Running is an extremely popular form of exercise these days; however, not many people understand the effects that it has on their bodies or the prerequisites that are needed prior to engaging in this activity. I always say you need to be in shape to run and not the other way around. If your goal is fat loss, then you are barking up the wrong tree as there are many more effective ways to train for fat loss than distance running. If you are a competitive runner and just want to destroy competitors on race day or if you simply enjoy running, here are some things that can help you with your performance and keep you healthy.
1. Develop adequate muscular support. Every time your foot strikes the ground while running, 5-7 times your bodyweight of force goes through your joints. Without adequate support, injuries will come. It is of utmost importance that you strength train appropriately if you run a lot of miles. It will help with maintaining posture, staying erect, increased force production and speed, better movement control, better running economy and the list goes on.
Long distance activities release excess amounts of cortisol, which tends to promote muscle atrophy. If you don’t build some muscle to balance out and assist all of the long duration activity, its not a matter of if but a matter of when an injury will occur, and your performance will not be what it could.
2. Address muscular imbalances and movement faults. With repetitive activity such as that involved with endurance races, imbalances and patterns are bound to develop. When muscles that work with one another are out of whack and/or movement along different joints is impaired, certain areas will become overloaded; leading to injury and decreased race times. Movement faults and imbalances must be assessed and then addressed through appropriate exercises and tissue work to make sure that loads are distributed evenly among the kinetic chain. A very common and often overlooked problem that I see is a lack of big toe extension on either one or both feet. When the big toe can’t extend far enough, push off stresses are overloaded in other areas of the foot and the rest of the way up the body. It can have effects all the way up to the head. Muscles such as the adductor and flexor hallucis can often be released to help improve movement here along with some mobilization drills and retraining push off patterns with gait.
With an issue like pelvic and rib rotation, forces will not be distributed appropriately along the kinetic chain which means compensations, overload and injury will occur. These are just a few issues out of many.
Be sure fundamental movement patterns and basic stability patterns can be performed effectively as well: squatting, hip hinging, half kneeling, quadruped, etc. If you can’t control your body effectively in a quadruped position, I can guarantee its not going to be pretty when you are running on two feet.
3. Address postural issues- With impaired posture such as rounded shoulders or posteriorly tilted ribs, breathing will be less than efficient, which means your body has to work harder to deliver oxygen to your tissues; which means that you will not perform as well as you could. Get the rib cage level (often tilted back excessively in many people), and breathing will be much more efficient which means that working tissues will have better oxygen supply, which means that fatigue will not set in as easy. If there is any pelvic rotation or shifting in play, excessive energy will be wasted fighting the body wanting to rotate, which means you will fatigue easier than you really should. Postural issues such as this straight up make running gait less than efficient, which can lead to injuries and wasted energy with each step.
4. Develop Max Strength- The nervous system must be trained to tap into a wider variety of muscle fibers and to do so more efficiently. The more force you can put into the ground with each strike, the faster you will be. The stronger you are, the easier your body has to work with each step. Its like giving your body a bigger engine; a v8 vs a v4. To do this, heavy weights must be lifted for multiple sets of 2-5 reps (specifics will depend on the athlete) in big bang exercises like squats, deadlifts, rows and presses.
5. Develop Speed Strength- Training the nervous system to activate more fibers faster will make you faster and take time off of your race. This can be done with exercises such as speed squats and speed pulls, for multiple sets of 2-10 reps. For straight speed strength, the lower rep range will be used. For speed strength endurance, the higher rep range will be used. Unlike powerlifting speed work, where only the lower rep range for speed work is usually needed, endurance athletes will also need endurance speed work to be programmed in for optimal carryover to race performance.
6. Perform Free Motion Functional Movements with Strength Training To train for performance, muscular coordination, balance, stabilization and movement patterns must all be addressed with exercise. This means that squatting, pulling, pushing, rotation and locomotive variations all better be addressed within a runner’s strength training program. (Unless you run while sitting down on a pad while the rest of your body is stabilized for you that is).
7. Develop Other Energy Systems- Endurance activities primarily train aerobic endurance; however, all energy systems are active to some extent. Developing anaerobic capacity, anaerobic power and aerobic power will assist the aerobic system and will make you faster, more durable and will give you that extra kick when you need it. Anaerobic capacity can be trained by performing high intensity intervals with an activity such as a sprint for a long period of time. This trains the body to buffer substances such as hydrogen ions more effectively and trains the body to perform at higher intensities for a longer duration of time without gassing out. Rest periods will be long enough to allow the body to generate sufficient intensity but not long enough to develop full power, which is mentioned next.
Anaerobic power can be trained with a similar activity but with a longer rest period between rounds. This trains the body to perform as fast and powerfully as possible while utilizing the fastest of the fast twitch muscle fibers. Each individual round is more important here.
Training for aerobic power trains the heart to pump blood stronger with each beat and betters the aerobic system’s ability to work effectively (i.e. deliver oxygen) towards higher intensity ranges and heart rates. Increasing the heart’s performance here will make aerobic endurance work feel like cake. This is done with fairly high intensity activities with the heart rate towards the upper end of the aerobic range but below anaerobic range. The intensity and heart rate is not quite as high as anaerobic work (which can get up to 180+) but it is significantly higher than typical aerobic endurance work (150-160+ vs. 120-140) and the work to rest ratio is generally 1-1 to 1-0.5. Sprints, prowler work, sled work, jump rope, kettlebell drills and battle ropes are all good options to train these qualities. I highly recommend checking out Ultimate MMA Conditioning by Joel Jameison and Block Periodization by Vladimir Issurin to learn more about specific energy system development. Bill Hartman also has tons of great info on specific energy system development. Priceless sources full of great information!
The amount of training that should be spent training these different qualities will vary by individual but in general you don’t need to spend more than 3 to 4 weeks at a time hitting anaerobic work. Aerobic training can be done for longer time periods as there is more room for development and less negative stress on the body.
8. Develop Fast Twitch Oxidative Fibers- Your body has different muscle fiber types. There are two fast twitch types. Although primarily used for high intensity power movements, one fast twitch type has quite the potential to assist with endurance, known as fast twitch oxidative fibers. Developing these fibers can go a long way with assisting your performance. These will be developed pretty well with anaerobic capacity and aerobic power training discussed above (there will usually be some overlap between training with these two qualities). To develop these specific fibers, performing activity that is intense enough to activate the proper motor units must be done over and over again for long periods of time. A couple examples that I like to use include the following. Prowler pushing with a decently heavy weight is done for ~8-10 second trips every 20 seconds for up to 20-25 minutes. Squat variations in the 80% intensity range are done for 1-2 reps every 20-30 seconds for up to 20 minutes. This is brutally hard work but will pay off in huge dividends for any endurance athlete as developing the oxidative capacity of these fibers will give lots of assistance to the slow twitch fibers that are usually relied heavily upon during a race.
9. Develop Slow Twitch Fibers- These fibers are heavily relied upon with endurance activities. Specifically training them in the weight room can make them stronger and help them to reach their full potential. Many people don’t realize that these fibers can actually be developed outside of endurance activities. A great way to do this is by using a fairly slow tempo with exercises. Performing an exercise such as a row or squat with a 5 second eccentric and 5 second concentric phase and adding in pauses will train these fibers; thus, helping them to perform better when called upon in a race.
10. Do Something Other than Your Usual Events- If you do anything at all, at least perform some other form of training, as doing the same activity and nothing else will limit your progress. Adaptation is one of the most basic laws of performance. Your body will adapt to what you do. If all you do is run, bike, etc. you will only improve so much. Developing all of these other qualities will provide your body with the variation that it needs to improve and will give it the true help that it needs from all of the appropriate systems.
Remember, random training equals random results. Planning and programming training of these specific qualities at the right times of the training season can make or break your running performance. Create your goal, develop a plan to reach it and work hard. Want to run? Then do everything you can to run as effectively as possible.