Strengthening for Runners – Why?
Strengthening for runners is aimed at not only injury prevention but also performance enhancement and it is a vital part of a runners training program although one that is so often overlooked. Many people make the mistake of thinking that the act of running several times a week is enough as you are strengthening the legs as you go. This thought process matches the FITT principle of Specificity which basically states that your training should focus on whatever you are competing in. Whilst this is true on the whole (you wouldn’t train for a marathon by cycling!), it is also important to train in other ways to overload your legs and to also strengthen them in ways which are not achieved when running, but can benefit your running form.
Strengthening the Glutes
The hips are of great importance to runners. The muscle balance at the hip affects not only the hip joint but also the alignment at the knee joint and can lead to injuries such as bursitis, IT band syndrome and patellofemoral pain syndrome.
Whilst every case is different, the most common muscle weaknesses at the hip are in the glute, or bum, muscles. Gluteus maximus is the largest of the bum muscles which acts to extend the hip joint. This muscle often becomes inhibited and doesn’t function efficiently when the hip flexors (at the front of the hip) are tight. This tends to happen in those who are sat down a lot throughout the day. Stretching the hip flexor muscles will often be sufficient to ‘switch on’ the glute max muscle, but additional exercises which as bridges, squats and lunges will also help.
Also in the glute group is the Gluteus Medius muscle. This muscle sits at the back of the hip, just below the rim of the pelvic bone. Its job is to abduct and medially (internally) rotate the hip. If this muscle is weak, the hip adducts (the thigh moves in towards the midline of the body) and the knee falls inwards. This puts the runner at risk of injuries to the knee joint such as mentioned above. There are many great exercises which can help to strengthen this muscle, such as the clam exercise and the hip hitch (or drop).
Strengthening the Thigh Muscles
The thigh muscles consist of the Quadriceps at the front, the Hamstrings at the back and the Adductor (or groin) muscles on the inner thigh. All of these contribute when running, but for me the Quads are the most important. These 4 muscles work together to straighten the knee. They have a big impact on the knee cap as this small bone sits within the combined tendon of these four muscles. Weakness or inhibition in the medial quads (as well as increased tension in the lateral quads) can contribute to patella mal-tracking problems, and even subluxation and dislocation injuries. A lack of eccentric strength in these muscles can also contribute to patella tendonitis.
VMO (vastus medialis oblique) strengthening using end range knee extension is a great exercise for runners to ensure smooth patella gliding. This can be done in a seated position with the knee over a rolled up towel, or in standing using a rehab band to resist the backward movement of the knee.
Strengthening the Lower Leg
The lower leg muscles are the calf muscles (mainly Gastrocnemius and Soleus), the shin muscles including Tibialis Anterior and the Peroneals on the outer leg. All of these muscles can cause injury problems if they are not strong enough for the task. The most common example is Achilles tendonitis (tendinopathy). Strengthening the calf muscles eccentrically using heel drop exercises is a great idea to help prevent this injury.
The peroneal muscles and their tendons on the outside of the lower leg can also become irritated in a similar way to the Achilles tendon. These muscles can be strengthened using eversion movements (where the foot turns outwards) with an ankle weight or resistance band.
Tibialis posterior is a muscle found very deep in the calf and the tendon runs behind the inner ankle bone and down onto the foot. Again this tendon can become degenerated and strengthening the muscle can help prevent this. Resisted inversion (turning the sole of the foot in) will do this.
Frequency and Intensity
So, we’ve established that strengthening is important for runners and discussed what sort of exercises are recommended. But how much should you do them?
Well, this varies depending on your current levels of both strength and running training. But for most people, strength training should be performed at least once a week and ideally twice. This can be done on a rest day, a cross training day or at the end of a short run.
The aim of strengthening for injury prevention in distance running is endurance, not power and this should be reflected in the number of reps and sets you perform. Low weights with high reps is the best approach and somewhere in the region of 2 sets of 15-20 reps should be suitable. Ensure that you are working hard and at the end of the last set you feel that you couldn’t do any more. This will initially take a little time to get right as you play about with weights and that’s not a bad thing. Start with a low weight and get the technique right. Build the weight each session, until you are at the right weight for your current level. This can then be increased every few sessions, once you feel ready to progress.