Strength Training For Endurance Runners With Applications To Other Events


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We'd call Scott Christensen one of American track & field's "working class heroes." Scott labors in the vineyards at the high school level, turning out championships teams and athletes at Minnesota's Stillwater High School ( since 1981 ). Yet he's also a presence on the national scene, being a Level II and III instructor for USATF's Coaching Education program and is national chairman of the endurance committee for USATF. Scott has presented at more than 50 clinics nationwide, is the North Central Section Chairman of the American Alpine Club, and has completed 10 Boston Marathons ( and 15 others ). And he still finds the time to write articles on track & field, including for Scholastic Coach and Athletic Director and NTSA Journal of Human Biology. This is his third article for Track Technique/Track Coach. 

     "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way," writes Mark Twain. And so it is with strength training for endurance runners. There are physiological and biomechanical adaptation specificities resulting from proper strength training that can be achieved in no other way.
     Endurance runners will become better athletes through intelligent utilization of strength training (Zatsiorsky, 1995). As they become better, stronger athletes, they will post faster times through better performances.
     Seemingly forever, most distance runners have resisted a structured strength training program for a variety of reasons. They do not have the time to spend on it, they do not have access to facilities, they are embarrassed by their lack of strength compared to other athletes on the team, or they just lack the drive to do it.
     The assumption has been that running alone is enough to reach full performance potential. With the con- temporary research on endurance training and resulting performance, we can now conclude that to achieve championship success in track and field's endurance events we must take a four-cornered approach. The model should look like this:




Gymboss Timers

    The preceding diagram shows the importance of all four corners and sides in maintaining the training model. It also indicates the two periodized workout plans forming the base and the support protocols holding up the sides.
     In essence, successful performance in endurance training depends on many physiological, biochemical, psychological and nutritional factors. A critical factor in the physiological domain is the force production of the contracting musculature. While any running at all certainly satisfies the definition of force production, it has been proven that a greater force production must be generated to achieve a more desirable training effect for greater adaptation.
     One component of training for performance that addresses this point is specific, targeted, resistance training. Resistance training accurately describes all types of strength training. It is widely thought that weights are the only real type of strength training, but indeed any work done against any type of resistance builds strength. Simply running up a hill, or into a wind, is resistance work and thus builds strength.
     Scientific research reviewed in 1999 shows that concurrent resistance and aerobic training does not inhibit either's development. Runners who avoid resistance training for fear it will compromise their performance fail to realize that resistance training leads to physiological adaptations, both acute and long-term that will actually improve performance (Bompa, 1998).
     The physiological gains from progressive resistance work include: increases in capillarization in the muscle fiber, increased availability of fuel to the muscles, improved muscular endurance through increases in cell mitochondria, increased inter-cellular fiber density, stronger bones, and stronger connective tissue (Zatsiorsky, 1995). These will all benefit the distance runner. Additionally, other biomotor benefits include increases in flexibility and greater coordination of the entire organism.
    When designing resistance training workouts, it is important to account for the unique physiological demand of the sport through the "specificity of training" principle. This refers to adaptations in the metabolic and physiological systems, de- pending on the mode of training imposed. For endurance runners, results from research indicate that strength development may in fact enhance running economy and protect against injury (Bompa, 1996).
     Modern research indicates that low volume resistance training of moderate to high intensity, when incorporated into an endurance training program will significantly improve upper and lower body strength as well as running economy (Dolezal and Potteiger, 1996).
     Running is a whole body exercise, not just an action performed by the lower extremities. The benefits from increased upper body strength help delay fatigue in the arms and postural muscles during the race (Dudley and Fleck, 1987).
     Common sense tells us that when a miler complains about tightness and weakness in the shoulders during a race that the shoulder area needs some strength work. This is far from being accurate. What has really happened is that the farthest peripheral muscle groups (hand and wrist area) fatigue first. As the race goes on the fatigue moves from the peripheral areas to the central area (shoulder), fatiguing all muscle groups along the way. The athlete should be strengthening the more peripheral groups, to delay the onset of fatigue, and thus sparing the big muscle groups.
     Once the big muscle groups in the shoulder fatigue, the diaphragm compresses and the performance will dramatically suffer. As the muscles become fatigued, they may compromise the efficiency of movement and increase the oxygen demand for running as additional motor units are recruited. That demand will not be met with a compressed diaphragm.
     Moreover, greater leg strength also enhances mechanical efficiency and motor unit recruitment patterns.

Oxygen cost at each running speed may be reduced if a more efficient pattern is induced through an increase in leg strength (Martin and Coe, 1998). Simply put, improvement of running economy has significant benefits in training the other physiological aspects of endurance systems.
     Another benefit from resistance training is the that it may protect against injury. Overuse injuries are often associated with the repetitive overload typical of running activities. During running, the lower extremity must absorb a force up to five times body weight at heel strike. For the endurance runner who logs many miles each week, and therefore has millions of heel strikes each year, the cumulative effects of impact can be traumatic (Renstrom, 1992).
     Muscle weakness and imbalance are factors associated with impact- related overuse injuries. It would seem that resistance training is imperative for ensuring that there be little or no damage to the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments from the high-intensity loads placed on the body during training or competition.
     Muscle imbalance implies an incorrect strength ratio of the agonist and antagonist muscles in an extremity, or asymmetry in agonist or antagonist muscles between the extremities. A distance runner may be at a higher risk of sustaining an injury for example, if his hamstring-to-quadricep ratio is 60% or less in one leg (Sale and MacDougall, 1990).
     A resistance training program targeted to developing balanced strength between the extensors and flexors of the hips and legs will ensure safe execution of the powerful strides so essential for end-of-the-race sprints to the finish.
     Strengthening the muscles of the feet, legs, and trunk in order to relieve strain on the spinal column is also a good reason for the endurance runner to perform resistance training on a regular basis.
     Strengthening the feet has become an acute problem. Properly fit training shoes have become so sophisticated that the muscles of the feet do not have to develop strength for support. A certain amount of bare-foot running on the grass during each microcycle should give the strength training necessary to develop this support.
     Adaptations to the large muscle groups, upper and lower body, are of critical importance since running is primarily a large muscle group activity. It is called the "pillar strength" of the athlete. Postural muscle groups are of particular importance because of the effects of gravity and its contribution to fatigue in running.



Just as with aerobic, anaerobic, and combined zone training, periodization for endurance running events must include an organized approach to whichever strength components are critical to the specific event and to the individual athlete. Training for strength must be sequential and progressive in its development through the course of the macrocycle. Each endurance running event, middle distance and/or distance, will demand different adaptations and strength capabilities. Middle distance has a much greater explosive component than the 10K.
     The annual plan for strength training resembles that of the annual running plan. The basic model is that of the well documented Matveyev research, and is based on progressive loading, adaptation, and reversibility (Matveyev, 1972). Absolute strength takes the longest to develop and may take several months to achieve maxi- mum training effect (Zatsiorsky, 1995).
     Elastic strength takes the least amount of time for adaptation at about 20 days (Zatsiorsky, 1995). Much of the resistance work is actually just "body weight" exercises, however absolute strength and strength endurance can only be achieved by workloads in excess of body weight. 

    Resistance work has five general categories:

(ND) Neuromuscular Development Drills,

(RF) Running Form Programming Drills,

(GS) General Strength Drills, 

(P) Plyometrics, and 

(W) Weights, which are divided into:

Absolute Strength (high tension-low velocity), 

Power Strength (moderate tension-moderate velocity), 

Strength Endurance (moderate tension-high velocity), and 

Speed Strength (low tension-high velocity) (Burt, 1992).

    Only in the weights category do you need to spend time in the weight room. The rest are done out- side, inside, wherever work can be done.
     A possible annual plan is based on championship competitions around June I, and November I. It is matched with corresponding developmental work that is part of the running plan. Phases and microcycles should be complimentary. When you are doing base work running, you are doing absolute strength work, and when you are emphasizing speed running, you are doing the same with the resistance work. The idea is to do some of the five categories each month, but not all five. The weights build from general to specific. Here is a possible annual plan:

September: ND Training, RF Programming, as Drills, and W-Absolute Strength (85-95% absolute 

October: ND, RF, GS, W-Power Strength (70-80% absolute max).
November: ND, RF, W-Power Strength
December: ND, RF, W-Strength Endurance (50-65% of absolute max).
January: ND, GS, W-Strength Endurance.
February: ND, GS, W-Absolute Strength.
March: ND, RF, GS, W-Power Strength.
April: ND, RF, P, W-Speed Strength (30-40% absolute max).

May: ND, RF, P, W-Speed Strength.
June: ND, W-Absolute Strength. 

July: ND, W-Absolute Strength. 

August: ND, GS, W-Strength Endurance.

     Once the annual plan is in place, the five categories of work must be defined and routines outlined. There are many different exercises, drills, and rituals that can be established for each of the five. It is important to have a large enough selection so that the athlete does not get bored, yet not so many that the athlete feels over- whelmed. Here are some well known suggestions:

     ND Training (to be done 20 different days on designated months):


    RF Training (to be done 8 different days on designated months):


    GS Drills (to be done 8 different days on designated months):


    P Drills (to be done once every 5 days on designated months):


    W Work (to be done 3 times weekly on designated months):



    Quite often the scope of strength training is viewed as building "big muscles," since size is associated with strength. Although this is valid for football and the throwing events in track and field, it is not the training objective of endurance runners.
    The scope of strength training for distance runners is to make the neuromuscular system function as effectively as possible in order to meet the physiological needs of the runner. Therefore, strength training is undertaken to develop power or the ability of the muscles to apply force at the proper rate.
    Consequently, the role of this strength training is to create a physiological foundation in order to improve one's overall ability to meet the needs of distance running and enhance performance. Such an approach is the most important ingredient in the "making of a champion."



    Following is a sample worksheet that every athlete can use for each month to monitor his/her program. The idea is to make record keeping simple. Just circle the tasks done for the day, and add any notes in the blank area.




Bompa, T. O., Variations of Periodization of Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, June 1996, pp.     

    58- 61.
Bompa, T. O., Comparison of two regimes of concurrent strength and endurance training. Serious Strength 

    Training, 1998, pp. 156- 158.
Burt, M., Distance Runner Strength Training. Athletics Science Bulletin, December 1992.
Dolezal, B. A., and Potteiger, J. A., Resistance Training for Endurance Runners During the Off- Season. 

    Journal of Strength and Conditioning, June 1996, pp. 7-10.
Dudley, G. A., and Fleck, S. J., Strength and Endurance Training: Are They Mutually Exclusive? Sports 

    Medicine, 4:79-85. 1987.
Martin, D. E., and Coe, P. N., Training Distance Runners. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1991.
Matveyev, L. P., Periodisierung des sportlichen Trainings, Berlin: Verlag Bartels and Wernitz, Frankfurt. 1972.
Renstrom, P., and Kannus P., Prevention of Injuries in Endurance. Endurance in Sport (UK), 1992, pp. 

Sale, D. G., and MacDougall, I. Interaction Between Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training, Journal of 

    Applied Physiology, 68:260-270, 1990.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., Science and Practice of Strength Conditioning, Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1995.

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