When we think of distance runners, we most often think of them as being lean and light-weight, and this is with good reason. Added body mass during races can contribute to body fatigue, inhibiting the potential of PRs and Olympic gold medals. Maybe this is why nearly half of the 2004 Olympic Marathon Trial qualifiers (who responded to a 2007 study questionnaire) reported doing no strength training at all (4). However, recent studies are showing that certain types of strength training may actually help improve performance and it may do so without muscle hypertrophy (1,3).
Last year, the results of a meta-analysis showed a significant improvement in running economy (see definition and influencing factors below), when a strength training program was implemented (for a period of 8-12 weeks) among highly trained middle & long-distance runners. The strength training programs were performed only 2-3 times per week and included sprint training, plyometrics, and resistance training (almost all of which was lower-extremity focused). Four of the five studies reported that the training was done at low to moderate intensities, three of which reported intensities ranging from 40% to 70% of 1 rep max. All five studies showed training at low to moderate volumes without using a rep-to-failure method (1).
Another article, published just this year, evaluated strength, physiological, and body composition markers among competitive distance runners at different points during a 40-wk training program. The strength training program consisted of a 20-week pre-season maximal-strength program, followed by a 20-week in-season reactive- & explosive-strength program. Workouts were done twice a week for the first 20 weeks and only once a week for the second 20 weeks. Their results showed that implementing a strength training program can have significant beneficial effects on different strength variables, along with certain physiological markers, specifically velocity of VO2max & running economy. Interestingly, there were no significant changes in body composition noted over the 40-week period for the intervention group or the control group and no significant differences were noted between the two groups (3).
So, what does this mean for long distance runners? It means that a strength training program may actually have significant added benefits to one’s running performance, and it may do so without altering body composition.
Before creating and implementing a program, though, there are many things to take into consideration, including your race distance, goals, age, and gender. According to the meta-analysis, though, a good endurance:strength training ratio seems to be 3:1 and includes low to moderate intensities and training volume (1). As always, though, you should consult with your physician before starting any strenuous activities.
Disclaimer: The above information is meant for educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult your own healthcare professional with questions or concerns related to your health.
Running economy has been defined as “…the energy demand of running at a constant submaximal speed”. Therefore, an elite athlete will likely have a better running economy, or lower a lower energy demand at a specific velocity, compared to a novice runner. Running economy can be influenced by “…metabolic, cardiorespiratory, biomechanical and neuromuscular…” factors, which may be modified through training (2).
1. Balsalobre-Fernandez, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G.V. (2016). Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 30(8), 2361-2368.
2. Barnes, K. R., & Kilding, A. E. (2015). Running economy: measurement, norms, and determining factors. Sports Medicine-Open, 1(1), 8.
3. Beattie, K., Carson, B. P., Lyons, M., Rossiter, A., & Kenny, I. C. (2017). The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 31(1), 9.
4. Karp, J.R. (2007). Training characteristics of qualifiers for the US Olympic Marathon Trials. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 2(1), 72-92.