Continued: Understanding your base level of strength and mobility
By Brian Metzler
JR: How do recreational age-group athletes different from elite athletes from a strength training point of view?
KP: “For recreational or age-group runners who are typically working 40 hours a week, their strength training is less about the performance side and more about building a strong, structured base. That means unwinding everything else that goes on in their daily life in order to put them in position to handle the load of running.
If we’re talking about a professional runner, we want to make sure they have the basic health components in place, but we know they don’t have hours upon hours of sitting at a desk, for example. For them, it’s about finding what we can do to find that next 1 percent that might put them on the podium.”
JR: How can recreational or age-group athletes get the most out of strength training?
KP: “As I develop a program for an athlete, we start from a point of view that it has to fit into the schedule of their daily lives. I could write out what I think makes the most sense, but if two weeks into it that athlete says, ‘I just can’t get all of this done,’ it just won’t make sense or be practical.
So I start by asking how much time that person can dedicate to this process. I don’t want the perfect world scenario, I ask them for what will practically fit into their schedule. If that means on a Tuesday they only have 10 minutes of time, I will create a plan that includes 10 minutes of strength and mobility work for that day that I feel is important based on that movement screen. Also, I make sure to align with the athlete’s running coach to make sure where we put things in their schedule coincides with their run training and as they’re going into and out of races.
It should be part of a runner’s overall training, not considered ‘extra stuff’ that’s only done with a ‘if I can get to it’ mentality. But it has to fit within the overall philosophy of the running program. All programs and coaches are different, which is why I reach out to a runner’s coach so I can maximize whatever needs to be accomplished.”
JR: How often should a runner be doing some kind of strength and mobility work?
KP: That depends on a lot of things. If someone is a three-time-a-week runner and maybe just starting out, they might not need seven days a week of strength and mobility work. But if the runners is running six to seven days a week or training for a specific marathon in the fall with a time goal, we’ll want to ‘touch on the body’ almost every single day.
In other words, some kind of strength or mobility work every day, even if it’s brief. And the reason for that is that you need a strong platform to carry you through the rigors of a marathon training build-up.
There’s a common scenario that happens four to six weeks out from a marathon in which a lot of runners start talking about they’re hobbled from a sore hamstring issue that just started bothering them.
In most cases, it didn’t start then, it started at the beginning of their marathon build-up because of how they were moving and where their body started to break down as the training load increased. Those things can be understood from that initial assessment period and addressed before they become an issue late in your marathon training program.
JR: How long of a window should a runner or triathlete expect to do strength and mobility training before seeing results?
KP: “I generally look at the first two-week window as a jump-start to attack anything we found in the movement screen. Some people won’t touch any weights for traditional lifting exercises because we need to clean up and create a better base before we start to put more strength on top of that base.
From there, the body typically adapts in three-week windows, which is why very traditional approaches to linear periodization has three weeks of building followed by a fourth week of backing off slightly. So we might start building that way, depending on where that athlete is in their season or how close they are to their race.
But the more time we have, the better. Ideally, building a base level of strength during an offseason when there isn’t a buildup to a specific race can be very beneficial because that strength can later be then converted into useable strength for that individual’s specific goals for a race and even the specific aspects of the race course, for example, if it’s either hilly or flat.
We can’t just keep doing the same thing or build strength just to build strength. We can’t have a runner with a super strong dead lift and assume that dead life will benefit that marathoner in the last 5K to 10K of a marathon. So what we’ll do is change the techniques to get closer to mimicking the kind of stress they’ll have in a race.
So for a marathoner, we’ll develop some maximum strength early in the process with a range of 4 to 6 reps with a lot of weight and resistance, but once we start to get closer to a race, we’ll have them start to do some circuits that might have a 40 percent load much longer in duration. It’s less of a load but they’ll be doing the exercise for a lot longer.”
JR: What are some of the indicators of improved strength for a runner or triathlete?
KP: “Ultimately clean movement is what I’m looking for, or what I call ‘being more connected,’ in which there is good reciprocating energy and where the athlete isn’t leaking energy out all over the place.
That’s what I notice, but what the runner will sense is that they’re running faster even though they aren’t working any harder. And that’s the efficiency component that we’re looking for.
You might realize you’re not breaking down after your 10th 400 on the track or you might notice that you felt more solid throughout the entire duration of a tempo run. That’s a sign that you’ve got a stronger and more stable base or chassis so you can maximize your engine.”
JR: Why is strength and mobility work necessary to improve running form? Can’t a runner just focus on doing more drills?
KP: “Run form deviations don’t come out of nowhere. There’s always a reason for why something is happening. In a lot of cases, a runner will go through a run evaluation from a coach and will be prescribed a series of drills. But if the runner is experiencing a weakness or tightness or some bad motor skills that snuck into their running gait, it’s really hard to overcome that by simply doing drills.
For example, if you can’t get optimal hip extension on one side because you have a tight hip flexor and you’re overstriding on that side, it doesn’t matter how much you tell them to bring their foot strike back under their body, that leg is coming forward sooner because it’s getting caught sooner and doing drills might only accentuate what’s going wrong especially if the drill is only a repetitive process of improper movement.
And some of the bigger things that can cause an issue in a runner’s gait — for example a hip dropping out or a knee dropping in — are not getting corrected by doing a set of drills. I will still include run drills, but I think sometimes I think people get a little too carried away with trying to be perfect on run form before addressing things that can clean things up from a strength, mobility and stability side of the equation in the gym.”
Stay tuned for parts 3-6 of this Strength Training for Runners series with Kevin Purvis.