For many years, it was believed that to be a great runner, you just needed to run. No strength training, just running. And what we now know is that approach resulted in significantly more injuries, and running performance wasn’t where it is today.
The truth is to be a great runner, you need to take a holistic approach to training. That means in addition to running, you need to ensure that you’re taking in quality nutrition, getting enough sleep, lifting weights, and doing some form of flexibility cross training like pilates, swimming, yoga or mobility.
It would be naive of me to say that strength training is the only factor that has led to improved running performance for me personally or runners generally.
Other factors like enhanced footwear due to better technology and an overall increased understanding of human physiology, have also played a part in why runners are hitting PB’s more than ever.
Eliud Kipchoge has (unofficially) broken the sub 2-hour marathon barrier and more runners are breaking the famous sub-3 hour marathon than ever, a highly respected and a common goal for many distance runners.
While there are exceptions to the rule, the one common factor when you look at successful runners at all levels who are coached or follow a program today that is built around performance and injury prevention, is that they strength train.
Any good running coach will tell you; strength is key! When your body is weak, it can break down and you can’t hold yourself in good running form - or if something unexpected crops up like a rock, an uneven bit of road, a dog running out in front of you, your ability to react quickly, change direction or recover quickly from a misstep or rolled ankle, is significantly reduced.
Look at sprinters through to distance runners… they are strong.
Typically, sprinters are more muscular and distance runners are leaner, but they both have their foundations in strength.
I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert in the science of strength and conditioning, but I can tell you about my own personal experience as a runner, and I know that strength training has made me the athlete that I am today.
Since running my first marathon 5 years ago on 15 October 2017, I’ve achieved some big things in distance running (you can read more about that at the bottom of this article). And when people hear what I’ve been able to achieve, they ask me, “how are you running so well?” and “surely you get injured when you run all that way?”
One of the most common answers I give them… is strength training.
Despite running significant kms and putting my body under a lot of stress over the past 5 years, I’ve barely had an injury, and never had an injury that has kept me out of running for more than a month.
I put that down to having a holistic training approach, and consistent strength training, week in, week out.
From April to June this year, I ran from Cairns to Melbourne. 4,000kms in 60 days… and I got through that run with no injuries. It surprises a lot of people to hear that I wasn’t running every day in my training leading into that event.
I ran 4-5 times each week and would strength train at least twice per week, with a focus on my core and lower body.
A typical session for me would look something like this:
1. 3 lower body compound exercises at heavy weight, to improve the raw strength and robustness of my lower body. For example, the following exercises performed as 4 sets of 6 reps with 2 minutes rest between sets:
Barbell Back Squats
Barbell Hip Thrusts
2. 3 sets of a calf exercises for 12-15 reps with 1 minute rest between sets. For example, Seated Calf Raises OR Standing Calf Raises (I would generally do seated calf raises one day and standing calf raises the other day).
3. I would generally finish off with core work to improve my trunk control and stability, so for example 3 sets of 15 Reps of each of Hanging Knee Raises and Weighted Overhead Sit Ups, with 1 minute rest between sets.
I wouldn’t do the exact same exercises or sets and reps every session (variety in workouts is just as important if you're looking for adaptation and development over time) but it was similar to the session above in nature.
Advice To My Younger Self
If I had my time again, leading into my Cairns to Melbourne run I would also add 3 sets of 15-20 reps of weighted tibia raises using the HGG Performance IsoTib in the block where I trained my calf muscles.
When using the ISOTIB I like to be able to control the rep through its full range of motion, so I opt for higher reps and a slightly lighter weight.
Even though I didn't get injured on the run, as it went on, I was starting to feel a loss of stability in my lower leg and eventually rolled that ankle 3 times in the last 3 weeks of the run, when I hadn’t rolled my ankle prior to that.
Since getting my hands on the ISOTIB in August this year, I’ve felt stronger and more stable around the ankle joint when I’m running. It's already made a difference to my running, and I know it will be a huge part of my training going forward, particularly as I build up to more big runs in the future.
I hope you’ve found this piece helpful and thank you for reading. If you have any questions, please send me or my team a DM on Instagram or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t forget to lift strong… to run strong!
Written by Sean Bell
Sean is a Co-Founder of First42K, an online running program designed to help people fall in love with running and achieve their running goals.
Sean has achieved several significant feats in running, like a 4,000km run from Cairns to Melbourne in 60 days, 50 marathons in 50 days, 100-mile runs, a sub-3-hour marathon, he won an 84km run across Bali and more.
We are proud to partner with Sean and the crew at First42k.