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Power & Strength Training for Distance Runners

Group Strength Training Performing DeadliftsTraining for physical fitness or sports performance involves interplay between frequency, intensity, time, and type of exercise (Pescatello, 2014). All of these variables are determined by the demands of the sport; primarily what type of energy system is used and what are the main muscles involved in the activity. Coaches need to design exercise programs with the right volume and intensity to elicit the physiological changes required to excel in a given competition. Of these variables frequency and time can be more narrowly defined as training volume which is a main factor under the control of the coach.

Volume encompasses the frequency and duration of the training, including the number of repetitions and sets of each workout (Bompa & Buzzichelli, 2019). Repetitions and sets performed during a workout also apply to specific drills performed during a workout (Bompa & Buzzichelli, 2019). Programming higher volume during the precomputation season lays a solid foundation for the athlete to be able to tolerate greater workloads and intensity as the competition season approaches.

Intensity is the other main factor that determines physiological adaptations to a workout and must be appropriate to the requirements of the sport to enhance performance. Intensity refers to the workload of the workout and can be measured in a few different ways, such as heart rate, perception of exertion, power output, or percentage of lactate threshold (Bompa & Buzzichelli, 2019). When coaches are programing, it is essential to remember that volume and intensity are inversely related; as volume increases, intensity must decrease and vice versa. Both volume and intensity directly affect the adaptation to training and thus their programming should mirror the physical and physiological requirements of the athlete’s sport.

Runners rely heavily on aerobic metabolism for their energy needs as distances over a few kilometers take 30 minutes to hours, depending on the distance. However, there is also a moderate reliance on glycolysis for periods of the race where intensity increases, such as an elevation gain or the final sprint to the finish line. While this energy reliance dictates aerobic training, this is by no means the only training runners should perform. It was once thought that runners needed to train over long distances to get better at running; however, science shows us this is not the most effective way to enhance running performance. While running is primarily aerobic, developing anaerobic capacity is essential for successful running. An enhanced anaerobic capacity raises the lactate threshold, allowing runners to maintain a higher pace without fatiguing (Powers & Howley, 2018).

Another long-standing belief for running performance was that strength and power training were not beneficial aspects to focus on, which has proven incorrect. Adequate strength enhances the biomechanics of running, leading to enhanced performance and reduced risk of knee, ankle, and hip injuries associated with running (Moffit et al., 2020). Strength is also an essential prerequisite to power because power is a muscle’s ability to exert high levels of force rapidly and is positively correlated with running economy. Power training for runners has been proven to enhance performance by decreasing ground reaction times and improving tendon stiffness and reactive strength, leading to better running economy.

References:

Li, F., Newton, R., Shi, Y., Sutton, D., & Ding, H. (2018). Correlation of eccentric strength, reactive strength and leg stiffness with running economy in well-trained distance runners.  Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 35(6), 1491-1499.

Moffit, T., Montgomery, M., Lockie, R., & Pamukoff, D. (2020). Association between knee- and hip-extensor strength and running-related injury biomechanics in collegiate distance runners.  Journal of Athletic Training, 55(12), 1262-1269.

Pescatello, L. S. (2014). General Principles of Exercise Participation. In ACSM's guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (9th ed., pp. 162-190). essay, Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.

Tomlin, D., & Wenger, H. (2012). The relationship between aerobic fitness and recovery from high intensity intermittent exercise. Sports Medicine, 31, 1-11.

Powers, S. K., & Howley, E. T. (2018). The Physiology of Training: Effects on VO2 max, Performance and Strength. In Exercise physiology: theory and application to fitness and performance (10th ed., pp. 293-328). essay, McGraw-Hill Education.