Runners have long used resistance training to help mitigate injury and improve their performance. In this article, I will discuss why using a barbell for strength training can be a great tool for runners and how to implement it into your current training regime. The list of exercises is not exhaustive, but the principles behind them and their implementation will help you build a long-term training plan that builds to both health and performance.
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Strength training for runners has not been proven to prevent injury, that being said, using strength training with a barbell to improve strength of the muscle, tendons, ligaments and even increase bone density of the lower body likely has some impact on the long term durability of the body. The best way to mitigate running injuries to to place close attention to how many miles/kilometres your performing in single session and in the week, ensuring that the number both increases slowly while taking periodic breaks to let your body recover. This style of intelligent training mixed with correctly programmed strength training with a barbell or another type of strength training apparatus will be sure to help mitigate injury, but nothing can prevent injuries fully.
Improve the amount of force you can produce with the muscles in your legs can help with running performance. This is why many of the top athletes do strength and conditioning programs on a regular basis. Improving the ground reaction force through improving the amount of strength will improve performance and is therefor advised for people who take their running very seriously. That being said, if you’re not a serious runner with years of experience, who hasn’t maxed out your VO2 max and running efficiency then strength training will likely have little impact. Focus on running to make you’re running better, unless you’re a very advanced runner.
Some runners have very poor movement capacity and mobility, asking runners to perform squats can show just how tight their hips and ankles are. Their general movement capacity is limited as they have only put emphasis on one style of movement, running. Training with a barbell can help this, especially as strength training has been shown to improve flexibility alongside strength when done correctly. improving movement virtuosity may not help improve running performance but can help improve general day to day function and overall health. Be careful if you have limited mobility when you jump into a strength training program with a barbell, it can be unforgiving the barbell, you will need to progress slowly and methodically towards better movement and you may need a guide to help you for the first few weeks if your unsure how to perform the movement correctly.
There is a large gap between what is optimal for health and what is optimal for performance when it comes to running. Running 4-6 times a week is great for your health, without doubt, but it puts so much specificity on one exercise that it means you become specialised in one form of movement. There is nothing wrong with this as such, but it may be far more optimal for your health to perform say 3 running sessions and 2 strength training sessions in a week rather than just 5 running sessions. If performance and specialisation is your main goal right now then great, take some high volume running and light volume strength training to enhance performance. If your goal is to run well whilst being very health, you may want to consider the ratio to strength and running training being performed. Both are vital to health, but too much of one takes away from the other. These barbell exercises will help give you ideas of strength training sessions you could do to improve both health and performance.
Barbell training for runners shouldn’t be done at a high dosage, especially if your at the beginning of your strength training journey. If you are just getting into strength training you should be picking exercises which are not very technically difficult to be sure that you are able to perform them correctly.
Your strength training sessions should be built around your running training programme. When are your light runs, your long runs, your speed work etc. All this should impact when you perform a strength training session and even the movements within the training session. As an example if you have a long run on a Sunday then on a Monday you might do some strength training with a barbell and no running, but the strength training will be predominantly upper body as your lower body will be recovering form your long run. In this example, if you take the Thursday off all training and do your second and final strength training session after your rest day on Friday, you can put more emphasis on your lower body as it will be well recovered after a day off.
As starting light is important, so is starting with low volume and frequency, this means not doing too much work. This is important to both avoid injury and not take away from your running performance by building up too much fatigue in strength work. Start with low volume and frequency and progressively build it to the optimal amount for you and your current training plan.
As someone who runs and does strength training, anecdotally, I enjoy moving away from the heavy bi-lateral squats when my running frequency is high. There is something about doing lots of bilateral squatting and running at the same time that my hips do not love. Therefore I put emphasis on squat maintenance with unilateral work (single leg work) while doing a block of running training.
Taking a full body approach to strength training will be beneficial for your health, unless your a professional athlete (who should be doing periods of full body training anyway) you shouldn’t become so specific in your strength training that you miss out key movement patterns.
The barbell squat in lunge is the best unilateral squatting option with a barbell for runners. It requires less emphasis on balance that say a barbell reverse lunge and allows you to focus on growing the muscles in the legs. Ensure your striving towards touching the knee to the floor (only go as far as your mobility allows, do not stretch, but don’t intentionally cut out range of motion due to laziness).
The deadlift will help dramatically strengthen the muscles in your posterior chain. It is one of the best exercises for runners to master, building strong hamstrings should be one of the main goals of strength training and this exercise will be one of the most useful when striving towards this goal.
The barbell bent over row will help build strength in the upper body, especially the upper back and anterior deltoids, this may not have direct carry over to running, but will certainly help creating a healthy strong body all over.
The strict press is one of the best exercises for gaining strength in the upper body. As a runner you wont want to be carrying too much muscle mass (healthy amounts but not excessive muscle) so putting emphasis on strength training may be very beneficial. The strict press could easily be part of this full body approach to strength training.
The landmine anti-rotation will allow runners to increase their movement diversity and add some rotation into their training. This will improve the bodies ability to rotate with load and express the power of the lower body into the upper body. It’s a great exercise for both runners and general population individuals who have mainly health related goals.
Complete 3 rounds
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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.