What does strength training mean when it comes to running?

OR why should I bother strengthening at all – I just want to run!

Running is a repetitive movement – essentially it is like hopping thousands of times. This puts stress on your muscles, your bones, your tendons – everything really. Try hopping for 1 minute on one leg – see how that feels!

And while this repetitiveness can be calming for the mind it’s not always so for the body.

As much as we’d like to place every step exactly the right way, inevitably through tiredness, poor form to start with, uneven terrain or even our footwear can mean each step can actually force muscles and bone out of alignment. And you can start with the best of intentions, but challenging yourself to run further, or faster, or for longer means that even the most solid of forms will slip. (just look at ultra-runners coming over the finish – they adopt a shuffling z-shaped appearance!)


Learning from past injuries

Have you ever felt great with running – like you’re flying over the ground almost, and you take it up a level, whatever you goal, and the next thing is your knee hurts, or there’s something dodgy going on with your foot – or you wake up and your hip is agony?

This is a sure-fire sign that you have upped your running game, but your strength (your muscles) hasn’t caught up.

This can be so disheartening.

I’ve been there. 2018 was a ridiculously injury prone year for me, my knee started flaring up after a 16km Long Run in April and it didn’t stop hurting when I stopped running, it carried on. Walking from the car park to the school entrance was agony – I couldn’t weight-bear! I was terrified it was a tear that would need surgery; or worse, for me to STOP RUNNING! And with the year I had planned (20 miles 200 obstacles at Rat Race Dirty Weekend, 2 legs on the Ochil Ultra and my first marathon in October!) I didn’t want to be out of action!

Rat Race was so painful and after 6 miles of running, it became clear that anything faster than a hobble was out of the question. I managed at least 150 obstacles and limped over the finish line in a completely un-record-breaking 8 ½ hours! After an MRI and some sessions with the osteopath I was told it was ‘wear’ on my knee joint thank god! So, rest and allowing it to repair was the strategy, and this worked – for a while.

Then in September I jumped off an obstacle at X-Runner (something they strongly advise against!) and landed on something hard. My foot was fooked. I couldn’t stand on it! Just limp AGAIN! I took the difficult decision to still run the Sheffield 10k the following day – it was the final run for my 10k runners – which in hindsight was stupid (yes Julie you were right!) but I don’t regret it! I have run that 10km with my 10k peeps ever since I started that programme and I wasn’t about to break my streak!

Not going to lie, it was painful, very painful and even though I did rest up after that weekend’s 20km fun the following weekend was the Ochil Ultra. 20 miles, technical terrain, a team counting on me….no way I was going to bail! Awesome first 10 miles, total torture 2nd 10 miles. Foot hurt and because my body was adjusting away from the pain, this had the knock-on effect of putting my leg back out of alignment so guess what? The knee started hurting again.

My first ever marathon (Kielder the weekend after the Ochil Ultra) was never going to happen in this state – so I struggled through 8 miles of pain and called it quits, with the determination to return, once my injuries were healed and muscles correctly prepared.

This is what our bodies do. They attempt to minimise our pain. Our bodies don’t know that what gets put slightly out of whack today to save pain will cause you bucket-loads of pain down the road.

Long story short (too late!) the time to tackle this is NOW.


What does strength training mean when it comes to running?

As a runner – you must continually work to make sure your technique is correct, that your form is right (and by ‘right’ I mean energy efficient and in alignment; where it SHOULD be) AND that the muscles you’re using are robust, strong and in perfect alignment.

If you have strong quads and hams keeping your knee joints in place, not moving around, you’ll prevent wear and tear on the cartilage. If you keep your other muscles in your legs strong (anterior tibialis, iliopsoas, calf muscles) you’ll keep your shin bones and ankles where they need to be; meaning you’re less likely to go over. And by strengthening your glutes you’ll use them properly (e.g. powering up hills) meaning your back will be correctly supported and your other muscles (quads etc) won’t get tired out by doing double the work. Strong hips work in conjunction with glutes and bigger leg muscles, basically keeping the chain going (mobility in hips is key).

And it’s not just the lower body! Strong arms can improve your speed and ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS work on your core strength! Your core keeps your posture upright, conserving energy and absorbing the impact from the continual movement. Your core fitness is the foundation to all fitness. In my opinion if you are forced to stop running for whatever reason (unless it’s like death/ coma or full body cast) you should still be able to do your core exercises – NO EXCUSE!

I hope this has helped drill into you just how important strength training is to keep you running and prevent injury.

The next article goes into detail on which muscles to target and the types of exercises that are best!