Kudos! You’ve been incorporating strength training for more than 2-years now and you need more advanced strategies to really take your running to the next level.
If you are looking to really fine tune your strength training program to improve performance, increase elasticity and running speed, and reduce the likelihood of injury, then this article is for you. I do not recommend many of these strategies if you have limited strength training experience (less than 2-years) as you first need to understand technique/form on the basic lifts, how a periodized strength training program can fit alongside your running plan, and how to adequately recover to make sure your running doesn’t suffer. Then, and only then, would I recommend adding these advanced strategies into your program.
In today’s article, I want to cover various advanced strategies that can take your running to the next level. They include:
- Power training
- Heavy strength training
- Post-activation potentiation
Plyometrics is a movement-based strategy that incorporates jumping and landing to increase the shock absorption and energy transfer capabilities of the musculotendinous unit. Plain and simple, how efficiently can your body store and release energy to increase quickness and reduce the energy requirement during a specific task.
If we think about how this relates to running, it is very important. Running is a very plyometric-like activity. That’s because it requires these alternating bounds, float phases, quick ground contacts, and cyclical repetitions for miles and miles.
If we are able to improve the lower extremity’s ability to absorb and create energy, this means the body does not need to work as hard to create that energy itself and can do so in a more effortless and explosive manner. This improvement would ultimately lead to better running economy and less energy wasted, therefore improving your running performance and speed.
Like anything else, plyometrics is a skill which needs to be taught in a sequential fashion. My recommendation is that you first learn how to properly jump and land with emphasis on a quick push-off and soft-landing.
Three exercises which make this a priority are the vertical jump & stick, bound, and single leg jump & stick (shown below)…
If you have not been incorporating any movements which require a push-off and landing within your strength training program, adding these landing-based plyometrics alone will provide much benefit. Start with 2-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions and take ample rest in between sets. When you increase the speed and explosiveness of a movement, rest time needs to increase to allow for full neural and muscular recovery.
The next step is ultimately to improve the storage and release of energy in the musculotendinous unit. This requires multiple jumps being completed very rapidly in succession.
Three of my favorite plyometric drills are ankles hops, squat jumps, and repetitive single leg jumps (shown below)…
What is important to realize when it comes to plyometrics for runners is the limited range of motion required throughout the running cycle. Therefore, when performing these plyometric drills, you do not need to lower all the way into the bottom of the position. Instead, quickly lower to absorb force and then get into the air rapidly. It’s this quick transition from the landing to the jump which will ultimately create the best results.
Once again, anytime you are incorporating plyometrics rest and recovery is very important. Start by completing 2-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions and allow adequate recovery between sets.
Power training is a form of resistance training that focuses on quick and rapid muscular contractions. In contrast to strength training, the key difference is the force being exerted in the shortest time possible. Plyometrics can in fact be a subset of power training. But, for the purpose of this article, we will focus primarily on loaded movements with barbells or dumbbells.
Because running is an endurance activity, it’s hard to fathom the need for olympic weightlifting, weighted squat jumps, medicine ball throws, and other power-based exercises. But, if we review the demands of the sport, it’s easy to understand that running economy and speed greatly benefit from training explosively. Not to mention the resilience and tolerance to load it provides for bone and tendons when training this way.
There are endless options when recommending which exercises are the most impactful. I usually program power exercises based on the runner, their lifting experience, and any underlying limitations which would limit their effectiveness or increase the risk of injury.
Over the years, I have narrowed down this category to a few reliable movements which most runners can benefit from. They include the barbell squat jump, power shrug, hang high pull, and single arm dumbbell snatch. These exercises are very similar as they require moving a set resistance as quickly as possible using the lower extremity.
When programming these power exercises, it’s important to find a resistance that you are able to move rapidly from point A to point B. Increasing resistance too quickly will result in a slower movement that defeats the purpose of this style of training for runners. Incorporate 2-4 sets of 3-5 repetitions while prioritizing plenty of rest in between sets to fully recover.
Heavy Strength Training
Heavy strength training is likely the most similar to what you’ve been utilizing within your lifting program thus far, but not to the same degree. If you’ve already been incorporating strength training then you are most of the way there. Now, I’d like you to find a handful exercises that you can really load in terms of resistance.
Running is a bodyweight activity, I agree wholeheartedly. But, as you increase running speed and account for the amount of ground reaction forces encountered during foot strike, you’ll quickly realize the need to increase load within your strength training program.
Research tells us that the body has to withstand 2-6 times it’s bodyweight during each foot strike. That’s massive! And, if you are only lifting light weights in the 12-20 repetition range, what is preparing your bones, joints, and tissues to handle this amount of force?
Another reason heavy strength training is helpful for runners is by increasing speed. In order to be faster, we must teach the body how to recruit more muscle fibers. The more muscle fibers recruited, the greater degree of strength and power that can be expressed.
I always tell my runners… If you train slow, you will be slow. That’s why several of these strategies should be included in your strength training program to build resilience and speed. In addition to those running-related strategies such as track workouts, hill repeats, etc.
Of course, some exercises lend themselves more easily to being loaded in a simple and effective way. Although none are completely off the table. Several of my favorite heavy loaded strength exercises for runners are the trap bar deadlift, rack pull, and back squat.
Because increased loading is the goal, I often program bilateral exercises to accomplish this. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t load up split squats, rear foot elevated split squats, and single leg deadlifts. Truth is, most of my runners also perform heavy split stance and single leg exercises depending on where they are within their running plan.
When performing these heavy strength exercises, focus on 3-4 sets of 2-6 repetitions. This should be a high percentage of your one repetition maximum and therefore requires adequate rest in between sets for full recovery.
Post-activation potentiation (PAP) is a concept that aims to increase the force exerted due to a previous muscular contraction. For instance, PAP utilizes a heavy loaded strength movement followed by a plyometric movement. The thought is that this first movement makes the muscle fibers more sensitive to a contraction or there is greater excitation within the spinal cord which amplifies the subsequent plyometric movement.
Now, before we dig deeper, some of the research states that this type of training might be more beneficial in people with a greater composition of type II muscle fibers. So why am I sharing this when speaking to distance runners? Because it could have a positive impact on running speed and tendon storage/release. And, it has been something that I have experimented with on some of my running clients.
Two pairings of exercises to incorporate PAP are the trap bar deadlift with bounds and back squat with squat jumps. It’s important to use movements which are similar to target the same muscle fibers. The trap bar deadlift and bound are more of a hip dominant strategy, while the back squat and squat jump are knee dominant.
With more research needed on this area, I would recommend 2-4 sets of 4-6 repetitions. The goal is to keep your strength movement heavy enough while still maintaining the integrity of the plyometric. Therefore, like every other strategies in this article, adequate rest is necessary between sets. One article recommended up to 7-10 minutes between sets of moderate intensity lifting.
After reviewing these strategies and reflecting on your current strength training routine, it’s important to consider what small changes you can make to take things to the next level. As always, I highly recommend incorporating these new strategies during your off-season period. I understand that the “off-season” is relative for each runner. But, if you finished your goal race or don’t have anything scheduled for another 16-weeks, then you have the green light.
Thanks for taking the time to read this article. If you have questions about this topic or want to work more closely in-person or remotely in the Online Movement Coaching Program, click here to contact me.
By: Garrett McLaughlin, MS, ATC, CSCS, ART