Improve running time to exhaustion

“Strength training is an important component in most professional sports. In distance running, however, we’re in the stone ages,” says Luke Carlson, CEO of Discover Strength and strength coach for many of the elite runners of Team USA Minnesota. Carlson believes that too many distance runners leave certain performance variables to chance when they forego regular strength training.
In the world of ancillary training, there is no other type of “extra” workout that is backed by more academic literature. “The preponderance of peer-reviewed research suggests that strength training improves running performance, whether that’s running economy or time to exhaustion,” Carlson explains.

Stephen Haas, a member of Team Indiana Elite, immediately noticed a difference in both overall performance and health since joining the elite ranks and committing to an organized weekly strength workout. “I really think it has helped us a lot. No major injuries in four years in any of the guys is pretty amazing,” he says.

Brett Gotcher of McMillan Elite in Flagstaff agrees. Over the years he has had coaches who have put less emphasis on strength, but since joining McMillan, he’s seen tangible improvements in his performances. “A lot of times people associate strength training with getting buff,” says Gotcher. “That’s not our purpose at all. I think it is one important aspect that can help make someone that ‘complete’ runner we all strive to be.”

Studies prove effectiveness of strength training

Indeed, the research supports what Haas and Gotcher have seen in practice. A study conducted in 1988 at the University of Illinois, Chicago put runners and cyclists on a resistance-training program for 10 weeks three times per week. Not surprisingly, results showed that leg strength improved by 30 percent. What proved astounding was that, while VO2 max was not affected, quick bouts of running time improved by 13 percent and the athletes were able to ride an average of 85 minutes to exhaustion rather than the 71 minutes they could do before the training program.

In another study published in 2005, researchers assigned participants different training schedules to be performed twice a week for 12 weeks. The groups included running endurance training on its own, strength circuit training on its own, endurance and strength training together and a control group. Lo and behold, the group that combined endurance and strength training improved an average of 8.6 percent in a 4K time trial, increased their V02 max by an average of 10.4 percent and ran to exhaustion 13.7 percent longer than the other groups. This study emphasizes the importance of concurrent strength and endurance training.

In 2008, another study was published that assigned well-trained runners to either a control group or an intervention group — both groups performed a series of half-squats three times a week for eight weeks. Both groups continued their regular running regimen. While V02 max and body weight remained constant, the strength training group’s time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic speed improved by an impressive 21.3 percent.

Put together, a systematic review of the published literature through the spring of 2007 confirmed the positive effects of concurrent resistance and endurance training. Physiologically speaking, the studies measured a collective 4.6 percent improvement in running economy. Of more interest to runners looking for lower PRs, however, is the fact that they identified a 2.9 percent improvement in 3K/5K performances. That’s like going from a 13:30 5K to a 13:06.5.

Different routines, the same result

Again and again, the positive effects of strength training on endurance running performance have been replicated. Putting it into practice is the tough part. As Carlson explains, however, it doesn’t require a significant amount of extra time in the gym. For the Team Minnesota runners Carlson trains, he suggests about 30 minutes of 8–12 exercises, one or two times per week during the competitive season.

Carlson prescribes 6–20 reps of each exercise (some will be fatigued at 6 and others at 20), all done in a slow and controlled fashion to the point of fatigue. During a week with two scheduled strength sessions, he may give a runner the same upper body workouts both days, but varies the leg exercises. He also assigns three different exercises for the midsection: one that involves flexion, one for extension and one that rotates the torso.

Many of the elite runners spend more time doing body weight strength training than pumping iron. Recent runner-up in the USA Women’s Marathon Championships, Katie McGregor’s strength training is mostly sans weights. “I do a series of exercises including planks and hamstring curls with a stability ball. I also do split jumps and step-ups for my lower body,” she says. Depending on the exercise and her current strength, she does about three sets of 10–20 repetitions.

Gotcher makes use of similar exercises twice a week, including jumping jacks (30), side planks (1 minute on each side), step-ups on each leg (15), walking lunges (15), fit ball hamstring curls (10) and donkey kicks (15). In addition, Gotcher and his teammates do two sets of 10 pull-ups and chin-ups and 4–5 sets of 20 push-ups.

At Team Indiana Elite, Haas and his fellow harriers meet for a 90-minute strength and conditioning session twice a week at St. Vincent’s Sports Performance. This includes an intense core routine, which they say isn’t focused on the idea of strength but on avoiding muscle imbalances and maintaining good form.

Based on the various training programs used by the elites, it’s clear that we don’t yet know the ideal strength training routine. What we do know is that strength training in many different forms results in better running economy and an improvement in running time to exhaustion. Put simply, you’ll be able to run faster, longer and stronger.

“At this level, I need every edge I can get,” says McGregor. What’s more, adding this into your routine won’t mean a significant time commitment. As Carlson explains, “You don’t need to strength train that often; consistency is the key.”