There are many reasons why runners should engage in both strength training and speed work, but there are even more excuses why they don’t. This is certainly changing, but momentum is slow. Published numbers suggest that nearly 70% of runners sustain an injury every year. It is my belief this incidence is not due to some inherent aspect of running. Rather it is caused by overload from certain movement patterns and from training regimens that wear down an athlete hormonally and neurologically. Running injuries are common, but preventable.
With the advent, and perhaps passing, of the barefoot/minimalist running trend came research into gait patterns and injury reduction. The initial thought was that a midfoot or forefoot strike would decrease injury rates in most people. Further studies suggested that, like most things in medicine, the answer is much more individual. Without getting into the minutia, a forefoot or midfoot gait generally decreases the forces at the knee and hip. However, a heel striking gait will decrease forces at the ankle, so your ideal therapeutic gait alteration may depend on your injury. And there is much more to the mechanics than that! You cannot discount the position of the lower leg, thigh, hip, and pelvis throughout the gait. Much of the motion we see originates in the body’s core (pelvis, hips, abdominals, and the incredibly important “posterior chain” muscles that run down the back from the shoulder blades to the knees).
Much of the pain runners encounter is given a vague diagnosis with little research or clinical evidence to back it up. However, there is interesting work being done to evaluate movement patterns (gait analysis) and treat accordingly. Dr. Andy Franklyn-Miller at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin has led the way and had some fantastic success. He has coined a new term for these categories of injuries, recognizing that they are more of an aberrancy in movement as opposed to a problematic physiologic process. This “Biomechanical Overload Syndrome” is treated with correction of movement patterns, altering the force distribution and remedying the overload. Voila! No pain! Well, it’s not that simple.
What does all this have to do with strength training? Well, strength training is one of the best ways to address the movement patterns that lead to Biomechanical Overload Syndrome. Runners generally operate in a single plane of movement known as the “sagital” plane, from front to back. This continuous activity in a single direction leads to relative weaknesses in lateral movement and stabilization. When you are strong in one plane and weak in another, you create imbalances, which predispose you to injury. Imbalanced strength at the hip, for example, may cause the knee to move across the midline during your stride, setting you up for IT Band Compression Syndrome. Correcting these strength imbalances can aid in preventing or treating the problem.
Strength training can also be very beneficial to running performance, regardless of the distance. A powerful runner is a faster, more resilient runner. Body-weight exercises such as single-leg squats and lunges can help strengthen the posterior chain. Whether your preferred distance is 5K or the marathon, added strength (not muscular bulk!) will help you outperform your competition.
Another way to increase power and velocity is the proper use of speed work in training. “Speed work” has different meanings, but I intend this to encompass any training at speeds above your race-pace. My patients have likely tired of hearing this, but the only way to run faster is to run faster. You will not get appreciably faster by adding distance. You have to utilize intensity in your training. There are some important considerations. First, you need a strong core and appropriate gait mechanics when undertaking an intense training program. Should you attempt to further stress an improper gait and imbalanced body, you will get injured. How many times have you scoffed when a magazine or ad instructs you to “talk to your doctor before beginning an exercise program”? Well, this is a scenario where it probably does behoove you to talk to your sports medicine physician, review your injury history, undergo movement screening/gait analysis, and discuss an appropriate implementation of intensity. Then you can safely start to add speed to your training and racing.
As an added benefit, if not a primary one, the addition of high intensity training has very beneficial effects on your body hormonally and neurologically. Continued long, slow training causes prolonged moderate stress and over-activation of your parasympathetic nervous system. This can lead to fatigue, depression, weight gain, and diminishing performance (on the track, in everyday life, and even in bed!). The remedy is speed work and strength training.
So it all comes full circle. Strength training will make you faster and less prone to injury. It will allow you to tolerate higher intensity and the addition of speed work to your training regimen. This intensity will make you faster, more resilient, and generally healthier, but it can cause injury if imposed on a weak body. The successful implementation of these principles is very individual. Your physician will be happy to walk you through the process and insure you enjoy a fast, healthy race season.