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The Real Advantage of Strength Training for the Distance Runner: Training During the Competitive Race Season

Strength training provides a “use-it-or lose it” adaptation.  If strength training is discontinued, muscle strength and the many benefits of strength training are lost rapidly (muscle endurance, power, enhanced metabolic rate, running economy, etc.).  For this reason, strength training must be performed on a consistent basis all year round; runners should aim for a minimum of one workout every seven to fourteen days.  Many well-intentioned runners assume that strength training is an important component of the “base” building phase of a runner’s training.  As racing season nears and the intensity and volume of running workouts increase, the runner will discontinue strength training with the intent to recover from intense running workouts.  For example, many runners strength train throughout the winter months and then discontinue strength training when the racing season of April through August arrives.  Another example includes a well intentioned runner who strength trains consistently throughout the spring and summer but then discontinues strength training in August to spend the months of August, September, and October on running workouts leading up to a fall marathon.  The benefits of strength training will disappear by the time the race has arrived.  This is analogous to studying in May, June, and July for a test that will be taken in October. Strength training produces a separate list of adaptations when compared to running.  Both running adaptations and strength training adaptations are extremely important for performance and injury prevention.  A runner should not discontinue strength training in attempt to focus on running just as a runner should not discontinue eating protein completely to focus on eating carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates, protein, and fat are important macronutrients that are necessities in a healthful diet.  In the same way, speed work, tempo work, long runs, strength training, and rest/recovery are important components of a comprehensive running training program.  During periods of high volume and high intensity running, the frequency and intensity of the strength-training workout can be slightly reduced, but should never be discontinued.

The most important time for the distance runner to strength train is during the competitive racing season.  However, this seems to be the time period when most runners discontinue strength training.  In order to maximize race performance during the spring and summer, continue to strength train with attention paid to the timing and spacing of these workouts.  Even one strength workout every ten to fourteen days throughout the spring and summer racing season will allow the runner to maintain muscle strength and injury resilience.  There is no “season” for strength training – it must be performed year round on a consistent basis.

Plan the strength workout to fit in with weekly speed work, long runs, etc.

The goal is to be recovered from strength training so that the strength workouts do not negatively impact the performance of weekly “key” running workouts.  In order to maximize key running workouts, follow these guidelines:

  • Do not strength train the day before or the day of (prior to) a speed workout.
  • Strength train the day after or the day of (following) the speed workout.
  • Many runners will not have a problem with strength training prior to a long run.  However, if possible, attempt to strength train following the long run.  If the run is performed Saturday, strength train later in the day on Saturday or Sunday.
  • Discontinue strength training for a 2-week period prior to the marathon (or key race).  The goal of strength training for the distance runner is to enjoy the many benefits of strength training (improved strength, injury prevention, etc.) in order to maximize race performance.  Being fully rested and recovered from training (both running and strength training) is paramount in order to capitalize on weeks of training.  When tapering for an important race, a runner should continue to strength train with a high level of intensity until a 10 to 14 day period before the race – with little or no change to the strength training program.  This 2-week period allows the runner to recover completely from the last strength workout, but is not a long enough period of time for the benefits of strength training to diminish.  The 2 week recovery optimizes both strength and recovery.

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