To run fast, you need to run more – that’s true. But the real speed will come from supplementing your running sessions with strength exercises that target your butt, leg and core muscles and weekly sprint sessions – as runner and Strong Women editor, Miranda Larbi, found out.
To run well, you’ve got to run. That’s the general consensus among runners – you can do all the strength training, stretching and reading up in the world but unless you clock up the miles, you’ll never really improve. That might be true to some extent, but I’ve found that after you’ve reached a certain level, those little extras can make the world of difference to your speed, endurance and enjoyment.
For years, all I did was run. I wasn’t anything special but I could run 10km in under an hour. It was only when I signed up for my first marathon, however, that I was advised to get in the gym and start squatting.
Those weekly weights sessions were a hellish experience at the time. I couldn’t really see the point in them and found interval training really hard – as hard as the long runs which would see me trudging 15 miles on a Saturday morning. While I managed to finish the marathon in around 4:20 hours, I was broken.
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The second marathon I ran, however, was a totally different story. Rather than spending the months ahead running, I spent the majority of my time in the gym concentrating on heavy squatting, lunging, deadlifting and sprinting on the treadmill. By the time the race came around, I was convinced that my total lack of road running (except for my weekly long run) would leave me crippled. On race day, I cantered across the finish line with a sub-4 PB in the bag – having chatted for umpteen miles – and genuinely felt good. Even the DOMs felt easier to manage than they did the first time around.
It wasn’t just my marathon time that improved either; I ran my fastest 5km and half marathon times after periods of regular strength training and very little running.
Weight lifting for more leg power
The main difference, undoubtedly, was strength and sprint training. I was stronger and fitter, my running muscles were less overworked and my core stability was better than ever – something so many of us runners fail to take into account.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research investigated the effect of a 40-week strength training programme on strength, VO2 max (oxygen intake), energy economy and body composition of 20 distance runners. Every 20 weeks, they had blood work done, were made to perform various strength exercises and had their muscle and fat mass measured. While body composition stayed the same, 40 weeks of strength training “significantly improved maximal and reactive strength qualities and VO2 max” in distance runners.
While that study doesn’t list the exact movements that runners were doing on a weekly basis, it does mention that strength was tested with one rep max back squats, tuck jumps and drop jumps.
“Strength and resistance training is an important but still undervalued, component of an endurance runner’s training program,” explains Anna Kosciuk, sport scientist at NURVV. “Running is a single-leg activity which means that only one foot is ever in contact with the ground and one side of the body at a time is absorbing the ground impacts.” That’s why it’s so important that our legs are strong and our muscles are balanced; if one side of your butt is stronger than the other, you’ll soon run into trouble.
Injury prevention is a huge factor in adding strength training into a running programme. That’s because, Anna says, lifting can improve joint stability, makes our tendons more springy and speeds up the time it takes our bodies to recover post-run by converting metabolic waste into energy.
Sprint to run faster
When it comes to sprint workouts, however, there’s a tonne of evidence to suggest that in order to run faster, you have to… run faster. Gyms like Victus Soul, Sweat It and 1Rebel all offer treadmill classes that have you going between running, hill sprints and HIIT to ramp up that cardiovascular capacity quickly while toning and strengthening muscles. The Strong Women Training Club’s Strength Training for Runners plan has you sprinting on the spot for 30-second intervals to get those feet working fast.
Another study published in the same journal saw runners being given sprint training sessions for just two weeks. Each session consisted of up to seven bouts of 30-second maximum intensity sprinting, followed by four minutes of recovery, three times a week. By the end of the fortnight, the group ran 5.7% faster (on average) over a 3km distance. While that not might sound a lot to you, that’s like saying in two weeks, you could go from running a 25 minute 5km to 23.6 minutes – which is speedy.
5 strength exercises to add to your regime
Anna says that it’s important for runners to build a “solid foundation of strength training via fundamental loaded movements. The best way to do so is by starting to incorporate strength training into running via loaded double- and single-leg fundamental movements. These include my favourite moves: squats, lunges, glute bridges, jumps and deadlifts.
Deadlift or good morning
Having strong hamstrings and glutes is really important for runners. As some of the biggest muscles in our bodies, that’s where we get our power from; for a 5km finish, you want to be able to dig into those muscles for any extra energy you have left. Making sure that they’re firing equally will also protect your hips, knees and ankles from injury, while avoiding overloading the quads.
The deadlift and good morning follow the same hip-hinge pattern. The difference is that deadlifts include lifting a weight – so if you have weights, use them and if not, concentrate on loosening those hamstrings and improving your balance with single and double legged good mornings.
Ahh, the goblet squat. This was the first strength exercise I ever tried – holding a 12kg kettlebell and working out how to sit into the pose without collapsing. Goblet squats are brilliant because they strengthen the whole body, from biceps to core and butt and ankles.
If you think about it, lunging is quite like running: we leap forward, putting most of our weight on one foot at a time. To become stronger IRL, nail forward lunges and if you have them, use your weights to put those quads under some pressure. When you next go out on a run, they’ll feel infinitely lighter, stronger and more powerful.
Really concentrating on building those glutes muscles and balancing every part of the butt out will mean no lop-sided running and reduced injury risk. Lift your toes up and dig down with the heels to add in some hamstring activation.
We often neglect our core muscles but the second you start to work on them during your sessions, you’ll see a huge difference. Exercises like the deadbug require concentration, core activation and patience – all things that are equally as important when running.
By strengthening your mid-line, you’ll avoid slouching when you’re tired. Poor posture is one of the main reasons long runs can feel bad; restrictive breathing means you’re not getting the oxygen you need.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.