Strength training makes runners faster

“How strength training made me a radically faster marathon runner”

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Running marathons isn’t just about clocking up the miles – it’s about having the power and resilience to carry on. And you can that from strength training, as sub-four marathoner, Ally Head, explains.

Proper marathon training requires you to run loads – right? Well, not necessarily. In my case, running my marathon PB involved reducing the miles and increasing my reliance on my secret weapon: strength training.

Three years ago, I was given a spot at the iconic London Marathon by Cancer Research UK. To get to that hallowed start line, I did what any newbie marathon runner would do: Google ‘marathon training plans’ and grab the first one that came up on the page. 

The Runner’s World plan I selected suggested running four-to-five times a week for sixteen weeks to get my body ready for the gruelling distance and 16 weeks later, I’d completed my first marathon.

I remember the sunburn (luckily for me, April saw an unpredicted heatwave which meant running in 27-degree heat), eating lots of Haribo cola bottles at mile 18 and the sheer elation of crossing that finish line. It was without a doubt one of the best days of my life. But looking at my Garmin as I finished, I was seriously confused as to how I was a whole six minutes off my goal time. I’d been aiming for four hours – that was the whole point of the training plan. I’d run – a lot. I hadn’t missed any training sessions. I’d religious stuck to my plan, banking mile after mile.

So I knew something had to change. Around about the same time, I’d seen the fastest woman in British history, Dina-Asher Smith, chat about her strength training in an interview, and that got me thinking. I’d done weights classes here and there but never stuck to a structured strength training plan, largely because I didn’t know where to start.

That’s when I started training with personal trainer Leigh Clayton who, over the course of ten weeks, taught me the basic fundamentals of strength training – the core compound moves to include in my weekly workouts, and just how fun getting strong could be. No, you don’t get bulky. You get fast.

A month later, I ran my fastest half marathon ever, crossing the line in 1 hour 41 minutes and knocking a huge five minutes off my previous PB. I’d done fewer runs than ever before, and yet, was a lot faster.

Five years on, I ran a lockdown marathon in 3 hours and 28 minutes and just completed my first ultra-marathon, covering a total distance of 60km. Sure, it’s not only the strength training that changed. I now have a run coach and incorporate speed work into my weekly training. But I can safely say that my body couldn’t have carried me the distance without regular strength training.

By spending time making the muscles that are so essential for running stronger (glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core), I’d made my running stronger, too.

WHY IS STRENGTH TRAINING IMPORTANT?

Strength training isn’t just important for runners. It’s important for everyone, explains coach Leigh. It not only builds muscle mass, but supports stronger bones, improves joint flexibility, reduces your risk of injury, back pain, arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes, and boosts your mood, too. Several studies have found a link between strength training and improved mental health.

“(The benefits of) weight training shouldn’t really be a question,” the PT shares. “The evidence is so clear with regard to its benefits.”

WHY IS IT SO GOOD FOR RUNNERS?

According to run coach and personal trainer Lillie Bleasdale of PASSA, strength training is essential for protecting your body. “Times your body weight by 2.5 to 3, and that’s how much force goes through the body each time your foot hits the floor on a run,” she explains. This is called ground reaction force and, understandably, can give your body a beating – particularly the joints, ligaments, and tendons – if you don’t protect it. The best way to do that? Yep, you guessed it: strength training. “By strength training alongside your running, you’re increasing your body’s ability to handle this ground reaction force, or GRF, therefore improving your running performance and economy while reducing the risk of injury, too,” Lillie explains.

So, we know that strength training reduces injury but how exactly does it make you faster? It’s simple: improvements in overall strength produce a reduction in ground contact time, which equates to a reduced oxygen cost of the given exercise, Leigh explains. “This means improved running economy and efficiency, which, in layman’s terms, translates to strength training making you faster and more efficient at running.”

Strength training protects you from GRF and could help improve your running form, propulsion, power, and efficiency. Think about it: if your muscles are stronger, they’ll work more efficiently to carry you through your miles. Neat.

TRY THIS RUNNER’S STRENGTH SESSION

Leigh always opts for full-body training utilising the main movement patterns – that’s squats, bends, pushes, pulls, lunges and core moves. Aim for roughly 40% to 70% intensity and one or two sessions a week.

Try the following from Leigh. You can do it without weights or add in some if you’ve got them at home. Aim for three rounds of each move and to do each one 8 to 12 times or for 30 seconds.

  1. Goblet squats
  2. Kneeling shoulder press
  3. Plank
  4. Deadlift
  5. Dumbbell row
  6. Dumbbell step up
  7. Single-arm floor press
  8. Cable chop

Follow on @StrongWomenUK Instagram for the latest workouts, delicious recipes and motivation from your favourite fitness experts.

Images: Getty

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