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Why should Endurance Runners Strength train?

By Emily Woollard

I have been strength training for nearly 3 years, prior to this I played Netball to Regional level and although within my training I have worked on power, speed and high intensity workouts I have never done any specific long distance running training.

After competing in a few obstacle course events such as Commando Challenge and Tuff Enuff as part of a team, I decided I wanted to see if I could handle a challenge as an individual. I really enjoyed the assault course elements of the events and although it was great to run them as part of a team, I was intrigued to see how well I could do if I went all out as an individual.

Back in July I saw the 17K Endurance Commando Challenge was on the 7th September 2014 and in a moment of madness I signed up! This was it, no going back and I knew I wanted to go as hard as I could, but with no long distance training behind me I knew it would be tough.

I didn’t have long to train and at that time in my life my personal life was all over the place and finding time to train was a mission. I was already really committed to strength training (slightly addicted) with Fitness Wild so giving that up was not an option. I did a few 4 mile runs with a bit of bear crawling and press ups mixed in, but I found running a real struggle mentally and physically, but I figured as long as I did the best I could do I would be satisfied. I also had my trusty water boy Barney, who also found running without chasing after a stick mission! 

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The 7th September was fast approaching and it was typical that the surf had been pumping and I had chosen to go surfing rather than committing to running as much as I should have. I was getting really nervous and although I am mentally very determined I was worried I might not even complete the race!

It was here…..The 7th….the BIG day! Everyone was behind me, I had collected the sponsorship and there was no backing out! My Dad and my loyal training partner Barney my dog came to support me on the day and as I ran the first couple of miles, I felt strong. I knew I would be ok through the assault course section so I smashed through the tunnels and water features. It was going well!!!

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But as the sun was beating down and my calves started to burn I had to dig really deep. I had no idea how much further I had to go, the terrain was brutal and it seemed like it was just hill after hill after hill. As I reached the finish line I made a last kick and finished. YES… Thank goodness! I got my medal for completing and went away feeling really satisfied in a fairly broken way! I had given it my ‘all’ and this was all I wanted to do.

A few weeks later I found out I came 3rd…..I was so happy and very surprised. How could this be??? I had not run 17K prior to the event, let alone on the rough terrain with a brutal assault course! This got me thinking, had my 4-6 strength sessions a week benefitted me? After doing some research I realised YES IT HAD!!

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I thought I would write this blog as I know lots of distance runners, who purely run mile after mile, don’t get me wrong that is amazing, but why not improve your times, recovery time and strength as well?
So how does strength training benefit distance running?

Here are the basics of how strength training benefits endurance activities:

• Fat loss, less weight to carry when running.

• Helps prevent injury, which benefits all sports/activities.

• Improves core strength giving you more power.

• Reduces inflammation, by raising your antioxidant levels.

• Improves your insulin health.

• Improves your body’s ability to use oxygen.

• Makes you faster.

Wondering how and why? Well…..

Strength training is great for fat loss, lightness as a runner is a massive benefit as you will be faster. Muscle and lean tissue improve metabolism, therefore to be a better runner you might need to reduce body fat and increase muscle mass. Don’t worry strength training is safe for athletes that don’t want to gain a lot of muscle mass as the catabolic and anabolic processes cancel each other out. Fibre types increase in proportion when strength training. It also increases the neuromuscular function and optimises fuel usage resulting in a better performance.

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Preventing injury is another well researched benefit of strength training as when done correctly it can help improve structural imbalances which can cause injury. Single leg work can help non dominant sides and insure a more efficient weight distribution. Stabilisation of joints during strength training directly reduces the risk of injury so you will feel better when you run.

Deadlifts, squats, lunges, pull ups to name a few will help your core strength. Having a strong core reduces back pain, there is vast amounts of research that discuss that multi joint movements are good to train as you will gain more power from your arms and legs.

Long distance training produces a high level of oxidative stress and this can lead to inflammation. Strength training aids acute oxidative stress and in the long term will reduce the effects of this stress. Raise your antioxidant levels to protect the damage of oxidative stress.

There has been a great deal of research into the benefits of strength training for diabetes prevention as it improves insulin health (how sensitive your cell receptors are to the insulin hormone). As a runner you want to improve your insulin sensitivity as it will support a faster metabolism and improve your energy levels. When your muscles contract the body produces irisin hormone, which helps insulin health and as heavy weights cause intense muscle contractions and extreme force you produce more irisin. So lift heavy (safely) and your energy systems are replenished more effectively.

Speed can also be increased by strength training as your body will be more efficient at using oxygen for energy. If you can reduce the amount of oxygen needed to run at a certain speed, then you will be able to run faster for longer. Research has shown that endurance athletes whether running, cycling etc. that have followed strength programmes have improved their VO2 MAX (the maximum or optimum rate at which the heart, lungs, and muscles can effectively use oxygen during exercise, used as a way of measuring a person’s individual aerobic capacity). There are also publications that suggest that increased coordination, neural drive and strength gains all make endurance athletes faster.

Lastly, and what I believe really benefitted my run is having strong lower body strength. If you have a strong lower body you are able to generate more force when you push off the ground. If you are more economic and more energy efficient when you run, you will have a better final kick. You increase your type IIA muscle fibres when strength training. A greater proportion of type IIA fibres and you will produce more power and speed. So get deadlifting, squatting and lunging!

I truly believe that despite my minimal running experience, the amount of strength training I have done really benefitted my performance. There are vast amounts of research out there discussing the benefits of strength training and endurance success, so if you want to know more have a look.
Why not mix up your training and start lifting at FITNESS WILD!!

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Aagaard, P., Andersen, J., et al (2011) Effects of resistance training on endurance capacity and muscle fiber composition in young top-level cyclists.  Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 21(6), 298–307.

Cakir-Atabek, H., Demir, S., et al (2010) Effects of different resistance training intensity on indices of oxidative stress. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24(9), 2491-2498.

Jones, M., Ambegoankar, J., et al (2012) Effects of unilateral and bilateral lower-body heavy resistance exercise on muscle activity and testosterone response. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 12(2) 1546-1562.

Storen, O., Helgerud, J., et al (2008) Maximal strength training improves running economy in distance runners. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 22(5), 1487-1495.

Reynolds, G. (2012) Exercise hormone may fight obesity and diabetes. The New York Times

Okada, T., Huxel, K., et al (2011) Relationship between core stability, functional movement and performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25(1), 252-261.

Wilson, J., Marin, P., et al (2011) Concurrent Training: A meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 36(4), 122-134.