By now, many of you are headlong into fall race training. Some of you may have races coming up in the next couple of weeks. So far be it from me to interrupt your training schedule with more stuff to heap on top of what is probably an already rigorous plan.
But I need to speak a little truth here. And then I want to offer you a solution. I’ll speak in generalities, meaning that the general profile of a runner may not fit you, but that it does often describe the typical long-distance or endurance athlete. So here goes.
A lot of you run big races. Or you want to run big races. Whether it’s 13.1 miles, 26.2, a 50K or something even longer, those are the things that get you amped up to train. Many more of you like to go for shorter distances. Either way, you’re piling up the miles. You’re getting more capable every week. You’re pretty pleased at how long, how far and how fast those legs of yours will take you.
But here’s the truth: If you’re like most runners, you’re not as strong as you think you are. And as much as I hate to break this to ya, you might actually be muscularly weak.
Endurance athletes — recreational or competitive — put up with a lot of pain, soreness and gut-checks along the way to finish line glory. Many are fine with not looking like a body builder, because body builders can’t do what we do.
But while you shouldn’t be expected to do what they do, there is a good chance you need to look at how strong you actually are.
“Strength,” in this case, is measured by how much power your muscles can bring to bear when called upon. Strength builds speed, and we all know that speed is good. It’s more fun to be fast in a race than not.
Strength also make a difference in how well you handle hills. Unless you plan to glide on flat courses for the rest of your life, you’re going to see hills in your future, especially if you want to run on trails.
Lastly, strength gives your muscles the ability to handle the stresses of running and take a little pressure off your joints.
What I want to concentrate on are some exercises you can do to build strength, power and speed, and include different kinds of running workouts that will help you maximize what you build in the weight room and what you do on the course. Many of these exercises are of the single-leg variety (hugely important for runners), and none of them incorporate the use of weight machines. So here goes:
Split squats: With one foot forward and one back (like a lunge position), lower yourself down until your back leg knee is barely above the ground. Then rise back up, concentrating on squeezing your quads, hamstrings and glutes. Do 8 reps each leg for 3 sets. If you’re strong enough to do more than bodyweight split squats, hold some dumbbells in your hands as you do the exercise.
Side bench step-ups: Another single-leg exercise, but with a different twist. Find a short bench (maybe an aerobic step bench, or something slightly higher), about 12-18 inches high depending on your strength level. Stand to the side of the bench, and put your foot next to the bench on top. With the other foot, raise your toe off the floor. Then with your foot that’s on the bench, raise up, then slowly back down. The leg that’s on the bench should do all the work, with NO push-off from the other leg (that’s why you’re raising your toes up; to prevent any sort of push-off). This isolates the leg that’s on the bench and makes it do all the work. Do 3 sets of 10 reps each leg. If you’re getting stronger, hold a dumbbell or a plate to your chest. This will really work your quads and glutes. As a bonus, this will help with balance, too.
Side bench step-ups. (T-nation.com photo)
Single-leg Romanian deadlifts: Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell, lean forward with the weight in one hand, and have one leg trailing back, lowering yourself slowly, keeping tension on your hamstrings and glutes with your leg that’s planted on the ground, Then raise yourself back up slowly, really pulling with those glutes/hams. Do 3 sets of 10 reps per leg.
If you’re curious what my lower body workout looks like, here it is:
- Single-leg calf raises w/dumbbells, 3×10 (escalating weight)
- Barbell squats. 8, 6, 4 reps (escalating weight)
- Split leg squats, 3×8 (escalating weight)
- Barbell deadlifts, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2 and 1 reps (escalating weight)
- Offset bench step-ups, 3×10 (bodyweight, slow)
- Single-leg Romanian deadlifts with kettlebells, 3×8
- Barbell hip bridges, 3×10
- 5 minutes simulated hill climb on the exercise bike
It is crucial that not all of your running workouts be at the same pace. Moving faster builds your muscles in new ways that will make you faster come race time. So incorporate speed training in your weekly plan.
You can get a lot of speed work done at the track.
Intervals: Head to the track, or find a place where you can run anywhere from 400 to 800 meters without having to stop. Do a one-mile warmup jog, then do your intervals by running 400 meters at your best speed, then walk or jog the next 400 meters. That’s one rep. Shoot for eight reps in your workout. If you’re feeling particularly strong, or want a bigger push, do these in 800-meter intervals. The 800-meter variety is often called Yassos, named after famed running coach Bart Yasso.
Fartleks: The term “fartlek” is Swedish for “speed play.” The idea behind fartleks is to break up a run with bursts of higher speeds, then slowing back down. It’s pretty easy: You’re out on a run, a aquarter mile ahead, you see a bridge. Increase your speed to, say, 5Kpace,then when you get there, slow back down and continue your run. Find more targets, vary your speeds and distances. Keep it random, fun and challenging.
Tempo runs: These are great. Let’s say you’re doing a 5-mile run. Start out that first mile at an even, mellow pace. Then, for the next 3 miles, speed up to your race pace. Challenge yourself here. Then slow it back down that last mile. It’s that simple.
Alternate these speed workout methods from week to week. It will help!
I’m amazed at how many runners avoid hills during their training for big races. Sure, some races are flat. Most aren’t. So there’s two ways to tackle hills.
Hill courses: Plan routes for your short- and medium-length runs that have hills. Even include hilly portions on your long runs. If you’re really a planner, check out the elevation profile of your next planned race and mimic that in your training. You owe it to yourself to be prepared.
Find hilly places to run. It’s going to make you suffer, but it’s going to make you better.
Hill repeats: Warm up for a mile, then find yourself a good-sized, moderately steep hill. Then run up and down that thing. Start out at 20 minutes and work your way up. I prefer trails, as trail hills are often bigger, longer and steeper than what you get on the road. Either way, find a hill and push yourself. This will make you physically and mentally stronger as well as faster. Do a hill repeat workout once a week.
Incorporate these running workouts into your week, and program in some strength training using the exercises I listed above. There is more that you can do (you shouldn’t ignore your core or your upper body, particularly the back), but I can promise you that if you vary up your training with these things, you’re going to run faster, stronger, and with fewer injuries. Give it a shot!