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  • Fred Ormerod

Are you strong enough to run again?

Personal trainer, soldier, nurse and massage therapist Fred Ormerod explores the science behind strength training to improve your running. Whether you’re just starting, starting again or you’re looking to improve your running this read should certainly give you some tips to help you on your way.

Running, thanks to lockdown and the closure of gyms has become a cheap, easy and accessible form of exercise in the eyes of more and more of us. However, one thing most of us don’t consider is the need to be strong enough to run.

The answer to the question as to whether one should train for strength when training for running is a resounding yes. So if you want to skip the rest of this and take my word for it (and why wouldn’t you? I know my sh*t and if you’re reading this you should pay me for programming) then feel free. However, if you want to justify your decision to anyone else at your running club please read on.

In order to answer the question, it’s a good idea to understand the physics and processes behind running.


Let’s get physical:

When running we’re under the influence of multiple different forces[i]:

· Gravity, is a constant force stopping us all floating away.

· Vertical force is applied from the ground as our foot lands and pushes against it .

· Horizontal force propels us forward.

· In order to stabilise, our arms swing and create rotation and torque, counter balancing the horizontal push from having one foot on the ground pushing against the vertical force.

There are external forces at work here, such as drag and friction, but when you’ve been hitting the gym and are too muscular for anything other than a stringer/tank top these numbers are simply too big to comprehend so for now let’s ignore them.

The next thing to consider is the runner’s gait cycle[ii]. This is broken into two phases: stance, where the foot is on the ground, and swing; where the same foot is not on the ground. The stance phase is important to our purposes here, as it’s when the runner experiences the greatest impact, and can be further broken down:

· Initial contact: cushions the impact as the knee flexes and foot pronates (rolls in) acting as a shock absorber.

· Mid-stance; where the foot acts as a stable platform for the runner’s bodyweight to pass over.

· Propulsion phase (the most exciting phase) happens as the heel lifts off, the big toe flexes starting the Windlass Mechanism[iii], tightening the foot, raising the arch and causing the foot to act as a lever.

Studies have shown an Olympic sprinter might expect to take 0.08 seconds for their stance phase, and their swing phase lasts around 0.12 seconds[iv]. An experienced runner, and for that matter a ley person, might expect a stance and swing phase of 0.12 seconds each. That same high level marathon runner could expect to take at least 25,000 steps in a race.[1]

I’m already exhausted just looking at the numbers involved here.


But why? No… Really why?

Another thing to understand is why we run. Apart from evidence to suggest that humans are very (very) well designed for running longer distances in order to kill potential animal food sources in prehistoric times[v] (though come to think of it I don’t remember the last time I had to run after and kill something in the supermarket) we might run for any number of reasons.

Some people, the criminally insane I think they’re called, run for fun. Which on a biological level makes sense. Running for certain distances and times at a certain intensity has been shown to cause the release of endocannabinoids similar to THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, by our nervous system[vi]. Essentially we can get high from running, which is conveniently known as “runner’s high”.

On the other hand, some people might have ulterior, sinister, non-upper drug related motives for running such as weight loss, socialising or sports performance.

The reason for running is important to note since if running for the sake of enjoyment, runner’s high or socialising the impacts on our bodies physiologically and anatomically are obviously different than if we were to be running to build aerobic capacity, speed, endurance or to burn calories.

Why, Fred, should I train for strength when I’m a runner (or trying to be)?

Do you really want to hurt me?

Injury prevention is an important factor to consider. We’ve already seen that the forces inflicted on our bodies can be staggering when running. A sprinter can expect to apply 454kg(1000lb) of vertical force through one leg at the point their foot touches the floor.

To put this in context, when Eddie Hall broke the world deadlift (500kg/1102lb) record it took roughly 5 seconds from the floor to lockout, and he nearly died. In that time an Olympic sprinter might expect to have taken 6.25 steps, which means a total training volume of 1,418.75kg per foot for just half a race. And to think Eddie was using both feet, positively feeble.

These forces can easily lead to injury. Up to 50% of runners experience knee pain, up to 32% of runners experience lower leg pain and 38% experience upper leg pain. Injuries include runner’s knee (patella femoral syndrome), shin splints, hamstring pulls and Achilles tendonitis. Ouch![vii]

On top of the litany of physical dilemmas a runner encounters by simply running, roughly 95% of the world’s population have asymmetrical leg length. When most of us jaunt out for a run we end up running on concrete; which has a 100% energy return (the vertical force we met earlier). This imbalanced vertical, force creates a shockwave, known to cause injuries in leg joints, lower back and compensation injuries, particularly since most of us seem to be leaning naturally to one side without noticing it. This is particularly prevalent in track athletes since they predominantly run anti-clockwise.

Fear not! Strength training has been shown to help in the fight against running related injuries. For example, eccentric loading (google it) has been shown to help prevent calf injuries, particularly in forefoot strikers. Which means we can all stop laughing at people in the gym doing funny, ankle twitching calf raises. Even just basic strength training has been shown to help with knee pain, and shin splints when running, and strength training is well known for helping with physical imbalances.

A base level of strength is also known to prevent against more serious injuries like tears (in joints which might in turn cause tears in your eyes). Where the stress level applied to tendons exceeds the tensile strength of a tendon it snaps. Strength training mitigates this and allows for increases in running training intensity, which brings us nicely on to the next reason to build strength for running: performance.

Do you even want to be the best?

Running performance is based largely on 3 factors[viii]: VO2 max, lactate threshold and running economy (oh… and cool shoes).

A runner’s VO2 max dictates how efficiently they can breathe in and utilise oxygen to provide energy for running. It is largely genetic, though there is evidence to suggest it can be improved by up to 25% by training, this is done by running for extended periods at roughly 70% training intensity.

A high lactate threshold enables a runner to run fast for longer, producing more energy anaerobically, which has the by-product of lactic acid.

Strength training can help in both of these circumstances, since muscle fibres can be great places to store ingredients required for aerobic and anaerobic energy systems to operate. However, the factor that strength training can really help in is running economy, since training stimulus will affect the muscle tissue type balance in the body.

Scientists, using slow-motion video and a fancy treadmill, have shown that the speed at which “normal” and “athletic” people take a step is roughly similar when running (as we saw above). However, where faster runners excel, apart from having the aerobic capacity to run the length of themselves, is in the force they can apply to the floor on each step.

We noted earlier that an Olympic sprinter applies 450kg or so to the floor on each step. Us mere mortals apply a measly 180-280kg of force when running, pathetic. A certain amount of this is to do with technique[ix], as a good runner leans forward, keeping their ankles, knees, hips and torso in line they’re able to apply more force to the ground. But simply being stronger, particularly in the posterior chain (#bootygainz), has been shown to provide runners with a boost in speed. Good technique is also helped tremendously by fixing imbalances. For example, if a runner’s knees cave in they might fix it by strengthening their groin abductors and adductors for greater stability.[x]


Are you strong enough?

So how strong should we be to run?

The simple answer is that for most of us we will likely never reach the point of diminishing returns for strength versus cardio capabilities. Given that high level sprinters might spend two thirds of their year training strength and conditioning without specifically training for their sport it suggests that us leisurely 5km trotters would benefit from all the strength training we can find the time and energy for.

However, if we want to make sure we’re still getting the best out of our training split it is important to remember a few factors. Namely: training stimulus and recovery.

If we start a training session with a 30 minute run and finish with a session at the squat rack we’re unlikely to see the best result from our strength training given that we have already triggered an aerobic training stimulus. According to science we should wait 6-8 hours between a cardio and a strength session to gain the most benefit from both. If we were to train the other way around, the strength stimulus wouldn’t necessarily detract from our run in terms of stimulus but we may feel more fatigued during the run. [xi]

Training energy systems in this order is known as concurrent training which is often associated with conjugate training, in which training stimuli are rotated frequently within a training block. Conjugate training has been shown to lead to great training results and fewer injuries. The need for proper recovery, food and rest is paramount though; given what an athlete’s central nervous system will be put through. As if 2020 and 2021 weren’t enough already.

One of the many benefits of training like this, however, is that exercise choice is less important. So if an athlete is fatigued or injured they can still get a beneficial training stimulus while training a different exercise.

Get ready for a plug at the end…

Now if all or any of that has gone over your head a little, I know I was lost somewhere back with Eddie Hall being a weakling, then speak to your friendliest neighbourhood coach, who can explain and undermine it all at their pleasure. The long and the short of it (much like my right and left leg) is that if you’re not incorporating strength training into your running program, you should be.

[i] [ii] [iii] [iv] [v] [vi] [vii] [viii] [ix] [x] [xi] [xii]

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