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Strength training for runners…..what’s the evidence?

Strength training for runners…..what’s the evidence?? It would seem logical to me as a runner, and as a chartered Physiotherapist, that strength training would minimise injury and enhance performance, however the science is lacking. And these days it’s all about the science! The following two papers lend support to the role to strengthening in terms of injury prevention and performance enhancement.

In 2013 Lauersen et al carried out a meta analysis, entitled “The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries”. Meta analyses are considered a bench mark of evidence based practice, as they compare and contrast existing research in the area and offer an up to date consensus. Here, the authors reviewed 25 studies in total, and concluded that “strength training decreased sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved”. These are astonishing results. If there were pills out there that boasted such benefits we’d all be popping them, so.. why are we ignoring strength training. I do acknowledge that the study was not specifically about running and the exercises were varied, however it cannot be dismissed.

Recent support for performance gains, was provided in this 2014 study, which looked at “The Effect of Strength Training on Performance in Endurance Athletes”. The authors concluded that current research supports the addition of strength training in terms of improved economy, muscle power and performance. However, the authors do suggest that methods of assessing strength as well as the appropriate selection of strength exercises, for example which exercises, the load needed etc., need to be further investigated. It’s a good start though!

So it seems strengthening may have its place…but why?

There are a number of reasons strength training may be beneficial, including increased strength, tissue adaptation, coordination and increased neuromuscular efficiency. You can generally tell by looking at someone’s running style whether they are new to the sport or years pounding the roads. Just like everything in life, the more we practice, the better we get, the more fluid and seamless it all appears to the outside world. The reason this happens is neuromuscular efficiency and coordination. However running alone is not going to cut the mustard! A very interesting paper was published this year showing that “leg strength declined in older adults despite habitual endurance exercise”. I’d like to point out here that the study looked at runners aged over 48. Don’t be offended, 48 is still young…it did say OLDER not OLD adults!!The authors concluded that “resistance training be an integral component of a fitness program, and that running alone was not sufficient to prevent the loss in muscle strength”.

But how can you get faster and improve performance through bulking up? It is not about building bulk, it’s is about creating adaptation and functional strength. Strength training should be as running specific as possible. The phases of running need to be broken down and analysed, to determine the biomechanics and muscle recruitment patterns. The goal of strength training should be to address and improve control, stabilisation, strength and proprioception. Core, leg and proprioception work are essential, as well as functional drills. Specificity is key to feeding forward into an athlete’s running technique. Here is some further reading from a coaches point of view, with some excellent insight into running technique and strengthening.

Finally just to touch upon muscle physiology. Another reason why strength training may improve your performance is its capacity to change muscle composition. A 2011 study entitled the “Effects of resistance training on endurance capacity and muscle fiber composition in young top-level cyclists”, showed that a 16 week strength and endurance programme resulted in a reduced number of type IIx fibres and a concurrent increase in type IIa fibres. Type IIa are thought to be more fatigue resistant and so would have an important effect on endurance . . . In summary; runners like to get up and go. No warm up, no stretch, no thinking..just head off and enjoy the ride. But do you want to improve your running economy, aerobic ability, coordination, overall performance and injury resilience? If the answer is yes then strengthening should now become part of your approach to running. No matter how recreational your running is, science supports strengthening. Specificity will yield greater results but generic exercise, for the major muscle groups involved in running, will not see you too far wrong.

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