Is there an effective strength program for runners who hate the gym?
The long distance running community is not typically renowned for its love of gym sessions. Most runners just want to run and strength training is still commonly absent in training plans for the running season. The case for strength training may inadvertently not be helped by the overwhelming number of exercise protocols that bombard popular fitness publications and online sites. Many runners want to know if a simple beneficial strength program exists that minimizes time in the gym.
Recent research from the University of Limerick and the Irish Institute of Sport, investigating a 40-week training program, provides interesting insight on this topic. This study caught my eye due to its analysis of strength, running economy and body compositions metrics and its use of a pragmatic time efficient gym program. Here’s a summary.
Key Study Details
- 20 collegiate/national level runners (divided into 2 groups)
No prior strength training experience
No significant difference between the groups at baseline
- Group 1 (intervention group)
Normal 1,500-10,000m endurance training plus strength/plyometric training
- Group 2 (control group)
Normal 1,500-10,000m endurance training only
Strength Protocol Details
- Back squat
Goal of maximal strength gains
Typical dosage 3 sets of 8 reps
- 2 assistance exercises (deadlift, single leg squat, split squat)
Goal of improving glute strength and femoral control using a submaximal strengthening approach
Typical dosage 2-3 sets of 10 reps
- 1-2 plyometric/reactive strength exercises (drop jumps, pogo jumps, continuous countermovement jumps)
Goal of improving rapid force development, musculoskeletal stiffness
Typical dosage 3 sets of 4-6 reps
- 2 session per week pre-season (weeks 1-20)
1 session per week in- season (week 21-40)
- 19.3 % increase in maximal strength in the intervention group compared to 3.1% in the control group.
- 7.2% increase in reactive strength in the intervention group compared to a deterioration of 9.5% in the control group.
- 4.0% improvement in vV02 max and 3.5% improvement in running economy in the intervention group. No significant improvement was noted in either of these markers in the control group.
Key take home points
This study suggests that significant strength and running economy gains can be made with a time efficient maximal strength and low volume plyometric program. For runners keen on avoiding long gym sessions a well-designed strength program can be completed in around 30-45 minutes. Twice weekly sessions, tapering to 1 around competition periods, is a feasible time investment for most people. The data in this study demonstrates that a majority of the gains were achieved in the first 20 weeks and were maintained when the training program decreased to once per week.
It is interesting that running on its own did not prevent a deterioration in reactive strength in the control group. This points toward a decline in the runners’ ability to rapidly absorb and produce muscle force- a key component of running. It is also worth noting that body composition markers did not change in the intervention group. This provides further evidence against the common misconception that high-load gym programs will result in unwanted weight gain from putting on muscle mass in runners.
Strength and conditioning programs are not a one size fit all, however, this study is part of a growing body of research highlighting the benefits of high-load orientated strength protocols in the running population.
Study limitations: (for the academically inclined)
The research design of this study places it in the category of lower level evidence due to its inability to control a number of variables that impact internal validity. Example of this include the low number of subjects, the absence of randomization, non-blinding of the examiners and the lack of control over variables such as mileage and running intensity.
Beattie K, Carson B, Lyons M, Rossiter A and Kenny I. 2017. The effects of strength training on performance indicators in distance runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31: 9-23.
Paul Kidger PT, MSc