation to weight training – and these fears are legitimate if body building methods are applied. A personal trainer or strength coach who is conditioning a runner for optimal performance would certainly not use these techniques. It is possible, however, to use strength training to dramatically increase muscle strength while minimising muscle size gains. This is possible because the primary muscle adaptation for fewer than 12 weeks of training is an increase in neurological mechanisms to express strength and not enlargement of the cross-sectional surface area of muscle.

Naturally, performance and technique are also of great importance to runners. We would all like to be able to run faster and for longer with greater ease, but these improvements are also partially strength dependent. Running requires a high level of strength endurance of the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), erector spinae (back muscles) and the hamstrings. Muscle strength peaks between the ages of 25 to 30, so with this ‘time restriction’ in mind running on its own may not be the optimal way to strengthen the critical muscles used when running. Efficiently strengthening these muscles by running alone will take a very long time, whereas the same results can be achieved by weight training for approximately 30 to 40 minutes, twice a week.

Correcting structural imbalances

  • Imbalances can be corrected during the base training phase of a runner’s program, which would typically last around 12 weeks
  • Exercises should be performed unilaterally
  • Alternate exercises with a 60-second rest period; for example, perform A1, rest 60 seconds, perform A2, rest 60 seconds, repeat 3 to 4 times.
  • Use 3 or 4 sets with a rep range of 8 to 12 for all exercises, excluding step ups which should use a rep range of between 15 and 30 per leg.
  • Use a 4-second eccentric phase and 1-second concentric phase for all exercises (4010 tempo), excluding the decline step up which should use a 1-second eccentric phase (1010 tempo).
  • Aim for clients to complete the session twice a week for three weeks. Every three weeks a new exercise selection should be conducted using a structured progression.

Sample exercise selection for base training phase (weeks 1 to 3)

Photo 1Photo 2Photo 3Photo 4
(Click images to see larger)


A1. The decline step up results in high activation of the VMO (photo 1 & 2).

A2. The kneeling hamstring curl strengthens the hamstrings at the knee joint which is important for initial foot contact on the ground when running (photo 3 & 4).

Photo 5Photo 6Photo 7Photo 8
(Click images to see larger)


B1. The split squat is an important exercise for the glute max and important deep stabilisers of the hip, which can be particularly weak in females (photo 5 & 6).

B2. The single leg 45 degree back extension strengthens the erector muscles which are responsible for keeping good posture and an upright torso while running.
pls place images B2. Single leg 45 degree back extension (a) + (b) (photo 7 & 8).

C. Swiss ball cable sit ups train the front abdominals which are important for keeping optimal pelvic alignment while running.

D1. Standing single leg calf raise.

D2. Single leg dorsi flexion. Along with the Standing single leg calf raise (D1), this exercise strengthens the critical muscles at the front and rear of the lower leg that have both an ankle stabilising role, knee protective function and are of extreme importance for minimising the risk of shin splints.

Rachel Luff
Rachel is a certified ASCA strength and conditioning coach, Active Release Techniques provider for the lower extremities and personal trainer at the Boutagy Fitness Institute in Cremorne NSW. She is currently undertaking university studies in Sports Science and Holistic Nutrition and runs courses for personal trainers. For more information on education courses, please visit www.rachel@rachelluff.com and www.tonyboutagy.com