Strength Training For runners Part 2
Hopefully you’ve read part 1 and are ready to take your training to the next level. This article gets a bit technical at the start whilst it explains a few important concepts but will leave you with a few ideas of how to change your exercise routine to give you the greatest benefit to your running. Before I go on any further I just want to clarify that both part 1 and part 2 of these articles is referring to the general conditioning of runners. The aim is to make you a better runner. If you want stronger legs for squatting or bike riding or anything else then this article isn’t for you. I am presuming running is something you do as a habit and that you don’t have any injuries that affect your running.
If you have any injuries please see the article here
Most of us think of running as primarily a straight line orientated activity so we perform exercises like lunges in a straight line. Although the net result of all our body’s efforts is forward movement, each individual joint in the body actually goes through movement in 3 different directions at the same time. Now I appreciate this may not make a lot of sense at first but stay with me and I’ll try and explain. There are three important principles to get your head around. The first one is that every joint moves in three different planes of motion at the same time. The second is that we need the strength to control that motion in all three planes and finally; the movement or strength, or the lack of movement or strength at a particular joint will affect every other joint in the body.
Every joint moves in three different planes of motion at the same time.
Each and every joint in our body can move in 3 different planes and therefore 6 different directions. If we analyse the hip joint for example you can easily see that you have the ability to swing your thigh forward and back, (for the technically minded this is known as the sagittal plane) side to side ( frontal plane) and turn your thigh in and turn your thigh out ( transverse plane). So we have three different planes and within each plane we can move in two opposite directions.
When we run our hips moves in three different directions. When we land on our right foot our right thigh has swung forward – direction 1. The action of our foot landing causes our foot to pronate ( roll in), this causes the lower leg to rotate inwards which in turn causes the upper thigh to rotate in – direction 2. The pronation of the foot also means the knee travels inwards which causes the thigh to move inwards. So the upper thigh has moved in three different directions at the same time! How much movement we have and how well we control it greatly affects the way we run.
The amount of movement that occurs in each of these directions is dependant on how flexible we are and how strong we are. Some people lack the flexibility, other people are very flexible but lack the strength to control that flexibility. Someone who runs with knock knees often cant control the inwards rotation of the thigh properly and people whose knees turn out when they run typically lack flexibility in the sideways movement of the thigh.
This 3 dimensional movement occurs not only at the hips but also at the knees, feet, ankles, spine and shoulder joints. Some joints will have a very small range of movement but just because they don’t move much doesn’t mean that it’s not important. The brake pads on a push-bike only move a few millimetres but if they don’t move then you are in real trouble!
The body often tries to make up for a lack of movement in one direction by obtaining the missing movement in one of the other directions. For example you often notice runners whose feet turn out as they push off. This can be because their calf muscles don’t give the ankle enough forward movement so the body gets that missing movement by making the foot turn out more.
Determining whether you have too much movement or not enough is beyond the scope of this article but what I hope to give you is some exercises that develop both strength and flexibility. Someone who specialises in assessing the functional movements of the body will be able to determine your specific strengths and weaknesses. (Contact me for more information)
We need the strength to control this three dimensional movement
The range of movement is only one part of the equation. The strength to control that movement is just as important. If we lack this strength then the joint can go through too much movement and the energy which is stored in the muscle is lost. Much like pulling a rubber band back too far and breaking it. This doesn’t mean we will tear a muscle ( although that can happen), it means all the energy that was being stored in the muscle is lost so it is much harder to propel ourselves forward. Using the rubber band analogy if you break the rubber band the only way for it to travel forward is for you to throw it which obviously uses up much more energy than just flinging it forward if it hadn’t broken.
The ability to load in three different planes and then explode out of that position is how muscles work most effectively. If the resistance training exercises you perform don’t load the joints in all three directions then you are not training the muscles efficiently.
The key to a good resistance training program is to make the exercises harder than the task we are training for , in this case running. When we perform a lunge for example we often use a weight to increase the load and we take our knees and hips through a greater range of movement than when we run. This is great for the forwards and backwards motion of our joints but we’ve completely ignored the sideways motion and the rotational motion. By modifying a lunge to include components of the sideways movement and rotational movement we can create a much more effective exercise. The same can be done for jump lunges, jumps, hops etc.
The movement or strength or lack of movement or strength at a particular joint will affect every other joint in the body.
Most of you will remember the song “ the foot bone is connected to the ankle bone …”. This idea that everything is connected all the way from the foot to the head is a concept that has been ignored until recently. Latest research shows that what happens at the foot can have a dramatic effect on what happens at the knee, hip, spine and even shoulder.
To give you some example of this try standing up and getting a sense of awareness of what kind of curve you have in your lower back. Now turn your feet so your toes point towards each other as much as possible and notice how your lower back feels. Next turn your toes out as much as possible and again notice how your lower back feels. What you probably noticed is that when your toes pointed in the curve in your lower back increased and when they turned out the curve flattened. Even if you didn’t notice this you will have seen that when your toes pointed in your knees pointed in and your upper thighs pointed inwards and vice versa when your toes pointed out. Remember I didn’t ask you to move your back or knees or thighs, just your feet.
Hopefully you can see that just by moving our feet we can effect the curve in our lower back. What you may not have noticed is that if the curve of your lower back changed then the curve in your upper back will have changed also. If the curve in your upper back changed then the way your shoulder blades connect with your upper back will have changed. This will have affected how the muscles that connect your arms to your shoulder blade act. So just by changing your foot position you have affected how your arms work!
By training only one part of the body in isolation to the rest of the body we ignore the effect the rest of the body has on that joint. By sitting on a machine lifting our legs we ignore the effect the movements of the feet and pelvis have on the activation of the hip, thigh and pelvic muscles.
Training for running must involve the use of the feet, knees, hips, pelvis and arms at the same time to activate the leg, hip, core, shoulder, back and arm muscles most effectively.
Okay enough theory, hope that made sense and you understand the basic principles. Here are some ways to load the body in all three dimensions that relate to running.
Taking the basic lunge and then adding in different arm movements we can load the body in each of the three planes.
Forward and back Plane ( Sagittal)
1. Lunge forward and with both arms reach towards the ground in front of your foot, touching the ground if you can.
2. Lunge forward and with both arms reach back over and behind your head.
Sideways Plane ( Frontal)
Place both arms in the air above your head.
1. Lunge forward and lean to one side, reaching your arms sideways
2. Lunge forward and lean to the other side , reaching your arms sideways
Rotational Plane ( Transverse)
Hold both arms out in front of you at shoulder height.
1. Lunge forward and swing your arms over your front leg
2. Lunge forward and swing your arms away from your front leg.
Each of these different arm movements will load the joints and muscles of the body in different ways. If you find one particular movement more difficult than the others then it most likely indicates your body doesn’t like that movement because it lacks either the strength or flexibility to perform it well. Meaning thats the one you should do more than the others.
If you find a difference between left and right your first priority is to achieve equality between left and right.
Once you have this then you can start to add load to the exercises by holding a weight or medicine ball in your hands.
The speed of the movement will affect the difficulty. If any of you remember your high school physics you’ll remember Force = mass x acceleration. So if we have a low mass ( light weight) but move it quickly ( high acceleration) then we will have a high force applied to our joints. We can also achieve the same thing by using a heavy mass and slow acceleration but which one do you think is more applicable to running?
As far as sets and repetitions go I would suggest starting of with around 5-10reps and 1-2 sets of each different movement. As you get used to the movements you can increase the reps to increase your endurance or weight to increase strength. Which one depends on what you goal is. If you are an ultrarunner then obviously endurance is the priority, if you are trying to improve your 5k time then strength may be of some benefit.
You can add these arm movements into any of the legs exercises listed in part 1 of this article.