In the past two articles we established that there indeed is a connection between Ground Contact Time and various measures of running performance Furthermore, we established that our stand in for Running Economy, Running Effectiveness, is correlated as well. What can we do with that knowledge that will help us become better runners?
In order to spend time less on the ground while maintaining forward velocity we need to push harder with each step. To do so we must generate more force. Is follows that working on strength, specifically explosive strength, would be useful.
As in all training the approach must be methodical and progressive to make sure you body is prepared for the rigors to come. I think you would all agree that jumping into some heavy weight lifting is not the best idea if you have never done any resistance training before.
As a result, your approach towards incorporating resistance training into your overall training plan will have to follow some structure to ensure you are going to reap the rewards and improve instead of getting injured.
Most athletes have imbalances in their musculature as a result of years, or in some cases decades, of endurance training. Single sport athletes are at risk of having more pronounced imbalances due to the repetitive nature of their movement patterns. What often happens is that a small imbalance is created from an injury or excess fatigue in a muscle or muscle group.
As the body naturally attempts to compensate, the imbalance grows and starts affecting other parts of the kinetic chain. In many cases athletes are not even aware that this is occurring, thus engraining the “new” movement pattern even further. The result in many cases is injury, string of injuries or the belief you are “injury prone”.
Your natural reaction is to cut or modify training to avoid the injury and this often leads to decreased performance.
This is why I always recommend athletes start a balance and coordination phase of strength training after the season has ended. This allows for some rest before structured training resumes but also addresses the imbalances that may have established themselves during the season. Another benefit is that this phase, lasting 6-12 weeks depending on the athlete, serves as the foundation for further progression in the strength training plan.
Soft tissue, ligaments and tendons are strengthened and are made ready for later, more intense, phases of training. The post season is a great time to start this as it will give you a break from regular training and provide variety to your routine. It is also great preparatory work for the base period. I often schedule it during the transitional period or early off season and run it through the middle/end of the General Preparatory Phase of training.
The principal focus is your Core. Core does NOT refer to your six-pack abs! Your core is the entire midsection of your body, the anchor from which your peripheral musculature in your arms and legs draws leverage to generate power. A weak core will not allow a stable platform for you arms and legs to work efficiently, making you more wasteful and slower.
You may very well find yourself floundering during seemingly easy exercises. Don’t be surprised, most of us have never performed these before. Don’t be discouraged, your body will adapt quickly, and you will progress faster than you expect.1
How does this relate to decreasing Ground Contact time and becoming a better runner? Have you ever seen an athlete who appears to flop around when they run? Were they the fastest athlete in the race or team? I’m not trying to pick on anyone, I’m just trying to offer an example.
Excessive upper body movement combined with a weak platform for the legs to anchor to leads to way more energy expenditure than is required for the activity performed. This leads to greater inefficiency and thus lower speed per unit of effort. Having a Strong Core is the first step to improving as a runner.
Once your core is strong and stable and you have eliminated imbalances in how your musculature fires when called upon, you can move to the next phase of resistance training to improve your running effectiveness and economy. This second phase is the strength phase. You would have the start of this phase coincide with the last 1-2 mesocycles of your General Preparatory Phase of training.
As the name suggests, this is the time you work on increasing your strength and, where it is called for, muscle mass. While not a strictly body building style program, the focus is muscle hypertrophy. It goes without saying that at this point, given the loads involved it is very important to be focused on performing the exercise correctly rather than lifting the most weight possible.
Correctly performing the lift with less weight will be far more effective at building strength than “cheating” with bad form while lifting more. Not only will you not engage the desired muscles, you exponentially increase the probability of injury. Focus ion FORM!2
This phase should last between 4-8 weeks depending on the athlete, the length of the Off and Pre seasons as well as base training. Once it is complete your body will have not only developed more strength, but it will have also developed stronger and more resilient soft tissue as well as new and improved movement patterns that will translate into your running.
You are now ready for the Power Phase of your resistance training program.
The Power Phase of training is short lived but intense, usually lasting 3-5 weeks straddling the end of the Specific Preparation and Pre-Competition Phases of training.
During this phase you will work on developing the explosiveness required in your sport related movement. It has been shown that maximal power is NOT developed with the heaviest weights. Power is defined by work divided by time. We can re-order the formula yielding Force x Velocity. This means that it is not only about the weight but the speed with which you lift it.
It has been shown that maximum power is often achieved with relatively light loads (40-80% of 1Repetition Maximum) as they allow you to move them with a high velocity. It is important to perform movements that are running specific and move with speeds comparable to what you would during the activity itself. 3
I often include power focused resistance exercises early in this phase and then transition to plyometrics as the athletes gains confidence and moves closer to in season training. It is very important to stress that this type of training is very high impact and a little bit goes a LONG way. It is easy to overdo it, so err on the side of caution!
As with the strength phase, form is paramount. With the increased speed and resulting high power output of the movements, injury is always a major concern and care must be taken to prevent them.
As you move through this phase and transition into Plyometrics your movement patterns will become increasingly more running specific. As with the weight lifting, make sure you don’t overdo the workload and focus on good form to prevent injuries.4
Studies have shown significant improvements in running economy through lab testing after strength and plyometrics were introduced in training and these resulted in significantly faster running.
To my knowledge, no data is currently available substantiating the effects of Strength Training to Running Effectiveness – RE is still a relatively new metric allowed by the recent introduction of wearable and affordable running power meters.
However, the results of numerous studies confirmed the improved Running Economy, sustained speed and speed to cardiac output resulting from the addition of strength training, especially Explosive Power focused training, to an athlete’s schedule.
I believe it is a straightforward logical step to assume that RE will benefit similarly to the other measures we have already shown correlate highly with it. Running Effectiveness quantifies the athlete’s ability to convert effort into horizontal speed. By improving the body’s ability to produce and deploy that effort in an effective manner you will become a faster and more efficient runner.
As you enter the Race Season, and thus the Competition Phase of your training, you will transition into the maintenance phase of strength training to allow your focus and energy to be devoted to race specific preparation. All the hard work performed in the gym will have a positive impact in your performance in this phase and it will help you achieve your racing goals.
Exercise Example Appendix
Core Balance and Stabilization Exercises Examples
- introduce variations that promote instability at your contact points. Bosu Ball or exercise ball for hands and/or feet. Raise one hand and reach in an arc. Use dumbbells and alternate raising one hand in a rowing motion. Work your way to 2-4 minutes per plank with 3-4 repetitions
- Introduce variety with rotation of upper arms down and underneath your torso.
- Lying face down on the floor, lift your legs, arms and chest off the floor and hold for 30 seconds before relaxing. 4 reps. Work your way to 1 minute each.
- kneel on hands and knees and list opposite arm and leg and hold for 3-5 seconds before returning to the starting position.
Exercise Ball Knee Extension
- Balance your shoulders on an exercise ball and plant both feet on the ground with your thighs parallel to the ground. Extend one leg slowly and under control, not allowing your hip to drop. Maintain your balance. 2-4 sets of 10 reps each leg.
- Lie on your back with knees bent and your feet flat on the floor approximately 1 foot from your buttocks. Place both arms down along your sides. Raise your hips and extend one knee until your knee, hips and shoulders are in a straight line. You may push down with your hands but try not to. Hold for 30 seconds then relax. 5 reps per side.
Back bridge with Extension
- With your shoulders on the ground and your heel on an exercise ball, drive your hips upward until your back and hips are in a straight line. Then extend one legs while balancing on the exercise ball with you other foot. Keep your balance as well as your hips even.
Exercise ball knee drives
- With your toes on the ground, balance on an exercise ball with your forearms. With your back neutral and your hips even, alternate driving your knees forward towards the ball. Then, drive it forward and to the inside. Then Forward and to the outside. Do a total of 2 sets of 10 reps for each driving direction to start.
- Either in an upright ab stand or hanging from a bar. Lift your legs keeping them as straight as possible at first then bending as necessary until you have reached a maximum flexion. You lower back should be rounded at this point to engage your abdominal muscles. Slowly return to the starting position making sure you eliminate all the momentum so your legs do not swing past vertical. Repeat, alternating left, center and right side. 2-4 sets of 9-15 reps.
Lower Back Extensions
- On a Roman Chair or lower back stand start with your back bent forward so your head is pointing towards the ground. In a controlled and smooth motion lift your
Maximum Strength Exercises Examples
- starting with dumbbells allows for slower and safer progression before moving to a bar then weighted bar in a squat rack
Forward Step Lunge
- Forward step into a lunge before returning to a standing position
- Progress from dumbbells to bar to allow for adaptation
- One legged step up to a box or platform 12-18 inches off the ground. Progress from unweighted to dumbbells to bar
Deadlift, Stiff-Leg Deadlift, Romanian Deadlift, Single Leg Deadlift
- Provides variety and slightly different muscle firing patterns to provide the most benefit
- Focus on FORM and start unweighted until you have mastered the movement before adding weights.
- Place the bar in a balanced position on your upper back and shoulders, feet shoulder width apart, chest up and out and head slightly tilted upwards
- Allow the hips to flex, buttocks moving straight back while maintaining a neutral spine as you bend forward lowering the bar.
- Raise the bar by extending the hips, maintaining your back neutral until you reached your starting position.
Power Exercises Examples
- Power Clean
- Jump Squats
- Split Jump Squats
- Single-Leg Ankle Hop
- Jump over barrier
- Standing Long Jump
- Power Skip
Falls to Earth with forward Hop
- Stand on a step or box approximately 6-12 inches in height. With ankles, knees and hips slightly flexed lean forward and step off the box with one foot. Do not reach down and touch the ground with the leading foot and keep your trailing foot on the box, allow yourself to free-fall for a time. When the leading foot hits the ground, explosively hop forward spending as little time as possible on the ground. Land on your leading foot and maintain balance for 3 seconds. Repeat seven times per leg.
- Over time increase to 2 sets of 12 reps each per leg. Then, increase the height of the box, working up to a little more than knee height.
Box Jumps – Single or Double
- Stand in front of a 12-24 inch box or bench. Explosively jump up onto the box from your standing position. 10 reps per leg if doing single leg.
- Progress by working up to 2 sets of 12 reps per leg. Then, increase the height of the box or step.