STRENGTH TRAINING FOR RUNNERS
WITH OLGA STIGNII
When you picture a runner, what do you picture? Someone who is strong, has incredible endurance, and who loves being outdoors? Someone who loves to test their limits and is always asking themselves “Can I go farther?” “Can I go faster?”
Above all of that, of course, a runner is a person who loves to run. The thing is, in order to run farther, and faster, and continue to enjoy the sport that we love, a runner needs to be strong. For this, we need to strength train properly. If we just run all the time and never do anything else, we build up a few muscle groups, like our quads and our calves, while not really touching on other areas. This means that we lose functionality and develop imbalances in our bodies, which ultimately leads to injury.
Truthfully, if you’re not functionally strong - aka unable to do basic moves properly, like squats, push-ups, rows, etc. - then you are not as fit as you think you are. Sorry, not sorry. To help convince you that strength training is a necessary part of your fitness routine, we’ve brought in Olga Stignii, resident personal trainer here at Midnight Runners and all-around strength training for runners super-woman.
Why Should Runners Strength Train?
There are so many reasons for runners to strength train, one of them is bound to be the one that will motivate you to actually do it. According to Olga, there are three main reasons:
- Injury prevention
- To be faster
- To enjoy running more
“If you have a strong body, you will be a strong runner, simple as that. Strength gives you an injury-proof body and stable joints, but also it gives you power so you can be a faster runner as well. Also, you will have a much more enjoyable experience while you’re running.”
Let’s go through them.
Running is an incredible exercise, but it is hard on the body, particularly our joints and bones. Stretching and proper recovery will not keep you safe from overuse injuries if you aren’t taking the necessary steps to build a more resilient body.
“Simply you just build the support around your bones and our joints to support your body while you’re running. This is the basic and most simple answer for why every runner should do strength training.”
Strength training improves bone density, aka the strength of your bones, so that you don’t develop shin splints or stress fractures. Knees, ankles, and hips are also incredibly common injury sites for runners. Proper strength training will help to prevent the proverbial “runner’s knee” and ankle sprains (especially for all you trail runners out there!). Building up the strength of the small muscles, tendons, and ligaments around your knees and hips will help keep you going on long runs with a lot of downhill segments.
Running does a really great job of developing some muscles, but others tend to get a bit neglected. For example, the glutes and hamstrings are incredibly important for speed. Just look at the Olympic sprinters and you’ll see it. Unfortunately, long-distance running tends to build up the quads much faster, leaving many distance runners with an underdeveloped posterior chain. Not only will this cause you to be more vulnerable to injury (see above), but it will also limit how fast you can go.
“It’s also very important to pay attention to soleus muscles that are pushing you off the ground as well as your calf muscles,” Olga says. “Strong glutes are super important for firing up and kicking that knee up as you run to have your proper technique. If you get it right, you will be so much faster, so much stronger, but also you’re going to have such a good experience running.”
Imagine you go out for a long run on a beautiful day, and you are feeling so good that you just keep going. No aches or pains, just pure enjoyment. What’s better, is you feel so good the next day that you could do it all again, if you wanted to. This is what strength training can do for you. Hills will be easier, long runs more manageable, track sessions more fun - the only limitation is your cardiovascular fitness and your own mind.
“There are many studies done on people who just run and people who run and strength train, and they found lots and lots of benefits [for the strength training group]. They improve their speed, they improve their overall running experience, distance-wise the improvement was significant too, and also they had injury prevention as well.”
We know what some of you may be thinking right now: great, so I will do some strength training for my legs and I’ll be good to go! No push-ups required!
We hate to burst your bicep-free bubble, but you are wrong. Having a strong upper body and core is just as important for all three items mentioned above. Injury prevention, speed, and enjoying your run more can’t happen without a strong upper body holding you up throughout your entire run, interval session, and race.
“Upper body strength is extremely important, especially your core strength, because this is what holds you up: your shoulders, your back, as you run. Quite often a lot of runners, when they run, after they get tired they straight away round their shoulders, which squeezes their chest and compresses their lungs so they can’t breathe properly.”
Just imagine how much better those finish-line photos will look when you cross the line standing tall with your chest up and shoulders back.
Yeah, totally worth it.
If you are going head-to-head with another runner who has the same running capabilities as you but has a stronger core, they will beat you every single time, no questions asked. The “core” however, is much more than just the six-pack we like to see when we’re at the beach. There are deep core muscles which are the ones we really want to target.
“I will define the core set which has one big layer on top and then there are two parts in the middle which are your obliques and then it’s another layer within that part which goes all the way around your back and towards the front,” Olga explains. “Your core strength holds everything up. Your hips, your organs, when you have a strong core it’s easier to breathe through your stomach, your diaphragm, filling up your lungs completely with air. Everyone should do it.”
Essentially, have core strength, will travel… faster and with greater efficiency. If that’s not enough to motivate you, I will again mention those finish line photos: imagine how you will look when you’re up tall with your chest high and shoulders back, instead of hunched over and looking like you dragged yourself with your hands most of the way.
Here’s the thing: Everything in your body is connected, so if one area is weak, it will affect everywhere else.
“Core exercises are usually quite simple to do and you have to connect with the breathing if you want to connect with those deep core muscles,” Olga explains. “There are a lot of different movements, and for runners specifically there are exercises that runners should do in terms of core training to mimic the movement.”
When we run, there is balancing in combination with some twisting of the torso involved. You are always on only one foot with the opposite arm driving you forward along with the opposite knee. You need to train your core for that motion.
One of Olga’s favourite core exercises are knee drives with a cross-body crunch, which mimics the movement pattern of running very well, but in a slower, more controlled way.
Won’t Strength Training Make Me Bulky?
In short: Absolutely not.
Whether you’re concerned about extra muscle mass slowing you down or you simply don’t want to look like a linebacker, Olga guarantees that none of these things will happen to you when you incorporate strength training into your program.
“It’s totally untrue, if you think that when you start strength training you’re going to become this muscle-y giant who looks like Arnold Schwarzeneggar. In order to do that you have to spend 5 to 6 hours every day in the gym and eat tons of food… Just to put people at ease who think that, and a lot of people do, because they have no idea what strength training is.”
Olga explains that strength training programs are designed to fit with your goals. If your goal is to get ‘swole’, then your training program will look very different than if your goal is to have a personal best in your next marathon. For one, it would certainly include a lot less running and a lot more hours spent in the gym.
How Often Should Runners Strength Train?
According to Olga, two sessions each week is the minimum, after that it depends on their goals and how much time in the week they have. After all, you will have to manage your current running, working, and social schedules along with the strength sessions. Most of us don’t have time to be running and lifting weights five to six times a week.
“It depends on how much they run, but definitely at least two strength training sessions a week would benefit them big time. I never do split body parts because I like functional training, so usually I do the full body. With the full body I just focus on different exercises other than different parts of the body.”
Olga says it’s also important to remember that a proper strength training for runners program takes into account what phase in training you are in. How you strength train should look very different if you are in a competition phase vs. a building phase vs. a recovery phase.
You will want your strength program to line up with your goal race or races. It will look something like this:
- Phase 1: Build strength and stability
- Phase 2: Build power and speed
- Phase 3: Power, flexibility, and mobility
All of those would come together to have you prepped for race day. The exercises, amount of weight, volume, and the number of repetitions will change depending on the phase you are in.
What Exercises Should Runners Do?
As already mentioned, exercises that mimic the movements of running should be the primary focus. Olga incorporates plyometrics and explosive movements such as jumping up and down on a box, skipping, side-to-side quick, sharp, high intensity moves into all of her runner’s training plans to build better stabilizer muscles.
So now that we’ve told you why you should strength train and a little bit on how you should do it, the only thing left to do is start.
Whether you’re already strength training but want your program better tailored to you, or you’ve never done it before and want help getting started, then Olga is the woman for you.
On her YouTube channel, Olga has five different strength training workouts designed for runners:
Of course, what better way to fine-tune your strength training routine (or start strength training for the first time ever!) than with individualized help from the ultra-running wonder woman herself?
Follow Olga on Instagram for exercise tips and daily fits-poration, and visit her website to learn more about her one-on-one online coaching, her virtual group classes, and her special fitness challenges.