It’s a myth that low-resistance, high-rep workouts that promote endurance are the best form of strength-training for runners, researchers say.
Running itself is the best endurance training for muscles, they write in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. But to improve speed as well as oxygen and energy use, studies show that “explosive” heavy-resistance exercises should be an important part of a runner’s routine.
“Research tells us that runners have certain beliefs around running injury risks, injury prevention and performance that are in contrast to current research evidence,” said James Alexander of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, the lead author of an infographic based on reviews of existing research.
“It is these beliefs which drive runners to continue to pursue ineffective or non-optimal strategies within their running training, whether it be static stretching for injury prevention or low-load strength training for performance,” he told Reuters Health by email.
Alexander and his coauthors are physiotherapists and researchers who run most days of the week and work with runners of all abilities daily. In talking with clients, Alexander said, he and colleagues often spend time correcting misunderstandings and educating them on best practices when it comes to strength training.
They have created a series of five “Running Myth” infographics that will be published in the journal in coming months.
In the first one, the authors suggest, strength training should be completed two to three times per week for six weeks or more to improve endurance running performance, running economy and maximal sprint speed. Studies have shown that strength training programs enhance running economy - meaning oxygen and energy use - by 2%-8%, as well as time trial performance by 2%-5%, which could shave a minute or two off 10k races, they note.
Consistency is the key, they add. Performance benefits improve as the program continues and fall away within about six weeks after training stops.
Specifically, they recommend lifting loads at 60%-80% of one-repetition maximum, or the heaviest weight that can be lifted with maximum effort in a single repetition, for three to six sets of 5-15 reps. For distance runners, training to repetition failure is not recommended, they add.
These strength exercises could include barbell squats, deadlifts, step-ups, lunges and calf raises. In addition, runners should allow more than three hours of recovery time between running and resistance sessions and 24 hours of recovery after strength training before a high-intensity running session.
Exercise selection, weight, sets, reps and recovery depend on an individual’s needs, injury history, goals, ability and training experience, the authors note, so it’s important to seek guidance from an experienced health professional or coach. Those without strength training experience, should gradually increase training loads to reduce the risk of injury and overtraining.
“Another myth is that strength training-induced muscle hypertrophy might make runners heavier, which could compromise running economy,” said Benedito Denadai of Sao Paulo State University in Rio Claro, Brazil, who wasn’t involved in the infographic.
“However, there is a phenomenon known as concurrent effect that blunts the ability of muscles to expand when strength training and aerobic training are performed conjunctly,” he told Reuters Health by email. “Gains in muscle mass are not an issue for runners who perform strength training.”
“Endurance running and strength training exercise sit at opposite ends of a training continuum, therefore it seems counterintuitive and illogical for a distance runner to add strength work to their training program,” noted Richard Blagrove of Loughborough University in the UK, who also wasn’t involved in the infographic.
“Many exercises performed in gym settings bear little resemblance to the running action, therefore it is often assumed they shouldn’t be used because they aren’t ‘specific’ enough,” he told Reuters Health by email. “These assumptions are myths that require addressing.”