Strength Training and Testing for Middle and Long Distance Runners

>> February 13, 2015

"Middle and long distance runners cannot perform strength training" is the common perception among athletes and coaches. The perception is due to the belief that the weights they would lift can increase unnecessary muscle mass, which in turn will make one slow.

The main focus of strength training in runners is to develop muscular endurance. Also, having certain levels of strength and power can be advantageous. Multiple studies have shown that resistance-based training can increase speed, running time, running economy, and coordination.

It is understood that as a coach or runner, you might probably need some elucidations regarding strength training suitable for middle or long distance runners?

Endurance athletes would benefit from strength training, with advantageous in neural, running form, and injury resistant (apart from the listed above). Note that from the neural adaptation perspective, improvement in the Rate of Force Development (RFD) can improve running performance.

RFD is how quickly you apply force into the ground/track. Improved RFD can be shown by the "decrease" of ground contact time during each stride. Shorter contact times means shorter total time you spend on the ground, which will contribute to your overall running time. Middle distance runners spends 0.17-0.23 seconds on each ground contact. A decrement of 0.01 per contact will contribute significantly to a higher running speed, and total running time. This reason is why the sprinters are faster (less ground contact time). Just like the sprinters, running form deteriorates over time during high intensity exercise due to fatigue. The stronger you are, the better the level of muscular endurance (with right training intervention), the longer you can hold the "neutral/good" running form. These adaptations contribute to a more efficient running biomechanics (e.g. leg swing, posture alignment), force transfer, and therefore improve running economy (which can increase the time to exhaustion).

So, the key of strength training is "correct implementation". The main obstacle is that you are not sure how to do it. If the strength session continuously disrupts your endurance sessions, you may want to decrease your strength training volume (as you may not got it right in the first place?). But bear in mind, just like track training, the strength training is highly individual. Below is a general guideline for exercise progression.

  • Movement function. The goal is to improve movement pattern, coordination, balance, and basic strength. Duration 4-6 weeks. 
  • General muscular endurance. Bodyweight circuits is a good structure of training during this phase. Exercises such as duck walk (with band), single leg deadlift (band), arabesque rotation, and burpees can be used. Duration 4-6 weeks.
  • Strength endurance. With or no weights, high repetition (12-18 reps), moderate movement's speed, shorter rest interval. Duration 4-6 weeks.
  • Muscular strength. Must target the specific muscles used for running. Limit the main exercises per session, 2-3 exercises, plus other (3-5) auxiliary exercises and core stability. Exercise example, half squat at 85% of 1RM performed 4-5 times (not to failure). Duration 4 weeks.
  • Power and power endurance. Repetitive exercises. Late pre-competition and early competition phase. Complex training can be a good choice. For example, 6 reps (with 70% 1RM weight) of bench press, followed by 6 reps med ball slam; 6 reps of lunge (weight), followed by 3 reps box jump and 3 reps drop jump.
  • Reactive or elastic strength. Exercises with light equipment such as medicine ball. Plyometrics exercises such as bounding, jump over hurdles, tuck jump, pogo jumps, and other single- and double leg hopping will be the choices. Total ground contact should be around 120 - 60 (decreasing) per session. This is performed during the competition phase. One or a maximum of twice sessions per week.
  • Explosive strength. Also known or defined as RFD (rate of force development), which can be developed with light (less than 30% of 1RM), medium, or heavy (more than 70% of 1RM) weights / equipment. In practical setting, explosive strength-type workout is performed in the same session with the power / power endurance exercises (e.g. complex training).
Running is a type of movement that involve slow stretch shortening cycle. It is therefore important for athletes to perform elastic strength-type exercises such as plyometrics and other bodyweight-based exercises.

However, one should take note that basic strength level must be sufficient before implementation of those training.

Also, there is the need to go for with heavy weights. Bear in mind that this is the only another time for you (runner) to experience the very high motor unit recruitment after the one during actual race. Hence, nervous system must be stressed for such purposes via the performance of strength training, i.e. 85% of 1RM (= 6RM) weight to be performed for 4-5 times, that is nearly to failure (but not to failure).

Below are examples of resistance-based training for runners (800m and up to marathon).

a) Bodyweight exercise (circuit) - early-season workout for experienced and highly-trained runners
  • Push up (30s) + squat (30s) ... rest interval 15s ... repeat 2 times.
  • Rest 1-min
  • Lunge (30s) + hip thrust ( 30s) ... rest interval 15s ... repeat 2 times.
  • Rest 1-min
  • Box step up (30s) + dips (30s) ... rest interval 15s ... repeat 2 times.
  • Rest 1-min
  • Split jump (30s) + dynamic plank (30s) ... rest interval 15s ... repeat times.
  • Rest 1-min
  • Leg up/raise for core (30s) + toe taps (30s) ... rest interval 5s ... repeat 2 times.
  • Rest 4-6 minutes. Repeat the whole protocol 1-2 more times.
b) Circuit training (combined light equipment and bodyweights)
  • SET 1 (30sec on, 15sec off, repeat 2 times (after 4-min rest)
  • Balance - Arabesque rotation
  • Lower and upper body - Stationary lunge and twist (2-5kg)
  • Upper body - Dumbbell bench press (5-15kg)
  • Lower body - Nordic hamstring curl
  • Lower body - Donkey whips
  • SET 2 (30sec on, 15sec off, repeat 2 times (after 4-min rest)
  • Lower body - Squat (20-40kg)
  • Upper body - Triceps push down (5-15kg)
  • Lower body - Hip flexion 
  • Whole body - Mountaineers
  • Lower body - Body crawl
c) Conventional and specific strength exercise - general guideline for exercise selection
  • Whole body - Power clean, snatch, suspended push up, TRX knee tucks. 
  • Upper body - Incline and bench press, bench pull, triceps pushdown, standing cable pull, rowing (variation), chin up, lateral pulldown.
  • Lower body - Squat (variation), lunges (variation), step up, hip flexion and extension, romanian deadlift, dynamic (multi) calf exercises*, hamstring curl (variation), hip thrust, abductors and adductors, donkey kicks (band).
  • Core stability - plank variation, swiss ball exchange, mountaineers, back extension, V-up, leg lift, dead bug, Russian twist.
  • Dynamic calf exercise - jump in place, pogo jump, ankle taps, X-jump, ladder drills (variation), hexagon jumps, quarter squat toe raise, farmers toes walk, eccentric heel drop (straight and bent knee). Note that all hop/jump performed at low height (less than 20cm).
d) Maximal strength - general guidelines
  • 2-3 sets of 5 reps of 85% 1RM, 3-5 rest between set, or alternate lower and upper body after 2-3 min rest; Can be 3 sets of 3 reps at 90% 1RM. Number of exercise per session can be 2-3, but it's not wrong with 5 exercises if you don't have any additional non-max strength exercises.
  • Duration around 4 weeks (ideally pre-competition); if your season is yearly long, although not continuously 8 total weeks is ideal; it is not uncommon to see 1-2 weeks of max strength session (1 session per week) in the middle of two important meets separated 6 weeks during competition phase.
  • Lower body - deadlift or sumo deadlift.
  • Lower body - 1/3 squat (upper part of lower body) - can be progressed from full squat, parallel squat, or half squat in a periodized plan, although these are done for different objectives (e.g. Olympic barbell full squat that emphasizes/aims at general conditioning).
  • Lower body - exercises such as calf raise from split leg or quarter lunge position (lower part of lower body) is seen as "more specific" to the sports.
  • Upper body - exercises such as bench pull, bench press, bent over row, and standing cable pull can be the choices.
For conventional strength or gym-based exercise, the goal should be to achieve sufficient strength "level" and "higher" neuromuscular coordination for the runners to be able to safely perform the more elastic strength activities (e.g. plyometrics).

During early season, conditioning sessions can be performed three times, 2 gym-based and 1 session of bodyweight circuit. One or two (maximum) sessions per week during pre- and competition phase.

Meanwhile, there are several reasons for strength assessment. Just like other sports, test results can help for monitoring progress, training feedback, and so on. However, the selection of tests is crucial. A coach should consider specificity aspect in regards to the type of muscular actions such as the type of movement, the pattern of movement, and muscle involvement (recruitment) when selecting the tests.

Tests such as half squat, incline press, and standing hip flexors can be considered by coaches in developing fitness tests for runners. The details and other assessments are as follows;

Strength. Tests should assess the ability of muscle to produce force specific to movement pattern and muscle recruitment in running.
  • Half squat
  • Bench pull / press
*note - refer 1RM procedure at the end.

Strength endurance. Tests should assess the ability of muscle to repetitively produce force specific to  movement pattern and muscle recruitment in running.
  • Split cycle jump.
Muscular ability (power). The tests should attempt to assess the ability of muscle to use the stretch shortening cycle (repetitively).
  • Vertical jump
  • Horizontal jump
  • Repetitive jump (or vertical or horizontal jumps)
Power (in watt). The tests should provide higher accuracy and less measurement error (compared with the above), and they should provide more detailed information, i.e. ground contact, rate of the rise of force (force development) and so on. Performed on force plateform or contact mat.
  • Countermovement jump
  • Drop jump (30cm)
  • Repetitive jump
  • Reactive Strength Index (RSI) 
Speed. Used to assess sprint acceleration and maximal velocity. The max velocity can be used for maximal sprinting speed reference (highest velocity can be performed at maximal sprinting).
  • 30 metres sprint or 50m speed (max velocity). Can be 80m sprint with first 30m and next 50m splits.
Speed endurance.
  • 400 metres run.
  • 60 seconds all-out.
  • 3 x 300 metres test. First test done at 80%, next two at 95-100%. Rest interval about 10-min. Key: Examine the decrements in times (in %). Lactate concentration can be also analysed.

  • For 1500m - 4 x 1-minute all out run, 2-min rest between runs. Examine the total distance covered.
  • For 10km - 4 x 2.4 km all out run, 2-min rest between runs, then 400m all-out sprint.
  • Ideally, lactate concentration at pre-, intermediate, and post of each run should be analysed.
  • 2-min plank hold
  • 12-level core stabilization
  • 60sec elbow plank (level 1), 60sec elbow plank hover, 60sec straight arm plank, by 60sec straight arm hover, and finally (level 5) 60sec straight arm side hover with wide leg (wide pushup grip)
1 RM procedure.
100% of maximum means the end of upper limit. Specifically, only 1 repetition (1RM) can be lifted successfully and attempt for the next lift (2nd) will be fail. According to NSCA, 90% of 1RM means one can lift just 4 reps (next one will fail). Further, 85% means 6 times, 80% means 8 times, 75% means 10 times, 70% means 12 times, and 65% means 15 times. Understanding this concept can facilitate the process of 1RM determination. Briefly, following is the procedure;
  • Warm up set - 50% of expected 1RM - lift 10 times.
  • 1st set - 70% of expected 1RM - lift 5 times
  • 2nd set - 80% of expected 1RM - lift 3 times
  • 3rd set - 90% of expected 1RM - lift 1-2 times (at this point make sure you have more clear idea about your maximum weight can be lifted, so you should know how much should increase)
  • Increase weight 2.5kg to 5kg for upper body, 5kg to 10km for lowerbody.
  • After determination of weight to be lifted, attempt maximum repetition you can do. If you lift one, means that's is your 1RM, if you lift 2 or 3 or 4 reps means 2RM or 3RM, or 4RM, respectively. You can now predict your 1RM (2RM must plus 2.5kg, R3M must plus 5kg, and son on. It should be 5kg increment per rep for lower body).
  • Done.
Research and coaching practice indicates that strength training can increase endurance running performance. Quality of training should determine the results and outcomes. Up to three conditioning or gym session can be conducted during early season, and and the number of session to be reduced during competition phase. Physical strength can also have benefits from injury prevention standpoint.

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