To run well, you’ve got to run regularly… right? But what if you prioritise strength training over clocking up the miles – is that the key to getting faster? We explore the relationship between running and conditioning for improving that crucial 5K time.
There are two kinds of runners: the person who runs to protect their physical and emotional wellbeing, and the person who chases down PBs. Both are equally valid but at some point, many of us will want to see just how much fuel is in the tank. If speed becomes our goal, how can we achieve it? And how big a role should strength training play if we’re looking to shave down those all-important 5K or 10K times?
Sprinting requires better anaerobic fitness and recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibres, while long-distance running is about aerobic capacity and slow-twitch fibres. Because of those differences, training has to be tailored to a specific goal. If you’re training for a marathon, you might find that a Sunday morning 10K tempo run gets easier over time but a speedy 5K runner may not make it to 21K, let alone a full marathon. While strength and conditioning may keep us all safer from injury, how much strength training do we need to do to get faster?
My own running PBs have been inexorably linked periods of increased cross-training. A couple of years ago, while I was in the middle of a bodybuilding programme at a weight training gym, I ran my fastest 5K at just under 21 minutes. Since then, the intensity and regularity of my weight training have significantly decreased and with it, my capacity for speed (I struggle to push myself beyond about 24 minutes!). My fastest marathon came after four months of running twice a week and bi-weekly Hit and Run classes at Sweat It, which involved intervals of weights and sprints.
TO RUN FAST, YOU HAVE TO RUN
There are loads of different ways to get and maintain fitness. You might run or cycle, lift heavy or do a resistance workout. You could dance or do yoga. Movement can take many different forms and work many different levels of strength and endurance. Sport, however, is different. While you can bullet-proof your body by cross-training and strengthening up key muscles, becoming better at a sport requires some degree of specificity.
“You definitely need to run to be better at running,” explains online running coach Kyle Kranz. “Athletics is so very much about specificity and what I call specific endurance or the ability to tolerate exactly what you need to do for exactly the amount of time you need to do it in a race.”
Kate Carter is a runner who knows a thing or two about speed. For a start, she’s officially the fastest panda in the world (running a marathon in 3:48:32). Her non-panda 5K personal best? A mere 18 minutes and 16 seconds – which is about the time it takes for most of us to lace up our trainers and make it to the start line. She’s on the same page as Kyle but firmly believes that to “get used to running a bit faster, you need to run faster.” As a former Couch to 5K graduate, she says that once you’re used to running that distance, you’ll start to see gains and improvements “simply by keeping on doing it”. The problem comes when the plateau hits; if you’re running a couple of 5Ks a week, the chances are that you won’t see a significant improvement each time, “and that’s when you might need to explore different types of running (intervals, or hill repeats, or similar). It’s also when you might find that you improve by adjusting your schedule – like, doing two shorter runs and one longer one. The longer one will build endurance so that suddenly the shorter, faster 5K doesn’t seem quite as bad!”
Of course, there is also the point that you probably wouldn’t go chasing a one-rep max PB without working up to it – so why would you go for a 5K PB without running? PT and running coach Tashi Skervin-Clarke says that it’s “unlikely” that you’ll get a running PB without doing any running, “just like it’s unlikely you’ll get a new squat PB without doing any squats”.
BUT STRENGTH TRAINING WILL HELP YOU TO RUN FASTER
Kyle admits that if you could already run a 5K or 10K and had no real strength training experience before starting a regular running-specific strength training programme, you’d “probably see an improvement in your running ability through improved general fitness and strength”. So yes, you might get a better time by choosing squats over miles but the proviso is that you can already run that distance. “While running is a sport of specificity, if you were to even generally improve somebody’s fitness abilities, they could probably run a faster 5K just from that improvement alone.”
Strength training is part of that plateau-busting arsenal. While you probably don’t want to exclusively strength train if running is your goal, you will find that adding weighted or bodyweight workouts into your weekly regime is going to have a massively beneficial impact on how you run. A 2009 study by Sato and Mokha divided 28 recreational runners with 5K PBs of just under 30 minutes into two groups. For six weeks, both groups continued their regular training but one was given a set of five exercises to be performed four times a week in 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps each. Exercises done with an exercise ball included crunches, back extensions, Russian twists and hip bridges, and they were also asked to do alternating superman (lying on the belly, opposite arm and leg raise). Researchers found that while the group who did these stability exercises didn’t see any improvement to their running form, they were able to shave an average of 47 seconds off their running time, compared to 17 seconds in the non-S&C group.
It’s not the only study to confirm that strength training can make us speedier runners, and the fact is, running faster does tend to make us run better. As you gain speed, you naturally run taller, more economically and with better foot control. A 2014 study on the topic published in the European Journal of Sports Science found that the reason strength training makes you faster is that it lowers the amount of energy required to hit a certain pace. Your body becomes more able to recruit fatigue-resistance muscle fibres, meaning that you’ll eventually exert less energy by moving faster.
According to the Yale School of Medicine, at least 50% of regular runners get hurt every year – usually as a result of overdoing it. Strength training’s key benefit is that it can help us to find imbalances and offer an alternative to heading out and over-loading the same muscles.
Think about the kind of full-body workout we have on SWTC. You start off with mobility (runners are prone to be super tight and stiff, which makes them more susceptible to injury) before targeting big muscle groups and imbalances. A strength circuit might go from front raises to single-leg deadlifts, goblet squats and renegade rows to push-ups. You’re targeting every muscle needed to run – the core which keeps you standing tall, the glutes and hamstrings that get you moving, the shoulder girdle that stops you from slouching forwards. Those single-side exercises help to even out inequalities that can crop up when running – and which left unattended to can result in ankle, knee and hip issues. In fact, Kate says that if you’re already consistent with your running, swapping one or two running sessions for a strength and conditioning (S&C) workout will result in “pretty good, pretty quick gains”.
CAN YOU RUN FASTER WITH STRENGTH TRAINING ALONE?
If you’re planning on sprinting your way through a 5K after nothing but S&C sessions for a couple of weeks, you may find yourself running into difficulties – particularly if you start without a serious warm-up. However, in the long term, “building in S&C should actually reduce your risk of injury because you can really work on weaker areas and help build up strength,” Kate says.
She uses the example of doing more core work. “When you get tired on a run, your form tends to degrade. Not everyone is the same of course, but generally, people do tend to ‘slump’ a bit more, look down, rounded back, might get a stitch, etc. If you have a really strong core, that will hopefully stop that happening as much.” She also says that from her experience, really concentrating on building strong glutes with weights, resistance bands and body weight can have a hugely beneficial effect. “The glutes are the biggest muscle but they can often be a bit ‘lazy’ and not do their fair share, which results in injuries elsewhere such as in the calves or hamstrings, which have to overcompensate. Having good, strong glutes is an all-round win.”
Tashi also warns that sprinting without adequate running training can lead to serious injury. “Starting off too quickly could end in muscle tears due to a lack of muscle conditioning,” she explains. To avoid injury, she suggests following a training plan that focuses on building your speed and adds strength work to improve muscle conditioning.
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HOW OFTEN SHOULD WE TRAIN?
Someone like Kate might do gym work and weight training four times a week, but the optimum amount of S&C is really down to the individual runner. “Though that’s probably not as much as it sounds as the classes my gym does combine weights, bodyweight stuff, and conditioning. Plus, I have the upper body strength of a feeble gnat, so I’m not exactly waving around massive barbells! At the moment it’s all on Zoom of course, and I probably do about five classes a week – lots of them are ‘glutes and core’ ones,” she explains. Oh, and she also dabbles in pilates – again, another core-busting workout.
4 TIPS FOR RUNNING FASTER
- Consistency is key. Get in a regular amount of runs or miles a week – whatever works for you. There’s no ideal number and no perfect calculator, but running is simple and that’s part of the satisfaction: if you put in the work, you do get the reward.
- Concentrate on running-specific S&C. “Hip/glutes/core muscles are really important,” Kyle says. He also recommends more dynamic exercises like jumping rope, as an example of a “super running-specific exercise that’s easy to do in terms of space and equipment.” For your strength work, think about including lunges, split squats, deadlifts (single leg, if you can) and cossacks into your sessions – concentrating on activating those big muscle groups and focussing on balance, stability and core-activation.
- Make time for intervals. Interval training helps massively because it’s teaching your body to run faster… by running faster! Build in small blocks of running at your target paces – 6 x 3 mins, or 5 x 5 mins could be a good place to start. Those small pockets of sprinting will develop your cardiovascular system as well as your mental resilience. A programme like Garmin Coach can set out tempo, interval, easy and long runs for you, saving you the issue of creating plans and staying accountable.
- Mind over matter. “So much of running ‘well’ (as in, getting the PB you are after) is about not giving up when it gets hard and pushing yourself a little harder than you thought you could,” says Kate. “That’s what brings the rewards but also makes you feel great afterwards. If you practice that in training, then it tends to happen that little bit easier on the day of your race/time trial/PB attempt.”
Test your balance and work those key running muscles with this compound move. Squat deep and engage the core and glutes for the leg lift.
Check out more of the SWTC How-To videos for plenty of pre-run warm-up ideas.
Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.