Strength Training for the Distance Athlete-Time to Build a Robust More Resilient Body

Simply put, strength is the ability to produce force. With my strength training approach for distance athletes, it is multidimensional and follows a planned series of programs with the goal of improving your stability, postural control, strength, power and running economy and performance. Prehab work will focus on strengthening supporting muscles to facilitate proper biomechanics to avoid injury. 

Before doing a strength and conditioning program, it is recommended that athletes go through an anatomical adaptation phase (AA) in order to maximize training adaptations and to prevent the onset of overtraining syndrome. A methodoligically structured AA phase is the foundation on which the other phases of strength training are built.

Low to medium loads at the start will aid in the adaptation level of your musculoskeletal system and prepare the body for the more challenging program inherent in the following phases of training. It also aids in the improvement of inter-muscular coordination (balance, coordination and neural firing patterns).
I incorporate drills, core strength and stability work as this will help help to prevent injuries, improve biomechanics and performance. 

Athletes should be looking to maintain muscle balance and stability and proprioception and work to maintain mobility around key joints like the hips as the miles take their toll on the body while working all planes of motion. The aim for middle distance or distance athletes is to have a big engine with a small frame and very high efficiency. We don’t want to increase our non specific muscle mass too much using conventional weight training as it will create a larger payload to be carried around the track or the road. The muscle should be very specific to running otherwise it is a liability that will come at a high energy cost.

Glute max is the largest muscle in the human body and its primary function is to extend the hip. Exerts large forces on the ground generates greater propulsive forces and controls trunk pitch. Glute medius and minimus provide hip stability and control.
Quads key function is to flex the hip and extend the knee, rectus femoris is active during swing and early stance.
Hamstrings key function is to extend the hip and flex the knee, active during late swing to prepare the limb for contact and during early stance phase.
Calf Muscle Complex-Triceps surae- gastric- soleus. Gastroc is biarticular, soleus contributes 50% vertical support force required to accelerate the body, the calf is the engine for the achilles tendon.
Foot and ankle-multiplanar and subtalar joint and plantar fascia allow the foot to pronate and expand to absorb impact during stance phase. Each individual has varying degrees of pronation and supination.

The focus in recent years has turned to the power capabilities of runners and in particular the rate of force development (RFD). This essentially refers to the speed at which force can be produced. Power then in running terms is the ability to move with great speed or force. Power is defined as force x velocity, therefore by making runners stronger, you increase their force capability. Rate of force development (RFD) plays a large role. Running is a function of power and therefore RFD. How quickly can we exert the force needed to maintain our pace.
What we want are neurally induced gains in strength and muscle fiber recruitment.
Max strength training component aims to fatigue the muscle between 4 to 6 repetitions for 3 to 5 sets with an extended rest period between sets. Exercises should be compound in nature and target the full body and are at the start of the program. A closed chain exercise like the deadlift lifts the weight upwards and away from the ground as our trunk opens up and extends just like when we run and accomplishes what we want for approx. 90% of the skeletal muscle used in running.
Athletes alike should be aware of proper technique and execution of exercises. .

Variables like contact time, flight time, vertical oscillation or leg stiffness, among others, have shown to be well linked to running performance. Specifically, those variables have been used to measure the cost of running, i.e.the energy used to move ourselves forward at a certain speed.
Thus, shorter contact times, higher flight times, shorter vertical oscillation (i.e., the vertical displacement of the Center of Mass while running, a metric indicating how much do we ‘bounce’) and higher leg stiffness (i.e., how ‘reactive’ are our steps, the higher leg stiffness, the higher elastic energy produced by our tendons) would mean greater running economy. A stiffer spring is more efficient because it delivers and receives impact force very quickly so that little of this energy is lost through dissipation.
Running Economy is the oxygen cost of maintaining a given pace. A stronger athlete with appropriate strength, stability and mobility will cover the same distance more efficiently than an athlete who has poor RE.
Runners with good RE have greater stride length and frequency than those who struggle to control their technique due to a weak body so it is important to keep this up. Running economy has been correlated with running performance

Balance the Weak Links

Just because running is a uni-directional movement, it doesn’t mean there is not a lot of rotation and lateral motion going on to produce that movement.
When we predominantly train the muscles which work to produce straight line, sagittal plane movements (quads, hamstrings) they become the ones which get worked the hardest and developed strongest, leaving the muscles which get loaded more effectively through rotation and lateral movement (glutes, obliques and adductors) yet are responsible for providing stability as we run to remain weak and deconditioned.
Many of the weak links in runners occur in the frontal (side to side) and transverse (rotational) planes of motion.
A good choice of strength exercise is the crab walk exercise which mirrors this multiplanar movement
Function at the ankle, knee and hip is maximal when the hip displays great stability.

Clamshells

Plyometrics

KEEP IT SIMPLE A variety of hops, skips, jumps, and bounds make up the plyos runners use. These exercises teach the body how to maximize our rate of force development. They represent the last step in converting the muscular force development into specific running improvements.
Reactive strength-The focus here is on minimizing ground contact.
Running by itself is a plyometric event and with that in mind, the volume and complexity of plyos should be kept low and have ample recovery in between sets to keep the quality of the movement high. Sprinting is the most specific plyo to do as the ground contact times are about as low as you can get and a large amount of force is generated in a very short time.
Plyometrics improves RE by improving the concentric and eccentric coupling of muscles (stretch shortening cycle) thereby developing velocity. These are a great way for runners to learn to absorb, store and produce larger amounts of force. The potential of these exercises can only be realized if used correctly!
The first phase is learning how to jump and land.
Developing eccentric strength for landing is the most important part of plyometric training.
*The more softly a runner land’s the better.
*Landing should never be deeper than a half squat position.


Core Exercises- A little goes along way

The function of the core is to prevent excessive torso rotation, transfer force and stabilize the spine. Core training should be multi-dimensional and should begin with stability and progress onto more dynamic mobility exercises.Your ability to control your torso is essential for optimal Running Economy (RE). Just as essential is the ability to use the core section of the body to transfer force from the upper and lower extremities. An inability to transfer force, due to a weak core, leads to an inefficient RE and thus a waste of energy. Additionally insignificant core strength and imbalance can lead to compensation by other parts of the body which can lead to a number of acute and overuse injuries.

As mileage during competition phases is reduced, the volume of strength training is also reduced according to fixtures and heavy periods of mileage.
The power benefits can be maintained with regular plyometric drills incorporated into the training plan without having an adverse effect on performance.

 

Michelle Greaney, (MG Coaching), Strength and Conditioning, Athletics Ireland Level 2 Endurance Running Coach

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