Training to improve Strength, Power, Endurance and Flexibility for a marathon runner
This is an article I wrote for Personal Trainers and Strength Coaches on how to train a marathon runner. It is long and in depth with sample workouts given at the end of the article.
Marathon Running is an endurance activity which needs high levels of cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance in order to repeat the action of running effectively and efficiently. Effective differs from efficient, the former is about getting the job done whereas the latter is doing it in the best possible manner. In terms of running the more efficiently you run the less energy you waste and the faster and further you can run.
To run efficiently the body needs to have good mobility and stability and good strength and power in all three planes of movement. Endurance suffers when transformational zone strength and flexibility deficits don’t allow the body to totally load to take advantage of the plyometric and ecconcentric effect of the muscles. Over time the power and strength of the muscles break down leading to a loss of endurance which is different to a pure cardiovascular or muscular endurance weakness.
Our role as trainers should be to develop good tri-plane strength and mobility in the transformational zones of running to allow the client to perform the action of running as efficiently as possible which when combined with good cardiovascular and muscular endurance will allow the runner to perform to his or her potential.
A key component of efficient running is the use of elastic energy. Energy absorbed in landing can be stored in the elastic components of the body such as tendons, aponeuroses, ligaments and fascia and released to aid propulsion with minimal energy lost.
For this to occur two conditions must be met. First of all there must be tension in the muscles connected to the elastic components BEFORE loading occurs otherwise the load will be absorbed eccentrically by the muscle. For example when we hop if there is no tension in the calf muscles upon landing, dorsiflexion will occur and the soleus will be loaded eccentrically whereas if there is already tension in the soleus then it will act in an isometric manner and minimal dorsiflexion will occur directing the load into the Achilles tendon.
The second condition is that there is a limited amount of time between loading and then releasing the elastic energy. If too much time is taken then the energy will dissipate as heat.
Certain muscles are better suited to working in this way. Those with a pennate structure will be able to generate high levels of force with little movement and hence be affective in transferring energy into the elastic components attached to the muscle, the soleus is a good example of a pennate muscle. Muscles with a parallel fibre structure will be more suited to eccentric and concentric work. The gluteus maximus is an example of a parallel fibred muscle.
Biarticular Muscles such as the Hamstrings, Gastrocnemius and Rectus Femoris have an important role to play in running. They are able to transfer energy from one joint to another since they have the ability to be eccentrically loaded over one joint whilst concentrically working over another joint. For example if we look at the rectus femoris as the runner pushes off the ground, the rectus femoris is concentrically working to extend the knee whilst the hip is undergoing extension eccentrically loading the muscle. Hence the eccentrically loading of the proximal segment transfers the energy to aid movement of the distal segment. In essence biarticular muscles harness the momentum of a moving body segment at one joint and transfer that energy to another joint.
Concentric Action of Muscles
Whilst eccentrically muscles have more strength at end range to protect the joint, muscles are stronger concentrically in mid range so any action that can prolong the time spent in mid range will be beneficial. Conversely anything that reduces the amount of time in midrange will be detrimental to the runner. For example as the femur externally rotates and the hip goes into extension if the opposite side pelvis rotates towards the femur it will preserve the muscle length of the gluteus maximus and therefore allow more time in mid range for it to contract. If the pelvis doesn’t rotate or the femur rotates too quickly then time spent in mid range is reduced. This can occur across different planes – lengthening in one plane whilst shortening in another plane can maintain good muscle length for concentric contractions. Since running is performed at such high velocity available time for concentric contractions is small. Short and thick parallel fibred muscles such as the gluteus maximus are capable of high forces but cannot work at high speeds and only work across a short range so anything that can prolong the time spent in a favourable range is an advantage.
If you spend some time researching the different views on what is the most efficient technique for running you will very quickly realise that there is not much agreement amongst experts. Some will argue on the basis of biomechanics, others point out what elite world class runners do and often the two don’t match.
The aim of this article is to give you some framework from which to base the decisions you make in constructing a program to improve your clients ability to run.
To truly understand running, a thorough knowledge of the movements that occur at each joint in all three planes and the nature of the muscles and elastic components that act on the joint is necessary. This is beyond the scope of this article and those interested are advised to complete the Diploma of Functional Performance (a specific course on running may be available in the future). A brief look at some of the more important points will help you to be able to understand the major factors in constructing a program for runners. For a more comprehensive analysis Frans Bosch’s book “Running” is a good place to start.
Phases of running
Running can be defined in terms of three distinct points in the running cycle and analysing what happens to the body in moving from one point to the next. The three points are the initial contact of the foot with the ground, toe off and the next contact of the same foot to the ground. Between initial contact and toe off there is mid stance which is the point where the ankle and knee have reached maximum flexion and begin to plantarflex and extend. From toe off to initial contact there is the point of swing phase reversal where the hip finishes flexing and begins to extend. This point corresponds with toe off for the opposite foot. I.e the moment the toe leaves the ground on one leg the opposite hip should begin to extend.
There are four transformation zones (TZ) which correspond with toe off for left and right legs and mid stance for left and right legs. If we define the running phases as starting with intital contact of the right foot then TZ1 will occur mid stance on right foot, TZ2 at toe off right foot etc.
A full discussion of all that occurs in each of these phases would fill a book but some of the more salient points of each are as follows
Initial Contact to Midstance
Initial contact occurs with forefoot, midfoot or heel depending on the runner and the speed at which they run. The moment of landing which can be defined as the moment the entire weight of the body comes to rest on the foot, should occur in such a way to effectively load the elastic components of the foot and ankle without loss of energy to heat or braking forces. For this to happen the foot should land underneath or slightly behind the knee and just in front of or underneath the centre of gravity. If this is combined with rapid hip extension at the point of landing then it does not particularly matter on which part of the foot landing occurs.
The reason for this is that if the foot lands forward of the centre of gravity then first of all a braking force occurs which slows down the forward movement of the body and secondly the Achilles tendon cannot be loaded effectively.
Since the effective use of the elastic energy in the foot and Achilles tendon can return as much as 50% of the elastic energy absorbed upon landing this is a significant loss of energy.
To effectively load the Achilles tendon the foot and ankle must undergo rapid dorsiflexion and eversion upon landing. If the runner lands forefoot first under the centre of gravity then dorsiflexion occurs immediately as the heel drops to the ground loading the Achilles tendon , assuming there is tension in the calf muscles before landing.
If the runner lands heel first then as long as foot lands underneath the centre of gravity then the amount of plantar flexion required for the rest of the foot to reach the ground is minimal, so if there is rapid hip extension pulling the hips forward and therefore dragging the femur and tibia with it then the proximal end of the tibia will tilt anteriorly faster than the foot falls to the ground so the net result is Subtalar and Talocrural dorsiflexion; ie proximal and distal moving same direction proximal faster than distal.
If however the foot lands in front of the knee then the foot may fall to the ground more rapidly than the movement of the tibia travelling forward hence overall movement will be plantar flexion i.e proximal and distal moving same direction distal faster than proximal. Once the foot hits the ground dorsiflexion will occur but a great deal of elastic energy would be lost by then.
The ligaments of the foot also have a similar role to play as the Achilles tendon as they are capable of returning around 17% of the elastic energy absorbed during landing. To do this the Midtarsal joint must unlock upon landing by going through plantar flexion, inversion and abduction and the subtalar joint should undergo dorsiflexion, eversion and internal rotation.
This also sets up the movements of the rest of the kinetic chain. At initial contact the movements of the distal joints drive the proximal joints which then drive the distal joints at toe off so correct loading is extremely important.
The position of the upper body is also important to ensure efficient use of energy. If the upper body is leaning forward then unless the hamstrings work eccentrically the upper body will continue to be driven forward by momentum causing an increase in the forward lean. Using the hamstrings to control this means less energy is available for hip extension.
Mid Stance to Toe Off
At mid stance maximum ankle and knee flexion have occurred and the eccentric energy absorbed in landing is now used to drive propulsion.
At this moment the movement in the transverse plane is being driven from the top down as the opposite side pelvis is rotating to the stance side. In fact by the time the mid stance occurs the swing leg should have caught up with the stance leg.
As the pelvis continues moving forward and rotating towards the stance leg it drives the femur externally which drives the foot into inversion locking up the mid tarsal joint and providing a stable platform for the foot to release the energy stored in the Achilles and foot in the toe off phase.
The hip which was going through flexion, internal rotation and adduction will now be undergoing extension , internal rotation (if the femur externally rotates faster than the pelvis then external rotation will result, I feel the faster your run the more likely external rotation occurs) and abduction.
Initially the hamstrings work to control the knee in the transverse and frontal planes, control knee flexion and drive hip extension. As the pelvis continues to move forward the hamstrings begin to contribute to knee extension since as the foot is fixed the anterior movement of the pelvis and anterior tilt of the proximal end of the femur results in knee extension.
Its function is very complex as it involves 4 muscles and 2 joints and it has both a pennate ( long head of Biceps Femoris, Semi-membranosus) and parallel fibre structure ( Semi-tendonosus, short head Biceps Femoris) so can generate both high forces over low speeds and low forces over high speeds. It can also direct force from the hip to the knee and vice versa. From Midstance the knee begins to extend eccentrically loading the hamstrings whilst the hip extends so energy from the knee helps drive the movement of the hips.
To propel ourselves forward it is obviously necessary to become airborne and the most effective way to do this is to use the gluteus medius in the frontal plane. This allows the hamstrings and gluteus maximus to provide more energy to forward propulsion.
The combination of the adduction of the femur upon landing driven by the pronation of the foot with the pelvis on the non stance leg dropping due to gravity loads the gluteus medius particularly and the Iliotibial band of the stance leg and the abdominals of the non stance leg . As the body moves through stance phase it begins releases this energy to create lift.
Just before toe off the Achilles tendon and the ligaments of the foot finally get a chance to release their elastic energy and drive the body forward. The elastic energy of the Achilles and foot help propel the leg forward as does the elastic energy of the abdominals.
The available movement in the 1st Metatarsal joint is of importance at toe off. If sufficient dorsiflexion is not available then several compensations can occur. A medial heel whip or adduction of the 1st ray are the most common. Both of these will have consequences further up the chain.
A medial heel whip will cause the tibia and femur to excessively externally rotate. This will shorten the amount of time the Gluteus Maximus has to work in mid range and reduce its effectiveness.
Adduction of the first ray will interfere with the function of the windlass mechanism which is helped by 1st ray dorsiflexion.
Toe off – Swing Phase Reversal
EMG studies have shown that most of the leg muscles are relatively inactive at toe off. Despite what we might think, running is more about pulling than pushing , propulsion ( a better name would be pullpulsion ) is driven by the hamstrings and glutes pulling the pelvis forward. At toe off their work is done and momentum carries the body forward
The hip joint can only extend by around 20 degrees so to allow more hip extension the pelvis must tilt anteriorly. This creates a load in the Sagittal plane through the abdominals. As the opposite side arm is driven posteriorly the abdominals are also fully loaded in the transverse plane. At the point of toe off this load is released to drive hip flexion.
If hip flexion does not occur immediately the swing phase will take up too much time and the other leg will be forced to wait for the trailing leg before landing.
Initially the knee should continue to flex as the hip flexes as this reduces the lever arm of the leg making it easier to pull the leg through.
Swing Phase Reversal to Initial Contact
Once the hip reaches its end range of flexion and begins to extend, the knee will continue to extend which enables the energy gained by the eccentric load in the hamstrings over the knee joint to be directed to extension in the hip joint.
The moment of swing phase reversal should correspond with toe off on the other leg at which point the torso will begin to rotate the opposite direction.
Arm movement helps to generate as much torsion in the spinal column as possible loading the abdominals in the transverse plane. The scapula-thoracic muscles will have a larger role to play compared with the scapula-humerus muscles
One of the most important factors in this phase is to ensure there is sufficient tension in the muscles before landing to take advantage of the elastic properties of the body. If the muscles are relaxed until landing then sufficient tension wont be able to develop to load the elastic structures. EMG studies show that almost all of the leg muscles are active well before the foot hits the ground.
Developing running efficiency
To improve our clients running efficiency we need to assess the strength and mobility of each joint of the body in relation to the transformational zones of running.
Whilst some running assessments use video analysis to compare angles of the knee, hip and ankle in the Sagittal plane, movements in the transverse and frontal are often ignored. To truly assess our clients ability to run we need to be able to analyse what is happening in all three planes in every joint.
Observing your client running on a treadmill can tell you a lot about the efficiency of their running style.
Things to look and listen for include
• Amount of pronation and supination of the foot
• Timing of pronation and supination
• Medial or lateral heel whip
• Amount of knee abduction or adduction upon landing
• Sound of feet hitting the treadmill
– Does one foot hit the treadmill harder than the other?
– Does the person sound like a herd of elephants ?
• Position of swing leg when other leg lands
• Amount of knee flexion during initial part of swing phase
• Amount of hip extension at toe off
• Amount of rotation of the thoracic spine
• Movement of the pelvis in the frontal plane
• Upper body position
• Amount of arm swing
• Knee movement in the frontal and transverse planes
Simply note down what you see paying particular attention to differences to left and right. From this you should have a good idea about possible problems and this information will direct your assessment strategy.
Transformational Zone Tests
As previously mentioned there are four transformation zones in running , two for each leg. What you observe when watching your client run will give you some clues as to which TZ’s you may wish to pay particular attention to.
TZ1 and TZ3 occur when maximum ankle and knee flexion occur on the stance leg so using fast 1 leg squats with various arm drivers is a good place to start. Hopping will increase the loads to running like levels and make comparisons between legs easier to see.
TZ2 and TZ4 occur at toe off and a great way to test this is to use shuffles. Start in an L or RXX position and shuffle in the desired direction such that the legs never cross each other. Ie the front leg is always the front leg whereas in a skip, bound, walk or run the front leg in one stride will be the back leg in the next. Once again by applying various arm drivers you will be able to assess what happens in all three planes in this transformational zone.
The Faster AFT Assess and Solve will give outline in detail how to use these strategies to assess function.
Keep the excursion tests as close to running as possible. When assessing the movement at one joint remember that the position and movements of other joints will effect the movement in the joint you are assessing. By positioning the rest of the body in running specific positions when performing excursion tests you will ensure specificity of the test to running.
For example if you are testing the right hips ability to adduct you could use RXX with right arm overhead left lateral reach. This does test right hip adduction but does so when the right leg is forward of the hips and with the thoracic spine flexed to the left whereas when right hip adduction occurs in running the foot is underneath the pelvis and the thoracic spine is laterally flexed to the left. There is no landing force to control in this test so the load is far less than the load the hips have to deal with when running.
Just because the hip can adduct efficiently in this test doesn’t mean it can when the client is running. A more accurate test would be a right foot , left anterior lateral hop with a left arm overhead right lateral reach. Both the load and the body position is far more similar to running.
To test in a non specific running position with sub functional loads is a valid approach however if you are trying to establish the clients functional threshold particularly if your client is injured. Start with a simple test and progress the test to as close to running as possible until your client shows a weakness.
Running is an activity that initially is driven from the foot up so if the foot is not functionally properly there will always be compensations. Optimal foot function for your client is of critical importance in preventing injury and improving performance. An assessment of any functional or structural deficits and then an exercise and mobility plan with an orthotic (if required) is necessary. If you cant assess the foot in depth then look out for Faster’s next Foot course.
Once you have assessed the client in this way your initial program is obvious. As Gary Gray says “the test is the exercise and the exercise is the test”
Remember your aim is to improve your clients tri-plane strength and mobility in the transformational zones of running. The client may want exercises that make their legs feel very fatigued in the belief that this will improve their ability to run so you will need to continually educate your client on what you are trying to achieve. As the client improves the loads will be able to be increased and the workouts will become more and more challenging but if you increase the loads too quickly then it may exceed their functional threshold. If this happens then the client will find other ways to continue to perform the exercise
Your client should now have a number of exercises that target specific weaknesses in positions and loads as close to running as they can perform.
Try to keep the number of exercises to a minimum and educate the client on the need to perform the exercises regularly particularly before going for a run.
Progressing the program for muscular endurance, strength, speed and power
As the clients movement patterns begin to improve you can begin to increase the intensity of the program. Always keep in mind what you are trying to achieve. If the exercise doesn’t improve the strength, power, mobility, stability or muscular endurance specific to running then it’s not worth doing.
Looking at the spectrum of exercises starting from most specific to least we have the following
Running steep uphill or downhill
Running with a load (weighted pack or dragging object)
Step ups/ Stairs
1 leg squats
1 Leg balance
Supine leg exercises
Machine based exercises
The starting point should be the most specific exercise that the client can perform competently in all three planes.
It is rare that you will have to regress past fixed lunges, for many clients lunges or walking lunges is a good place to start.
Once you have determined the clients level of competency you can now start to play around with the exercise variables
For every exercise you can come up with you can modify by tweaking the following variables
Range of Movement
Ground Reaction Forces
It is obvious that if you do something more than 16,000 times in a row the load has to be light or you will be unable to complete the task. Whilst getting a client to perform a set of walking lunges with a heavy dumbells might have their legs screaming, the carry over effect on their running will be minimal. Although running does involve forces more than 2.5 times body weight with each landing it doesn’t mean a runner should be able to squat 2.5 times their body weight on 1 leg! Remember force equals mass multiplied by acceleration and it makes more sense to increase the acceleration rather than mass when training a runner.
The body cant count so ignore repetitions and use time as the variable for the exercise. Running is obviously an aerobic activity so sets should be designed to target maximal aerobic intensity. Ranges of 45 seconds to 3 minutes are ideal. When training to improve elastic return in exercises like hopping and jumping it makes no sense to continue with a desired time frame if the client is no longer able to load and explode. As fatigue sets in ground contact time will increase and elastic energy will be lost as heat.
Speed of movement
Running involves the legs moving approx 90 times per minute so the ideal tempo for an exercise is exactly that. In practice it may be hard to achieve that kind of tempo in many exercises but aim to start at a speed that the client can perform the exercise successfully and then progress the speed from there.
Range of movement.
Some clients will benefit from increasing particular ranges of movement they use in running and it may be useful initially to use larger ranges of movement to load the muscles effectively but the ranges need to be brought back to ranges similar to running to maximise the benefits. For example learning how to slow down knee flexion over 60 degrees in a lunge is different to slowing it down 20 degrees in a hop.
Progress all exercises to similar positions of the body to that used in running. Initially the focus may be on producing and controlling a specific movement at a specific joint in specific plane without thought of other joints, planes and movements. Once competency has been achieved the exercise should be progressed so that the same joint movement is produced when moving in all three planes and then when the rest of the body is undergoing the same actions as running. For example we may target hip adduction in the frontal plane then see if we can still control hip adduction when the hip undergoes flexion and internal rotation and finally can it still control adduction when we add running specific foot, knee and thoracic joint movements.
Gravitational, Momentum and Ground reaction Forces
The use of these variables is where you can truly make your program running specific. When increasing these loads ensure your exercise still meets the basic criteria for running. For example depth jumps whilst a great exercise for teaching the body to absorb an eccentric load, if they are performed from too large a height the calf muscles wont have sufficient strength to resist dorsiflexion and therefore the energy of landing wont be able to be transferred into the tendon negating the elastic effect of the tendon.
Progressions and Periodisation
Initially your focus should be on developing good tri-planar movement in the transformational zones of running, once you have achieved this increasing speed, power, strength, endurance, mobility and stability in those ranges is the next priority
There is almost an infinite amount of exercises you could choose and the choice should depend on both the client and the type of race the client is running. A trail marathon will have very different challenges to a road marathon likewise a hilly course compared to a flat.
If training for an off road race it would be useful to train in some end range positions to better prepare the body to cope with landing awkwardly on rough unstable ground and training on slippery surfaces to prepare the body to cope with sudden sliding movements when running on mud.
If training for a road marathon cobblestones may be a feature of the race or there might be a camber on the road both of which you can simulate in some way in the gym to better prepare your client.
Running up and down hills will place different demands on the body and the ranges of movement will be different in many joints compared to running on the flat. Downhill particularly will place a lot more eccentric load on the legs and should be trained specifically for.
Keep in mind that when the body is in extreme fatigue such as at mile 20 of a marathon it will begin to recruit whatever fibres it can to continue to move forward. By always training in three planes you better prepare those fibres which may not usually be recruited when running to be more efficient at running.
Analyse the demands on the body the course will place on it and then train your client accordingly.
Every client will start at a different level but when constructing a program it is always useful to have the end goal in mind. With that thought here is a sample program for a runner who has achieved good tri-planar competency in all of the exercises. It is a fairly generic and by no means a definitive program but hopefully gives you an idea of how you might go about it.
1 leg Balance matrix with arm and leg drivers.
Shuffle Matrix with
• Bilateral arm left and right rotations in transverse plane
• Bilateral arms left and right lateral flexion in frontal plane
• Bilateral arm reach anterior to floor
• Bilateral arm reach posterior overhead
Jump Matrix (total 12 jumps)
• anterior, posterior, left lateral, right lateral,
• left anterior lateral transverse toes out, right anterior lateral toes out
• left anterior lateral transverse toes in, right anterior lateral toes in
• left posterior lateral transverse toes out, right posterior lateral toes out
• left posterior lateral transverse toes in, right posterior lateral toes in
Jop Matrix (Total 12 jops on each foot)
Hop Matrix (Total 12 hops on each foot)
Main Exercises using corestick, medicine ball or similar
Jump lunges with arm drivers in all three planes (can use corestick or medicine ball to increase load)
Anterior Hops with arm drivers in all three planes
Lateral Hops with arm drivers in all three planes
1 Leg Balance Matrix