It all comes down to proper strength and conditioning.
The word is out. Strength training has now secured its rightful place in the runner’s training plan. More and more runners include some form of strength and conditioning and report the benefits of “feeling stronger” when they hit the road. So does that mean us runners and coaches have entered a new era, and a new understanding between our run training, strength and conditioning, and how they work together? Not quite.
We are not there yet because — in this coach’s humble opinion — we have not satisfactorily answered the question: What does it mean to be “strong” as a runner? And how do we know if we are strong enough?
Answering this question is more difficult than it first appears, largely because there’s so many variations of strength training out there. Runners include everything from Boot Camp, Muscle Activation Therapy, Yoga, Pilates, TRX, P90X, bodybuilding, Zumba, kickboxing, free weights, and CrossFit as their strength training. Is it possible that everything listed provides an identical training stimulus and benefit?
As that notion is not likely, and if they are all different, then can we say that some forms are better than others for runners? If we accept that some are “better” than others, how exactly we do define what’s better?
I believe this is where we are currently at in the debate. Everyone does something a little different, and everyone has an argument for why their version of strength training is superior to the rest. On closer examination however, a lot of confusion exists because we cannot agree on a common definition for strength training for runners. We are all talking about strength training but in vastly different ways. And to have a productive conversation that moves the debate forward, we should first define what it means to be strong as a runner in the first place. Hence the question of this article.
So what is running strong? And how do we know if we are strong enough? This first article will outline a definition for strength as it pertains to running so that we are all on the same page (or that you are all on my page!). In a second article, we will describe and discuss a few strength-related tests to see if we are indeed strong enough to run.
By no means are these ideas the final word on this discussion. Rather, it is the hope that we spark a deeper conversation on strength training and running that helps educate runners of all abilities on how these two things really connect.
When we recognize someone as a “strong runner” what do we exactly mean? Is it their ability to run fast? Or for a long period of time? Or their ability to run consistently and without injury? Or does it pertain to something else entirely like an ability to squat a lot of weight? And if I squat heavier, do I automatically run faster or longer?
As we see, this seemingly simple question gets messy real quick. To simplify, let’s discuss strength in a different context. Take a bridge, for example. When we define a bridge as being strong, we cut right to its purpose, defined by three things. A strong bridge should: (1) safely handle a lot of traffic (weight), (2) ruggedly weather its natural climate, and (3) do both for its intended lifespan. If it failed to do any one of these the bridge would weaken, collapse, and not fulfill its purpose. In other words, if the bridge changed its bridge shape in any way it would not be strong.
So returning to running, a strong runner should be able to handle these same variables without deviating from the basic running shape. We should: (1) safely and consistently execute our intended race distances and training load, (2) ruggedly weather different running terrain (concrete, pavement, trails), weather, and footwear, and (3) do so for our intended lifespan without breakdown or deviation. If we runners fail to satisfy any of these variables then chances are we show signs of weakening and collapse. This shows in resulting poor performance or outright injury.
So in the context of running, we rely on our strength to maintain our upright run posture through thick and thin. Granted a lot of reasons account for an athlete’s collapse at the end of a race — poor pacing, dehydration, and poor physiological preparation all come to mind. But when it comes to strength, it’s our ability to maintain our physical running shape for our intended purpose. If we prepared well, paced properly, and executed our hydration plan — and we still see serious deviation in our run posture, then we need to get physically stronger. Simple.
So what’s the best means of strength and conditioning to accomplish this goal? As fellow coach Carl Paoli of GymnasticsWod says, “Our strength and conditioning program should exaggerate out athletic reality.”
In our experience, the best way we have found to do this is through the constantly varied barbell movements and gymnastics movements under load and intensity that the CrossFit framework provides. But by all means, CrossFit doesn’t have to be the only way.
So is your strength plan good enough? If it helps you fulfill the above bridge criteria, then yes. But if you’ve been consistently following a plan for a while and you still weaken, collapse, and deal with injury, it might be time to consider alternatives. And with running injuries reportedly in the 70+ percentile, we all need to reevaluate our strength training.
In our next article, I will share some of the basic strength assessments I use at San Francisco CrossFit with my runners and other endurance athletes. Keep in mind that your strength demands differ depending on your purpose. To that end, I will outline a few basic tests. But remember, the longer, the faster, the hillier, and the harder the race, the more robust of a bridge you need to be.