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    Strength Training for Runners: Overwhelming Evidence for Injury Prevention and Performance

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    By: Dr. Trevor Vander Doelen BSc (Hon), DC

    strengthDue to the repetitive nature of any sport, cross training with strength training in Body Planes recommended to challenge the body in ways that the athlete’s main sport cannot offer. Strength training not only offers benefits of injury prevention for runners, but can also benefit running performance.

    Cross training corrects the inevitable structural imbalances that occur with the repetition of an athlete’s main sport. These structural imbalances are found in the length/tension relationship of muscles, ligaments, and tendons across specific joints. Certain muscles, tendons, and ligaments predictably become overused or underused. These predictable imbalances can be observed and or palpated by a trained individual familiar with proper biomechanics. Running is a sport that is performed completely in the sagittal plane. This means the runner is always moving forward (sagittal plane), not moving laterally (coronal plane), or rotating (transverse plane). See the “Body Planes” picture to help understand this concept. This also explains many of the injuries that are experienced by runners, listed in order of prevalence below.

    • Patellofemoral pain syndrome
    • Iliotibial band syndrome
    • Plantar fasciitis
    • Meniscal injuries
    • Tibial stress syndrome
    • Patellar/achilles tendinosis
    • Gluteus medius tendinosis

    Cross training for runners should be heavily focused on stressing the athlete in the coronal and transverse plane’s as these are the motions that are neglected while running. Overuse injuries result from a complex of training errors including lack of specific strength and flexibility, inappropriate surface and terrain, biomechanical lower extremity misalignment, and inappropriate footwear. Cross training with strength exercise can positively influence two of these four variables.

    Strength training for running performance has been heavily researched in the past ten years. Running performance is determined by maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max), lactate threshold, and running economy. These factors were traditionally thought to be improved simply through aerobic endurance training. In the past, endurance athletes have been hesitant to try strength training because of concerns of possible negative side effects of hypertrophy on capillary density and energy production. Research has shown that strength training does not negatively affect the VO2 max, but rather can be very beneficial for running performance if done effectively. While all three of the above factors for performance can be increased through strength training, it is running economy that is positively affected the greatest with strength training. So what exactly is running economy? The concept of running economy can be understood by examining two runners at the same speed. The runner that is working at a lower VO2 (oxygen consumption) at this speed has a better running economy. Resistance training is thought to affect running economy by three proposed mechanisms:

    1. Functional strength improves mechanical efficiency, muscle coordination, and motor recruitment patterns
    2. Increased total body strength leads to advantageous mechanical changes in running form
    3. Increased muscular strength and coordination may reduce relative intensity

    Strength training has been shown consistently in the literature to improve running performance in amateur runners, but these results have been questioned in highly trained runners. More recently, a systematic review of the effects of strength training among highly trained runners suggests that strength training improves long-distance running performance in this group as well. Running economy has consistently been shown to increase by 3%-8% with strength training, which can drastically affect your performance when extrapolated into a long distance race like a marathon. Specifically, the use of explosive plyometric strength training, due to increased musculotendinous stiffness, has been shown to have a significant effect on running performance, most notably in the 3km–5km distance.

    The inclusion of a well-structured and periodized strength training program can be beneficial for both injury prevention and running performance. The program should include circuit training (short breaks between exercises), traditional functional strength training (squats, lunges, deadlifts, etc), sports specific high intensity training, and plyometric based cross training. The athlete’s goals are very important when designing a strength training program and a functional assessment and gait assessment should be done by a trained professional prior to starting a resistance training program.

    Happy strength training!

    References:

    • Fredericson et al. Hip abductor weakness in distance runners with iliotibial band syndrome. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine (2000) vol. 10 (3) pp. 169
    • Jung, Alan P. The impact of resistance training on distance running performance. Sports Medicine (2003) vol. 33 (7) pp. 539
    • Tanaka and Swensen. Impact of resistance training on endurance performance: A new form of cross-training?. Sports medicine (1998) vol. 25 (3) pp. 191-200
    • Taunton et al. A retrospective case-control analysis of 2002 running injuries. British Journal of Sports Medicine (2002) vol. 36 (2) pp. 95
    • Yamamoto et al. The effects of resistance training on endurance distance running performance among highly trained runners: A systematic review. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2008) vol. 22 (6) pp. 2036

    Trevor works as a personal trainer at Absolute Endurance Training and Therapy, training athletes from weekend warriors to elite.  He is trained as a Chiropractor and thus has extensive knowledge of biomechanics, physiology and anatomy that he applies to his program design and implementation.