Strength Training For Runners: Part 2 - How, Why and When

Updated: Mar 8, 2018

Image: One of our online clients, James, joined us on our track day in Warrington


If you have not yet read part 1 of this series, I strongly suggest you do before continuing to read this post.


As discussed in part 1, economy is responsible for some of the performance differences between two athletes with a similar VO2max (Bassett and Howley, 1997) and it has been established that increasing maximal force production through strength training can lead to an improved economy as well as a reduced metabolic demand during endurance activities.


Beattie et al., 2014) has found that both economy and anaerobic power are influenced positively by specific strength training, which may be useful in sustaining endurance performance and increasing output during significant stages of an event, such as a sprint finish, for example.

There is additional evidence to suggest that economy is positively influenced by high intensity interval training, specific strength training and power training (Johnston, et al., 1997; Paavolainen et al., 1999; Saunders et al., 2006; Spurrs, Murphy and Watsford, 2003; Turner, Owings and Schwane, 2003).


Specific strength training to improve rate of force development and stiffness upon landing (Hoff, Gran, and Helgrud, 2002; Verkhoshanky, 1966; Caleb et al., 2015) has also been found to improve economy.


Many of these improvements are due to improvements in neuromuscular function (Zatsiorky, 1995). Positive neuromuscular adaptions/changes are experienced following training using high-force-low-velocity (HFLV) and low-force-high-velocity (LFHV) movements (Cormie, McGuigan and Newton, 2011).


Unfortunately, most endurance athletes do not perform such training (Maher et al., 2003).


Examples of HFLV movements are maximal squats and snatch grip deadlifts. Examples of LFHV movements are light squat jumps, snatch, bodyweight jumps, hops, skips, etc.

During the early stages of strength training, improvements are made primarily through an increase in motor-unit recruitment. This ultimately means an increase in the use of muscle you already have.


Personally, I have found that these improvements can be experienced and achieved quite quickly in individuals with little to no strength training experience.


The emphasis for the novice athlete should, be on maximal strength development prior to prescribing other, more specific and complex strength training methods such as eccentric (Beattie et al., 2014) and power training. During this early stage, any type of simple strength training with novices will demonstrate improvements in force production as a result in greater use of the neuromuscular system (Cormie, McGuigan and Newton, 2010; Kaneko et al., 1983).


It is very important to master the basics first, as the development of complex exercises will be limited if basic and general strength is yet to be maximised.


For the experienced strength-trained endurance athlete, a continual emphasis on each section of the force-velocity spectrum is required (Cormie, McGuigan and Newton, 2011).


In other words, strength and power programmes should target all of the force-velocity spectrum (Kraemar and Szivak, 2012; Silva, Nassis and Rebelo, 2016), including high-force-low-velocity (HFLV) and low-force-high-velocity (LFHV) movements.


Figure 1. Force Velocity Curve and respective exercises


It has been found that heavier strength training (>70-80% 1 Rep Maximum) improves performance more substantially than lighter strength training (<40% 1RM), as measured by economy, time to exhaustion, counter movement jump scores and speed at VO2max (Caleb, et al., 2015). Caleb et al. (2015) states, more specifically, that HFLV training has been shown to produce performance improvements over a larger portion of the force-velocity curve than LFHV, meaning, very heavy strength training may have greater benefits on endurance performance than any other training method.


Summary: HFLV and LFHV movements should be used in a strength & power training programme to improve rate of force production, stiffness upon landin and therefore economy, leading to improvements in endurance performance.

Summary: Initial improvements in the above are likely down to improvements in neuromuscular function. Novice runners and endurance athletes should focus on very basic heavy strength work whereas experienced athletes should train all aspects of HFLV and LFHV movements.

Summary: Very heavy strength training (>80% 1RM or >8RM) appears to have more benefit on endurance performance than lighter strength training methods.

Image: Me on a 16km trail run in and around Keswick, Lake District


Combining strength and endurance training can lift endurance performances to higher levels than endurance training alone (Caleb et al., 2015). The combination of both strength and endurance training is referred to as concurrent training.


Concurrent training may enable the endurance athlete to reach a greater level of endurance than by endurance training alone (Blagrove, 2013; Caleb et al., 2015), however something must give in order to prevent overtraining, fatigue and increased risk of injury.


To allow for the addition of strength training in an endurance athlete’s programme, it is advised that endurance training volume is reduced. According to Tønnessen et al. (2014), this is best accomplished by reducing endurance training volume by 41-60%, primarily through the reduction of session duration/length rather than training frequency. The authors of this paper state that it is important to maintain training intensity (speed) during this time.

If training frequency is maintained despite the reduction in volume, many high to elite-level athletes will be required to train more than once per day. If this is the case, then it is essential that adequate nutrition is emphasised to allow for Glycogen replenishment or refuelling. In other words, you must eat enough to recover from your training!


It is not advised to combine strength and endurance training in the same session.


Combining strength and endurance training in the same session may compromise improvements in strength, and therefore it is advised that sessions are separated and recovery time between sessions is maximised.


Both Kraemar and Szivak, (2012) and Blagrove, (2013) advise that endurance training is performed first, and the strength session later, with a window of at least 6 hours placed between training session (Kraemar and Szivak, 2012).


Summary: It may be difficult to find the time to add strength training into your current schedule. It is recommended that you reduce endurance session duration/length by 40-60% to make time for strength training and help reduce injury and illness risk from overtraining.

Summary: Do not perform strength and endurance training in the same session. Doing so will reduce the positive effects of strength training.

Summary: If you have to incorporate them both into the same day, ensure you separate the sessions by 6 or more hours and eat sufficient carbohydrates to replenish your glycogen stores.

In order to avoid unnecessary fatigue, I have found that strength training sessions should include a very limited number of exercises, with emphasis being placed on the concentric (driving) element of the movement, particularly if the athlete’s sport does not involve eccentric (lowering) loading, such as in the sport of cycling for example.


On the other hand, training to improve rate of force development and musculotendinous (muscle and tendon) stiffness is important for runners and athletes with a jumping component, and therefore eccentric strength must be included (Caleb et al., 2015; Østeras, Helgerud, and Hoff, 2002), provided that the volume of which does not cause the athlete to experience soreness that will affect their sport specific training.

The exercises used within a strength programme are particularly important. The transfer of strength into to specific sporting performance is dependent on limb and joint positions during an exercise (Stone and Stone, 2011), for example, exercises such as leg extensions may not provide adequate movement specificity for improvements sporting movements such as running.


Endurance sports predominantly require the hip, knee and ankle joints to operate together in order to produce force against the ground or pedal. It is for this reason that traditional multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts and single leg squat variations be used to improve maximal strength.


Movements such as jump squats and derivatives of the Olympic lifts can be used to improve explosive strength, and reactive/plyometric exercises such as drop jumps, hops and sprints can be used to improve reactive strength (Beattie et al., 2014) as well as musculotendious stiffness.


This improved level of strength and stiffness ultimately leads to a more forceful and robust athlete meaning that they can perform at a much higher level with less risk of injury.


Summary: Do what you can to limit fatigue. Reducing the eccentric (controlled lowering) phase of the exercise, for example, may help reduce the chance of soreness

Summary: The exercises used in the strength and power programme must be specific. For example, heavy squat variations are a better choice over leg extensions and leg curls.

Summary: Using strength, power and ballistic exercises to increase economy, force production and stiffness will help the athlete perform faster, for longer, with less risk of injury.

In part 3, I discuss the practical application and programme design of strength training for endurance performance.

If you'd like help with your training and nutrition, take a look at our services. You can work with us in-person or online. Regardless of your goals or experience, we can certainly help you improve your endurance performance.


#circuittraining #endurance #running #cycling #swimming #rowing #triathlon #weightlifting #strength #strengthtraining



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