Strength Training for Distance Runners

By Eric Bofinger

Long gone are the days when distance runners train doing 3 sets of 20 reps using a weight that they could lift 50 times.  Instead, at least in the professional world, there has been a shift from traditional strength training to explosive heavy weight training for these endurance athletes.

In terms of heavy strength training there are two main avenues in which strength is gained, physiologically and neurologically.  Physiological responses are triggered from the endocrine system where hormones such as testosterone are released causing hypertrophy (increase in size) of the muscle.  From a neurological standpoint, heavy strength training causes a recruitment of more motor units, synchronization of motor units, and a decrease in autogenic inhibitions.  What does all of this mean??  First off, a motor unit is a neuron and all of the muscle fibers that it innervates.  If there are more motor units and they are working together, then of course strength will be increased.  Autogenic inhibition refers to the human body having an off switch when muscle tension is too great. However, with heavy strength training overtime the muscles are able to exert greater forces, which can be a good thing in athletics when we are looking for every little advantage.
The reality is most of us long distance runners are predisposed to being lean and skinny, hence the reason why we are distance runners.  We need not worry about getting too big and probably couldn’t if we tried. We can rule out significant amounts of hypertrophy seen in team sport athletes, therefore we are left with the neurological benefits of heavy strength training.  The neurological adaptations, when applied to running can be explained in terms of running economy.  Saunders, Pyne, Telford, and Hawley (2004) define running economy as “the energy demand for a given velocity of sub maximal running.”  With heavy weight training, running economy has shown to increase, meaning that after training a runner can run at the same speed with decreased energy demands.
Now how do I train like this??  In terms of heavy weight training for runners, the three main exercises are dead lifts, squats, and lunges.  The rep range should be between 4-12 reps and each set should be a repetition maximum (RM), meaning if your doing a 12 RM you shouldn’t be able to lift it a 13th time.  This is only the beginning of the science behind strength training and distance running.  The most important thing is that this should be done in a safe environment and supervised by a certified strength and conditioning coach.
Saunders, P.U., Pyne, D.B., Telford, R.D., & Hawley, J.A. (2004). Factors Affecting Running Economy in Trained Distance Runners.  Sports Medicine, 34 (7), 465-485.