As trail runners we don’t want bigger muscles, we want SMARTER muscles. The aim is to teach our body to become more effective by using a progressive approach to strength training (ST). Here strength and conditioning expert and ultra runner Matt Deore explores what’s best for those getting into weights training for the first time:
Your ST is the perfect opportunity to eliminate every weakness or imbalance your body has to become stronger, leaner and faster in a controlled environment. Strength training might be something new for many runners so the key is to trust and commit to it, because if you do, it will assist you in climbing like a mountain goat.
- GET ASSESSED FIRST
There are a couple of options available to runners when they decide to incorporate strength training into their program. In addition to working one-on-one with a coach you can do group classes or even get a program online. Whatever approach you take I encourage you to look out for the following two things:
Firstly know what your weaknesses are and make sure your program first addresses those weaknesses. By getting an assessment you can focus on addressing structural imbalances and weaknesses that might be limiting your running performance.
If you only look at sports specific exercises you can adversely affect your posture, performance and potentially become more susceptible to injury.
True results come from a solid foundation. I personally think that the Joint by Joint Concept, created by Strength Coach Michael Boyle & Sport Therapist Gray Cook is the physical base of strength training and running. Here is why:
The body is simply a stack of joints. Each joint or series of joints has a specific function and is prone to specific, predictable levels of dysfunction. As a result, each joint has specific training needs. The list below looks at the body on a joint-by-joint basis from the bottom up:
– Ankle needs mobility (particularly sagittal)
– Knee needs stability
– Hip needs mobility (multi-planar)
– Lumbar Spine needs stability
– T-Spine needs mobility
– Gleno-humeral needs stability
- DO THE DIRTY WORK
During most initial assessments, I discover that many runners have no ankle and hip mobility, inhibited glutes, a poor lumbar spine (core) stability or significant side-to-side strength imbalance. These issues need to be addressed first.
Embracing your weaknesses and erasing them is what I love to call ‘taking care of the dirty work’. If you have had your assessment you are in a good position to know the best approach to move forward. In terms of your mindset, do yourself a favor in this phase and be patient. This first phase of strength training for all runners is simple. Mobilize what needs to be mobilized and activate what is inhibited. Roughly speaking you will be looking at a 4 – 8 week time frame for mobilization and activation.
Be cautious during this phase in doing squats, deadlifts, box jumps or hill repeats. They can be considered as sport-specific exercises for runners that increase leg strength and power but can lead to injuries if you haven’t addressed your weaknesses first.
The body is a beautiful thing, but it works at is best when is able to work as unit. If something along the chain is not moving properly or a muscle is inhibited, the chain will be broken and you won’t be as efficient.
- EARN THE HEAVY LIFTS – progression
So you’ve done your period of mobilization and activation. Like many of my athletes they are then pretty amped to begin heavy traditional lifts as a means to build core and leg strength.
Heavy lifts (weighted squats, deadlifts, etc.) are highly technical that require a neutral spine. Please do not perform them if a professional has not shown you. When maintaining a neutral spine throughout those movements, they become highly functional. They are the “BIG PAPA” of planks. Note – you would do planks in the mobilization and activation phase as a means to activate the core muscles in an isolated simple pattern.
When we are progressing with our strength training we are trying to progressively prepare our bodies for the complexity required for running. While running, the idea is to use maximum leg strength while keeping a neutral spine. The body needs to work as a unit. Heavy lifts are a great way to teach your body to do so, in a control functional environment.
The idea is to provide new and different stimulus to our muscles. This will increase full body coordination and neural drive. BUT again please be careful, these are highly technical exercises and are NOT for beginners, you need to earn them!
MY TOP EXERCISES; Barbell Front Squats, Barbell Traditional Deadlift, Kettlebell Walking Lunges & Barbell Sumo Deadlift.
- ITS ALL ABOUT POWER
When we have developed significant strength throughout our body we are then able to train our body to be able to use that strength in an explosive manner. In The Garage I call these our ‘power exercises’ or getting that ‘POP’.
As endurance athletes we spend our time racking up the KMs but I find it is a common thread in many programs that we neglect our power training. Once you have a high level of basic strength, you need to teach your body to be explosive. This will target the elastic component of the muscles that makes us ‘springy’.