A lot of people think that you should lift or do “core work” to prevent injury, but really, the best kind of strength for injury prevention is boring, physical-therapy style exercises for hip strength. Scientific research supports strengthening the hip muscles, ESPECIALLY the abductors and external rotators, as a way to prevent injury—especially knee injuries like runner’s knee or IT band syndrome, but hip strength appears to be connected with overall injury rates as well.
Jay Johnson has a nice video showcasing the pedestal routine. I have runners do a few of the exercises differently because of personal preference, but the differences are mostly trivial. Again, this is only one example; there’s a wide variety of hip and core strength workouts you could devise or uncover.
In terms of building general strength, there are a huge number of ways to go about doing this. When I say “general strength” what I mean is just all-around muscular endurance and coordination. This is not specific to running in any particular way, but it serves two purposes in runners. First, it improves overall athleticism, which I feel is beneficial in runners from an injury prevention perspective (but there isn’t great scientific evidence for this just yet), and second, it serves as a general background for the running workouts in which you will need to recruit your muscle fibers while you’re fatigued. Think about it this way: when you are about to kick during a race, you need to recruit a lot of muscle fibers to change gears and increase your speed. A general strength circuit simulates this same type of situation (muscle recruitment while very fatigued) but in a general, non-running specific way. In this manner, it serves as a foundation for running-specific muscle recruitment while fatigued, which can be developed later.
To achieve these goals, I think that general strength work should be circuit-based: you should do a medium number (10-25) of repeats of several exercises (total of 5-15 exercises) in quick succession, taking little or no recovery between the different exercises. These exercises should also target the whole range of muscles in your body, and they should be done at a very high intensity (i.e. not sandbagging it). Doing a general strength routine at anything less than full effort won’t properly improve muscle recruitment while you’re fatigued. General strength work can be done in the weight room with a circuit comprised of different weight machines, but body-weight exercises are at least as good, if not better, at achieving the goals of a general strength routine. Multi-joint body weight exercises like burpees, rocket jumps, mountain climbers, and push-ups are all great candidates to be done as part of a general strength routine. Since it is, after all, a “general” strength routine, the specific exercises you do isn’t that important, as long as you’re hitting a lot of different muscle groups, ideally with multi-joint compound exercises.
|John Cook’s general strength circuits|
Most of the running research in the past several years on weight training has been directed at routines designed to improve maximum muscle recruitment. This is where the weight room really shines: with body weight stuff or even actual running (with the possible exception of steep uphill sprints) it’s not possible to get the kind of muscle recruitment you can get in something like a heavy squat. However, the kind of lifting that runners were so afraid of for so long because they thought it would bulk you up with excess muscle. As it turns out, it’s basically impossible to add any significant amount of muscle mass if you are running a lot. The biological mechanism that signals your body to increase muscle size (mTOR) is overridden by the biological mechanism that signals for improvements in endurance (AMPK for the biologically-inclined).
To improve maximum muscle recruitment, the star exercises for this are heavy, compound lifts—meaning lifts that use multiple joints. Since we obviously want to improve leg muscle recruitment, far and away the two best exercises are the squat and the power clean, with deadlifts as a possible third candidate. Now from what I’ve read, to actually target maximum muscle recruitment, you’d be looking at doing something like 2 sets of 5 or 3 sets of 4 reps, at pretty close to the maximum weight you could manage for 4/5 reps. Leading up to these “work sets” you’d have 1-3 warm-up sets at substantially lower weights. However you do need a good base (i.e. several weeks or months) of general strength before starting weight room stuff, since distance runners are notoriously weak.
The problem with this kind of work, and the reason I’m hesitant to recommend it to everybody, is that it creates an injury risk if you are lifting very heavy weights and have no idea how to do the lift properly. The deadlift and especially the power clean are most susceptible to this, but there are plenty of ways to screw up the squat, too. In an ideal world, you’d have a strength and conditioning coach to work with who can show you the correct way to do these lifts, but that’s just not the reality for everyone. You can do the leg press as an okay substitute for the squat and deadlift, but the power clean really has no substitute.
The other downside about lifting very heavy is that it’s quite taxing to your central nervous system to do on a regular basis. The general consensus appears to be that you should only lift heavy 2x per week at most, and maybe only 1x per week if you have a race that week.
Finally, to build running-specific explosive strength, you want to use plyometrics, a.k.a “jump training.” Doing plyometrics requires a good general strength basis as well. A good plyometric routine should progress from more basic and non-running-specific exercises like double leg hops towards more advanced, higher impact, and more running-specific work. The “gold standard” of plyometrics for runners are power skipping (skipping for height AND distance) and bounding. Plyometrics have some very good research behind them—even one study that looked at elite-level 3k runners (the average person in the study had run a sub-9:10 two mile equivalent 3k). Most studies have the runners do plyos 3x per week, but from what I’ve read in the coaching literature, doing them 2x per week is more appropriate. The coaching literature also cautions that heavy weight lifting AND plyometrics at the same time can also overload your nervous system, so ideally you’d phase out the heavy lifting as you phase in plyometrics, only returning once a week or so for some “maintenance lifting.”
Building a good plyometrics routine is a huge pain. Again, in the ideal world you’d have a strength & conditioning coach do this for you but that’s not realistic for everyone! You can find some decent schedules in books on plyometrics, but they are mostly designed for long jumpers, soccer players, or sprinters.
When it comes to putting it all together, injury prevention work should be priority #1. Do hip strength, plus any other rehab exercises you need to do to stay healthy—this will vary from person to person; maybe you’ve sprained your ankle a lot and need to do balance work, maybe you have tight calves and need to stretch them several times a day, etc.— pretty much every single day year-round. You can add a short core routine like Pedestal or some mobility/light leg strength like lunge variants if you’d like. Once you’ve gotten used to that, you can add on a general strength circuit (body weight exercises, weight machines at low weights, medicine ball throws, or whatever suits your fancy) three times per week to build general strength. AFTER you’ve mastered your general strength work (a process which will take at least several weeks!) you can start going to the weight room for maximal muscle strength lifting if you so desire. With this, keep it simple: build up over time to high weight, low reps, only a few sets, and only a handful of compound exercises. Also AFTER mastering general strength, you can add in a plyometric routine instead of or in addition to weight lifting.
How important is strength work? For the strength stuff that keeps you from getting injured, very important. If you’re not healthy, you can’t train. Everything else helps—potentially a lot—but isn’t absolutely vital. Kenyans do a good bit of body weight exercises, but they don’t all hit the gym to lift heavy 3x per week. On the flip side, almost every American pro these days spends a lot of time in the weight room, so it’s obviously useful if you can spare the time and you’re generally doing the right thing.