Strength training is now becoming mainstream among those who take their running and health seriously. But what role should the deadlift play in a runners strength training plan and why is it beneficial for runners to implement deadlifting into their training plan. In this article I will provide 4 key benefits deadlift provide for runners and how to successfully implement deadlifting into your training regime.
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Strength training, specifically lower body strength training, has been shown to increase running economy . Since deadlifting is one of the key exercises, along with squatting, for developing lower body strength development, it is a crucial part of effective strength training for runners.
Running economy is how efficiently you can use the oxygen you can intake, it is multifactorial and the combination of a good running economy and VO2 max makes a runner. So if strength training can help improve running economy it therefore can help improve running performance.
Strength training improves running economy through strengthening the muscles of the lower body which improves the ground reaction force and therefore allows us to move further with each stride.
We often see runners who exclusive run and do not strength train having shoulders that arch forward, typical of a modern knowledge worker who performs little to no exercise. This is because running does not develop the muscles surrounding the spine (spinal erectors) or any of the muscles in the upper back, all of which contribute to having good posture in day to day life and whilst running.
Performing deadlifts will allow for development of all the muscles in the back, and all the key musculature that plays a role in having good posture. This will make maintaining good posture while running a much easier task, in fact once strength gains have been ingrained it is no longer a task that requires active thought, it is done automatically.
When running long distances, we will want to maintain optimal head positioning and good positioning in the upper back and deadlifts can help this become a very easy task.
Having strong and capable hamstrings will be important for runners trying to mitigate injury. Running can put huge amounts of strain on the hamstrings, especially when performing intervals at speed or doing trail running on tough terrain. This strain needs to be dealt with by having strong hamstrings that can both produce high amounts of force when required and also be resilient to long gruelling trail running sessions.
Deadlifts can also be beneficial for mitigating knee pain, knee pain is a common affliction for runners especially when there are increases in volume and intensity in a training plan. This is particularly true for those who have weak posterior chains (think hamstrings and back) and stronger quadriceps. For these individuals, deadlifting can make the posterior chain substantially stronger thereby counteracting this muscular imbalance and mitigating pain.
When discussing knee pain, it is important to put emphasis on running volume and how much it impacts the risk of repetitive strain like knee pain. Although deadlifting can play a role in injury mitigation it needs to be said that no amount of strength training can solve the problem of dramatic increases in running volume. Build your milage slow and steady over months and years, not weeks.
Resistance training is medicine . It is one of the most beneficial behaviours you can implement for a huge variety of health outcomes. Especially for runners that already have extremely high levels of cardiovascular capabilities, it can often be the missing piece of the puzzle for building a robust and healthy self. All recreational runners can benefit from the health benefits of resistance training, but this is especially true as we age. Sarcopenia is the progressive loss of muscle mass that begins at the age of 35 and accelerates at the age of 50, this can be prevented through correctly implemented resistance training.
Deadlifting is not an easy task to just jump into and start performing maximal lifts. The deadlift is a hinge pattern that requires a decent amount of time to become proficient at before true strength work can be done. The deadlift / hinge is the most challenging movement pattern to learn in resistance training and a lot of individuals, especially runners with tight hips, can have a lot of trouble learning.
For excellent skill acquisition, I recommend getting 10-20 hours of coaching with a high quality personal trainer, make sure you find a highly qualified one as the fitness industry is very poorly regulated and some trainers may not even know what a hinge is or be able to perform a deadlift with proficiency. Make it obvious from the outset that you want to focus on skill development. This will be enough to help you get too grips with all the different movement patterns and be able to perform sessions with great technique without a coach for the foreseeable future.
The barbell is often the end point, not the start point, deadlifting doesn’t have to be done with a barbell and for beginners it is often not the best option. I personally start my clients with the kettlebell deadlift and then use the hex bar deadlift before attempting the conventional deadlift with the barbell. Sometimes I stay on the kettlebell deadlift and hex bar deadlift for a long period of time as the conventional barbell deadlift is not superior to the hex bar deadlift .
Strength training should be the principle form of resistance training done by runners using the deadlift. Strength training will provide all the benefits above without accumulating unnecessary amounts of fatigue that can effect your running training programme.
Strength training guidelines:
These are very basic guidelines that you can use to inform your training in the deadlift.
High repetition deadlifts are hard, really really hard. They take a great deal of effect and can accumulate a huge amount of fatigue. By high repetition deadlifts I mean anything over 6 repetitions at a working weight (55%+). These can negatively effect your energy levels for the next 1-3 days if done for 3 or more sets and personally I do not see the need for them when someone is trying to optimise their running performance.
High repetition deadlifts can be used with light weights, especially when during the skill acquisition phase, when performing a lot of repetitions will be particularly beneficial. However this is a very different training phase to hypertrophy, which puts emphasis on muscle gain.
Heavy deadlifts should not be performed when you are approaching a race, this would be the time to dial back the deadlift volume and intensity (sets, reps and weight used) to maintenance volume in order to put emphasis on running which will be ramping up in difficulty. The month before a race I typically move to maintenance volume on all strength metrics, as do my clients who perform in endurance events, and I advise you to do the same. This will help increase recovery and allow your body to focus on one aspect rather than trying to progress at multiple things at once. Be careful not to drop the volume or intensity to low for too long (2-3 months) otherwise you can see dramatic drops in strength.
The placement of your deadlift session (strength training session with a deadlift within it) will also be important to the flow of your training week. You will want to place your deadlift session before a rest day or before an easy run. Even if you’re using strength training and not hypertrophy, deadlifting will still likely cause fatigue in the lower body and prevent peak performance in either your long run, tempo run or interval session. So be aware about where you place your strength training session in your week in order to maximise performance in your training.
The goal with deadlifting for runners should not create another aspect of physical performance to excel at, it should be to progressively overload the deadlift in an appropriate manner in such a way that it improves running performance. I know, this isn’t very sexy, but over a long period of time a great deal of strength can be generated and rushing here will likely lead to overtraining and can contribute to potential injury, so take your time, be conservative with your loading strategies and make sensible training decisions for the long term of your performance and health.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.