This is the first of a six-part series about strength training for runners with Kevin Purvis, a renowned strength coach based in Boulder, Colorado.
Starting from Square One: Understanding your base level of strength and mobility
By Brian Metzler
Like a lot of runners, I am excited for races to return in 2021 and eager to start training.
Last year was the first one in a long, long time I didn’t pin on a race bib. I had planned to do an Ironman in St. George, Utah, and also run the Chicago Marathon, but both were canceled because of Covid-19.
I was still relatively fit throughout the year, but my training because a bit haphazard and less structured. No complaints about that because those bouts of training — even if it many were merely moments of casual exercise — helped get me through the malaise and uncertainty brought on the pandemic.
Now that I’ve started training again with an eye toward a fall half marathon and triathlon on my calendar, I realize that I’m long overdue for a tune-up. While have a high level of drive and I’m eager to get back to serious workouts, my body hasn’t been quite as responsive.
I’m still fairly fit and weigh about the same as I did when I completed my last Ironman and the Leadman series in 2018, I know I’m just not the athlete I need to be. I’m not broken down or injured, but I know I am not as functionally strong as I should be and also my running form seems to be a bit misaligned. Like most recreational athletes, I work a lot and my training can be sporadic, so I know it’s time to retool my physique.
For help rebuilding my strength, mobility and stability as a way to get back to being optimally fit on race day in the fall, I reached out to Kevin Purvis of KP Performance in Boulder, Colorado. He’s been a strength and movement coach for 22 years and has extensive experience working with endurance athletes, especially since relocating to Boulder in 2016.
In addition to training a wide range of recreational athletes, he also trains numerous high-level elite track athletes, trail runners, ultrarunners, triathletes and marathoners, including 2021 U.S. Olympic marathoner Jake Riley. Over the next few weeks Kevin will help give us advice pertaining to strength training for runners.
JackRabbit: First and foremost, why is proper strength training for runners or triathletes important?
Kevin Purvis: “It builds structural integrity or the ability to handle the load and not break down during a long training run, half marathon or marathon. Basically, once the big muscles in your legs, pelvis and lower back start to fatigue and break down, you’ll start to experience inefficiency in your form — especially if you haven’t done the work to get the smaller muscles strong so they can help stabilize your movements.
In essence, strength and mobility work is all about building the chassis of the car so it efficiently and effectively can handle the power that the engine produces.
First, we need to make sure we’re doing everything to maintain the foundation of a runner’s health and then we can focus on things that will improve performance. If I were to take an athlete and have them do performance-oriented exercises right away without having taken care of core strength and functional movement patterns, it doesn’t matter how strong we can get that athlete to be, they’re still likely to break down at some point.
In that case, all that is really doing is giving them more ability to hurt themselves because they can’t handle the increasing load of training. It’s like a car that is producing more and more horsepower on a bad chassis; it’s still going to break down eventually.”v
JR: Why is it important to do much more than just go out and run if you want to be a better runner?
KP: “At some point, you’ll squeeze out everything you can squeeze out of your pure run training based on the strength and stability you have. At some point, you can’t squeeze any more horsepower out of your body. But if we can create a strength base for a runner that can support their movements and handle the workout loads and appropriately build it up over time, what we’re doing is giving that runner a better platform so that their run training can continue to improve.
Even if you’ve been primarily doing only run training for 10 years and are still improving, you’ll need a stimulus that will help you advance from there. It’s really got to be appropriate for the athlete, but also the event or race their doing and for the timing or specific point of where they are in their race build-up.”
JR: How did you come to be such a renowned strength coach for endurance athletes?
KP: “I had grown up as an explosive sports athlete, playing football, baseball, a variety of court sports and body building. I didn’t get into endurance sports until I was 30. I started jogging and that turned into longer distances and running half marathons.
So for me, it was an entirely new set of challenges. I was already a trainer, but once I got into endurance sports myself, I started viewing it through that lens and started thinking, ‘What can I do to help myself be better? And ‘What can I do to prevent injuries?’
It was pretty easy to see some common injuries that would pop up for people and that started the process of backtracking to understand what was causing each of those problems. From there it snowballed and I realized I wanted to be solely involved with endurance sports and so I immersed myself in it and moved to Boulder, because there is such a big population of pros and age-groupers with a high level of commitment to their training.”
JR: How has strength training for runners evolved through the years?
KP: “What was pretty common for runners for a long time was that most weren’t doing a lot of strength work and few were doing appropriate strength work. Once it was agreed that they should be doing strength work, the typical scenario was that they picked up some exercises from a magazine article or a friend and they would include those in their process when they had time.
Originally, everyone took some old-school direction from general fitness concepts or body building and traditional lifting concepts and threw that into their week wherever they could. But then they wondered why it wasn’t helping them become a better runner. The problem with all of that was that the “why” behind it wasn’t really there and most of it wasn’t specifically helping runners improve. So my goal was to create a more cohesive process that is really catered to the movements of running but also to that specific athlete’s needs.”
JR: What is your approach with a recreational runner or triathlete who seeks your guidance?
KP: “My approach is to understand first and foremost what that athlete has done over the past six months or a year, how that worked, how they’re moving on the first day I see them and how that can be changed or improved as necessary. Every runner is different.
They’re built differently and they move differently. You could even have two runners who have the same marathon PR but one of them might need a lot of mobility work and the other might not need any mobility work but might need more strength and stability work. And another runner might just have really funky movement patterns that developed and you’ll need to clean that up as well, and that’s why it’s so important to treat each runner as the unique individuals they are.
“And to do that, I always start off with a movement screen evaluation of every runner I work with, and that can happen in person or, if the athlete is remote, it can happen by the runner videoing a series of movements I have them do. I take every runner through an evaluation that includes a series of movements and stances so we can understand what we need to work on based on how mobile they are and where weaknesses or imbalances might exist.
After that initial movement screen and evaluation, I develop an understanding of what that individual runner specifically needs in terms of strength and mobility and use it as a blueprint for what I prescribe for them to do. I think that if you don’t do something that specifically matches a runner’s needs, you’re just throwing somewhat random exercises into a process.”
Stay tuned for parts 2-6 of this Strength Training for Runners series with Kevin Purvis.