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Strength Training Makes Faster Runners

Updated on June 14, 2007

"A runner with strong legs but weak arm muscles and weak core muscles will always be slower than a runner with total-body fitness."

Runners, with this is mind, we all need a little more strength training. Strength training is a smart supplement to a runner's roadwork because it strengthens muscles and joints, which can improve race times and decrease injury risk. "Running faster is easier if your whole body is working with you," says Jim Fischer, head coach of men's cross-country and track at the University of Delaware.

The trouble is when runners adopt a strength-training program, they tend to do the standard gym-rat routine--that is, bench presses, biceps curls, and leg extensions. While these moves might make you look good, they're virtually useless for making you a better runner. Think about it: How does pushing a weight away from your chest help you run a faster 10-K? It doesn't. In fact, lifting weights the way everyone else does may even increase your injury risk, because typical workouts often lead to strength imbalances between muscle groups and around joints.

That's why runners need a strength-training workout that targets key muscle groups and keeps them balanced. Our program is based on four basic principles that make it distinct from training plans that don't benefit running. The result? Big payoffs--decreased injury risk, increased performance--in little time. It takes less than 30 minutes, two days a week.

The Principles

1. Work your back side: People tend to neglect the muscles they can't see. They focus on their quadriceps and chest, and overlook their hamstrings and back. But building your posterior chain is especially important for runners. The muscles on the back of your lower body propel you forward and the muscles on the back of your upper body help you maintain an upright running stance. Slumping forward decreases your ability to run efficiently, requiring you to exert more energy. Many runners work their quads more than their hamstrings, creating a strength imbalance, which is the primary reason for recurrent hamstring injuries. Weak hamstrings also transfer stress to the knee joint.

2. Target Your Core: Core training is as trendy as Tae-Bo was in the '90s. But this is one fitness fad runners should embrace. Your core is the foundation from which all movement is initiated. It includes all the muscles of your midsection and hips that support your spine and allow you to flex, extend, and rotate your trunk and hips. A strong core gives you more than the confidence to race sans singlet; it improves your performance. Exercises that involve twisting your torso not only work your abs, they also strengthen your hips, which enable you to fire up a powerful stride and finish-line kick when the rest of the pack is fading.

3. Mix It Up: People tend to gravitate toward workouts that emphasize their natural abilities. Since runners are masters of endurance, it makes sense that in the weight room, we'd adopt the classic formula for building muscular endurance--light weights, high repetitions. But lifting heavier weights for fewer reps is necessary for increasing strength. Strong muscles enhance the stability of your joints--which reduces the wear and tear on ligaments--and make you a better sprinter and hill climber. Our program incorporates both lower repetition (six to eight) and higher repetition (10 to 15) sets. Afraid of bulking up? Don't be. Adding a significant amount of muscle requires a steady surplus of calories, which few runners have, and workouts that focus on muscle size, not performance.

4. Multitask: Running's your main gig, so you need a lifting program that won't infringe on your road time. The key to an efficient workout is emphasizing compound movements -- exercises that require you to move more than one joint at a time. For instance, exercises like rows and lunges give you greater benefits in less time than single-joint isolation exercises such as bicep curls and triceps extensions. Another way to get the most from a workout is to combine two movements into one. For example, rotating your torso as you perform a shoulder press doubles your gains.

See my Hubs "Strength Training For Runners: Plan A", "Strength Training for Runners: Plan B", and "Strength Training For Runners: Make the Switch" for great strength training workout plans!! And feel free to contact me with any questions you may have.

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