Strength and conditioning programs for runners

Designing strength and conditioning programs for runners is something I love doing.  Helping runners move better, become more economical, and improve performance while reducing injury risk is enjoyable and, as a runner, something I work on regularly myself.  Why do runners need a strength and conditioning program, you might wonder?  A research review performed by Saunders, Pyne, Telford, and Hawley (2004) concluded strength training improved running economy in elite runners.  A small study performed by Berryman, Maurel, and Bosquet found that while plyometric training and dynamic strength training were more effective at reducing the energy cost of running than just running, plyometric training led to the greatest cost reduction.  However, this does not mean everyone should run out and add jumping to their routines.  Progression is important, as well as proper periodization based on goals and race schedule.  Below are some guidelines for individualized program design, based on research and experience.

  1. Perform a needs analysis, or have someone perform a needs analysis on you.  A needs analysis consists of goals (are you competing in road races, or just running recreationally), movement assessment, and analysis of posture.  Patellofemoral pain is a common complaint among runners.  A comprehensive movement assessment can identify risk factors, such as knee internal rotation and hip adduction during a single leg squat, which are believed to contribute to PFP (Noehren, Pohl, Sanchez, Cunningham, and Latermann, 2011).  It also identifies potential muscle imbalances and flexibility issues which might affect running gait.  
  2. Don't perform exercises sitting.  You don't run sitting.  You run using your entire body to stabilize while you are propelling your body forward, one foot at a time.  Train you muscles standing up.
  3. Include movements on one leg.  Balance is important, and runners spend a lot of time on one leg.  Things like single leg squats windmills, and  walking lunges challenge the kinetic chain and work dynamic balance at the same time.
  4. Use proper progression.  The exercises described above are great, but should only be performed if you can do a perfect double leg squat, anterior reach, and stationary lunge.  The quality of the movement is critical.  Training faulty movement patterns will simply lead to more faulty movement patterns.  In order to progress, some flexibility work or foam roller work may be required.
  5. Roll.  Use a foam roller prior to your strength training program to reduce activity to muscles that are overactive.  In runners, this typically includes the IT band, quadriceps, and calves.  This will allow the proper muscles to be recruited for various movements.  Ideally, a runner would roll almost daily, including before runs.  If it hurts, know that if you continue to roll, over time it will hurt a lot less.
  6. Periodize your training program.  This is particularly important if you are racing.  Heavy weights and plyometrics will improve running economy; however, they also cause soreness.  It is important to figure out when you should be building strength, working on power, and allowing for recovery.  I use the base building period of an endurance athlete's program to work on strength, speed training portion to incorporate some plyometrics (this requires excellent feedback from the athlete.  You don't want to hinder the speed training workouts.  I make sure I do plyometrics with the person when speed training is done for the week), and taper to focus on quality/endurance movements, using one or two plyometric exercises if the person has been strength training for a long time.  
  7. Remember quality.  Don't do something too soon (such as add jumping motions).  Work on improving movement quality first.  This might take some time, but it will be worth it in the end.
  8. Don't forget the rest of your body.  While we don't use our arms to run, we do lose muscle mass as we age.  What good is all of that running if we can't lift ourselves off the floor if we fall?
Yours in health and wellness,

Saunders, P.U., Pyne, D.B., Telford, R.D., & Hawley, J.A., (2004).  Factors affecting running economy in distance runners.  Sports Medicine, 34(7), pp. 465-485.
Berryman, N., Maurel, D., & Bosquet, L., (2010).  Effect of plyometric vs. dynamic weight training on the energy cost of running.  Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(7), pp. 1818-1825.
Noehren, B., Pohl, M.B., Sanchez, Z., Cunningham, T., & Lattermann, C., (2011).  Proximal and distal kinematics in female runners with patellofemoral pain.  Clinical Biomechanics, (Epub ahead of print).