The idea that distance runners should regularly do strength work to avoid injury has become pretty popular in recent years. It can indeed be very helpful for performing your best, and as a human being your fitness needs include other things besides running. But there are some significant potential pitfalls to be aware of if you’re planning to start strength training for running.
The main idea here is that running puts a lot of demand on the body. If all you do is run, you might not have the strength to handle it. Strength training corrects your weaknesses and gives you the ability to hold good form.
The problem with this idea is that it puts the cart before the horse–in this case, the strength before the movement pattern.
In reality, running strengthens the muscles needed for running. If any of your muscles that should be strong from running–for example, your glutes–aren’t, that’s because you don’t know how to run in a way that uses them.
Doing a bunch of squats, lunges, and bridges to strengthen them won’t change the fact that you don’t know how to use them when you run.
On the other hand, learning how to run in a way that uses your glutes will make them stronger. And then you won’t need to do all those extra exercises just to have the strength to run safely.
So if you have weaknesses, the first thing to address is how you’re moving, rather than doing extra exercises to fix the weakness. And fundamentally, if you’re moving properly, you actually don’t need to do strength training to stay healthy as a runner.
There’s a popular idea that good running form takes a lot of strength, and you need to really build your strength in order to be able to hold your form.
As I’ve written many times before, this doesn’t make any sense. Good running form means using your body the way it was really meant to work for running. After all, this isn’t just a sport–it’s a fundamental human gait. We evolved to do it, and the ability is built into our anatomy.
Using your body the way it was meant to work is a lot easier than trying to force it to work some other way.
So when you truly improve your form, running actually gets easier and requires less strength.
If the running form you’re aiming for requires you to build up a lot of strength, it’s not actually good form. I’ve seen many runners, especially elite ones, who are so strong that they can run with very inefficient form and not really notice it’s hard.
This is, I think the biggest danger of strength training for runners: you spend a lot of time and energy getting strong enough to run in a dysfunctional way without getting hurt. Enough strength will potentially do that for you, at least for awhile.
You might be thinking, “so if it keeps you healthy, what’s wrong with it?”
What’s wrong is that you’re only a shadow of the runner you have the potential to be.
Seeing really strong runners wasting their strength fighting their bodies makes me sad, to be honest. All that strength could be channeled into more speed and endurance, and you could be feeling a whole lot better doing it.
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Elite athletes include strength and conditioning work in their training so that can compete at a high level. This work is for the purpose of running faster, and that’s perfectly reasonable.
The devil is in the details here, though, because not all strength training exercises are compatible with good running form. Some exercises build bad movement habits for runners and therefore end up hurting performance.
For instance, core exercises focused on holding the core still and square, including planks, dead bugs and any exercise where you move your legs while trying to keep your pelvis immobile, tend to interfere with the core movement necessary for good running.
Spending a lot of time on these exercises will make you really strong but backfire when it comes to performance. One particularly striking example of a very strong athlete who could have run much faster was Sara Dossena in the 2017 NYC Marathon.
While not every single strength training exercise you do has to be an exact match with the movements of running, most of them should be. It’s especially important to put them at the end of your workout so that’s the coordination you walk out of the gym with.
So it’s fine to squat, but follow that up with some lunges. You can use some machines, but follow that with free weights in full-body movements. You’ll find more comprehensive guidelines here.
And most of all, remember that, as a runner, the whole focus of your sport is moving through space. So make it the focus of your gym work too, and don’t get caught in the trap of training to hold yourself still.
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.