read Running for Beginners: Can Strength Training Help Prevent Injuries?

Running for Beginners: Can Strength Training Help Prevent Injuries?

A woman doing strength training exercises

It is often hard to convince endurance runners to strength train. Runners often view gym-goers as big, heavy, and bulky people, who are the complete opposite of an efficient and agile endurance athlete. While it is true that the heavy body-builder frame is not well equipped for endurance events, they also train extremely differently from runners in the gym. 

For example, if the goal for gym junkies is to put on muscle, they will spend hours in the gym lifting heavyweights. On top of that, these athletes are eating enormous quantities to assist with muscle mass gains. 

This is completely different from the goals of a runner when they enter the gym. Yes, the goal is to get stronger and become more powerful, but runners only need to strength train twice per week. Moreover, with the rest of the weekly routine dedicated to endurance training (running), your body will prioritize this mode of training, and adapt to this stimulus. In other words, you will receive the same strength gains required for running performance without putting on unnecessary muscle mass. 

Role of strength training for overall health

Assume that you have three energy buckets in your running inventory. These include endurance, strength, and power buckets. As recreational runners, most of us regularly tap into the endurance bucket and fill it up throughout the week while running. However, tapping into these other buckets through strength training can help elevate your running performance, increase your running resiliency, and transform you into a better all-around athlete.  

Work done by Richard Blagrove has revealed that a heavy-weight-low-repetition approach to strength training has tremendous benefits to running performance. These include:

  • Higher force production during push-off; this means you have more power when you push off the ground, leading to greater stride lengths and improved running efficiency
  • Building a greater ‘speed reserve’; this is needed for those sprint finishes at the end of your race or mini-surges of speed in the middle of your race
  • Increasing muscle fiber activation; essentially, recruiting more muscle fibers to work for you when a muscle is activated, which results in a more efficient muscle unit 
  • Greater tendon elasticity/efficiency to help you have a more economical and effective run instead of ‘running sloppy’ stiff tendons 

Also read: Should Beginners Focus on Running More or Running Faster?

How can strength training help prevent injuries?

Running-related injuries are primarily caused by an overload that exceeds the capacity of certain body tissues. For instance, your left Achilles tendon has a particular capacity that it can tolerate. If your running training resulted in an overload that surpasses this capacity, it will start producing symptoms like pain and stiffness. If ignored, overtime, this can develop into an injury known as Achilles tendinopathy.  With this in mind, it is easy to see how strength training can have a positive impact.

If your strength training involves slow, heavy loads that progress in difficulty over a period of months, your tendon capacity will increase, making it more difficult to surpass its injury threshold

A famous systematic review conducted by Lauersen and colleagues concluded that “Strength training reduced sports injuries to less than 1/3 and overuse injuries could be almost halved”. This is a very profound finding, but runners should interpret this carefully. While it seems to make sense that strength training will decrease your risk of injury, this study in particular didn’t find papers that looked specifically at runners. 

Another study by Toresdahl and colleagues looked at 720 runners preparing for the New York Marathon and were randomized into the control group (regular marathon training) or a strong group. The study concluded that the “self-directed strength training program did not decrease overuse injury incidence resulting in marathon non-completion”. Keep in mind that this approach consists of lighter resistance exercises, which are not ideal for increasing running performance.

While the research is yet to reveal a direct correlation between strength training and reducing running injuries, strength training is still highly recommended by running researchers.

Also read: Coming Back from an Injury? Here Are Some Important Things to Remember

Ideal strength training exercises for runners

1. Squats 

Most commonly, with a barbell across the shoulders, squats are a great exercise to build strength in your quads. Variations include goblet squats, single-leg squats, and box squats.

2. Lunges 

You can perform weighted lunges with either a barbell across your shoulders or holding onto dumbbells on each side. Taking large steps forward, you should get an adequate activation of your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Some variations include weighted walking lunges and bodyweight plyo lunges. 

3. Calf raises 

It is recommended that runners perform both straight leg and bent knee calf raises to build the strength of the entire calf complex. Most gyms have seated calf raise machines and a standing weight calf raises machine. 

4. Deadlifts 

If you are unfamiliar with the deadlift action, then you may seek assistance from a personal trainer. This workout can play a pivotal role in building your hamstring strength and gluteal muscles.

Even though the available research is skimpy when it comes to injury prevention, it is still a crucial piece to the running puzzle based on its performance benefits. And if it contributes to injury prevention, that is just a cherry on top. So, strength train twice a week with the goal of progressive, slow, and heavy loading and start reaping the performance benefits on race day. 

References
1. Blagrove R, Howatson R, et al Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Sports Med (2018) 48: 1117–49.
2. Toresdahl B, McElheny K, Metzl J et al. Randomized Study of a Strength Training Program to Prevent Injuries in Runners of the New York City Marathon.Sports Health (2020) 12: 74-79.  
3. Lauersen J, Bertelsen DM,  et. al. The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Br J Sports Med (2013).
4. Blagrove R. Strength and Conditioning for Endurance Running: Crowood Press 2015.

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