The importance of maximal strength training in runners,
why you should be doing it!

One Performance UK | Personal Training Gym and Clinic | Richmond London | Runners |
Billy and Derrick are both training for a marathon. Billy back squats 3 sets of 20 reps at 50% of his maximum followed by 100’s of crunches and butterfly kicks. Derrick back squats 5 sets of 3 reps at 85% of his maximum followed by accessory single leg work. Billy doesn’t know what he is doing. Be more like Derrick.

Typically, one would think by doing lots of repetitions would be more specific to performing a marathon - high volume, low intensity. Whilst it certainly may have a place for a complete beginner (check “understanding stress induced by training”) time might be better spent elsewhere. The reason being, if you are completing a marathon you will already be doing plenty of reps per minute when running. The strength endurance parameter is already being taken care of, doing extra strength endurance work in the weight room is not creating sufficient stimulus.
The higher the ceiling the more you can fit underneath it
Why getting stronger can help

Performance wise we look at two factors. Darcy Norman, director of performance at AS Roma and previously the German national football team stated “Firstly, we can increase the athlete’s ability to do more work in the same amount of time. Secondly, make the athlete more efficient at movement so he or she is able to do the same amount of work in less time. In one case, we are working on the force side of the equation, and in the other we are working on the efficiency side”.

In summary, the greater the development of maximal strength the greater the reserve for lower intensity tasks. The higher the ceiling the more you can fit underneath it.

Let’s say for arguments sake Billy and Derek both weigh 85kg. If Billy’s back squat is 40kg maximum and Derricks back squat is 140kg maximum. Who has a greater tolerance to stress? Who has the greatest potential to produce force per kg of bodyweight? Who has a decreased energy demand?

I should hope we are now favouring Derrick.
One Performance UK | Personal Training Gym and Clinic | Richmond London | Runner Training |
The science - How does this happen?

Role of the Tendons

Tendons connect muscle to bone for the transmission of forces producing movement. Think of tendons as a storage of elastic properties whilst the structure itself isn’t very elastic it allows for the absorption and transfer of energy. Without having sufficient muscular strength, we are unable to maximise tendon elasticity. Cal Dietz explains “think of the muscular system and the tendon attachments as two springs that work together to produce force”. It has been shown we can improve tendon strength and durability. We can develop tendon strength specifically through higher intensity eccentric strength training and plyometric training. It has been suggested again from Cal Dietz with his Triphasic training “the greater the tendon strength the less metabolic stress we incur”. The bad thing is, it takes a while to see progressive changes in tissue. It has been suggested that collagen synthesis can take up to 3 months.

(Sebastian Bohm, 2015) stated “Based on the results of the present meta-analysis, we can conclude that high magnitude loading (i.e., muscle contraction intensity) is most effective to elicit tendon adaptation and that longer intervention durations (>12 weeks) are beneficial compared to shorter ones”

I think this is the biggest possible reason as to why we see so many overuse injuries when people start increasing their mileage. “Mechanical factors, overuse and lack of flexibility increase tendon strain surpassing the energy-absorbing ability leading to micro tears” (Van Sterkenburg, 2011).

Simply because of adaption rates the tendons take longer to adjust to higher volume work, it is interesting to note muscle tissue has a far quicker rate of adaptation. Coach Sommer, a USA gymnastics national coach consistently mentions this when talking about progressing too quickly in gymnastic movements e.g. kipping, higher intensity isometric holds.

Whilst I’m sure there is some relevant research out there somewhere, it would be interesting to see the difference between muscular tissue injures vs. tendon injuries in marathon runners and sprinters. I would expect (and from experience) to see higher instances of tendon injuries e.g. Achilles tendonitis in long distance runners. This is due to a tendon strength deficit. I would expect higher instances of muscular injuries e.g. hamstring tear in sprinters due to muscular strength deficit. Just a theory! This is why it is important to train and programme correctly when going into a long-distance event.
We see so many overuse injuries when people start increasing their mileage
One Performance UK | Personal Training Gym and Clinic | Richmond London | Runners Injury |
Neural adaptations

Running Is a skill. If you go down to your local park run, watch the variety of techniques. Who would agree that some of those techniques need to be adapted for those individuals to maximise their work capacity? How can we make them more efficient? Developing and understanding the skill is paramount. Neuromuscular adaptations, the more co-ordinated and synchronized we are the quicker we will be. The crossover is; the stronger we are the less breakdown we will see in our skill. We have all felt it the last mile of a long run, slumping shoulders, dragging our feet, looking like you’re a part of a zombie apocalypse. The stronger we are the higher degree of skill we can attain and uphold thus allowing us to maintain a mechanical advantageous position.

The take homes

  • Strength training specifically maximal strength training has been shown to increase performance in endurance sports from running marathons to triathlons.

  • Aerobic work is your foundation, the energy requirements of a marathon is aerobic. Maximal strength training is not to replace or substitute developing that aerobic foundation. If you are running a marathon… the most important thing is to…. Run. Building your aerobic capacity allows us to consistently express force over longer durations. Joel Jamison writes in “8 weeks out” about the reciprocal nature of our energy systems.

  • If you are a complete beginner jumping into a heavy resistance programme in order to improve your marathon time isn’t your best bet. Read the blog on stress induced by training for further understanding and re-read take home number 2!

  • If you are a complete beginner in terms of long distance endurance events, specifically marathons, leave yourself plenty of time for physiological adaptations to take place. With no previous extended running experience signing up to a marathon in 3 months in my opinion is like rolling the dice. Remember it can take up to 3 months seeing any structural changes to a tendon!

  • There are two groups of people, those who want to run a marathon pain free and be happy they achieved it or those who are competitive and wanting to set a really good time. Either one should be spending 9 months to a year with dedicated consistent training in order to achieve those goals. I’ve never once heard anyone say I want to run a marathon with knee pain whilst taking me 7 hours….

  • How do I programme maximal strength training and aerobic training? This is a good question. A combination of maximal strength training and aerobic training will yield improvements. But because they are two completely different components of fitness it is hard to maximise optimal gains from both concurrently. This could be another blog post and potentially will be but I like to sum it up like this; I always go back to the needs analysis of the individual and the sport. You are always best focusing on your biggest weakness, as long as you have sufficient capacity in what the sport/event requires of you. For example, if I am 6 months away from running a marathon and I can squat 200kg and deadlift 220kg do I need to get stronger? Those are pretty elite numbers, how much performance can I expect to gain in an endurance event if I added 5kg to my squat and deadlift? Simply put the dynamic correspondence is extremely low. My time would be well spent working on skill variables, single leg drills and my aerobic capacity with maintenance maximal strength work. If, however I am a seasoned marathon runner but I struggle to perform a single leg squat without falling over, I should probably get stronger whilst maintaining aerobic fitness.

Jamie Scott