Yesterday, we talked about how adding strength training can improve performance. Today, I will elaborate on this and give you three specific exercises to achieve this and the how and why they work. What is needed is exercises that target the muscles and neuronal pathways responsible for actual energy return during running. Although this may sound complicated,it really isn’t. For instance, take a common resistance exercise employed by runners, the knee extension. For this activity you remain in a seated position, your hips are relatively immobile, and your ankles are locked in position. True, the quadriceps muscles are active, but they work in almost total isolation from the rest of the leg, the exact opposite of what happens during running. Since knee extensions are totally non-weight bearing and have little specific resemblance to running, some faultfinders have maintained this will help you run faster- it will.. if you run sitting down! My point is this – that knee extensions will make your quads stronger during knee extension workouts, but they may not make your quads more powerful during a 10k or marathon, when the actual contractions of the quads are of a different magnitude and frequency. The quads are forced to act together with the other muscles in the legs.
It is important to remember that competitive running events require the development and maintenance of speed over a specified period of time. Running speed is largely dependent on the amount of force applied to the ground during each foot strike, and the time over which that force is applied. The greater the force of a foot strike and the shorter its period of application, the higher the power of an individual step and the faster the speed of a runner. By increasing the power exerted during each step, runners raise the speed of their workouts and races. So, again, what you need is specific strength training that aims for positive adaptations of the nervous system as well as the muscles. Completing the exercises when you are over tired leads to poor neuromuscular coordination and movements that are slower than desirable. That means that thespecific exercises should be completed before a running workout, not after, and in fact the best possible time is immediately before an interval, economy, or lactate threshold session, not before a slower workout. You can also add these into a treadmill circuit. By doing the exercises right before your high intensity workout will help you run faster. In fact, at least five different scientific studies have shown that a high intensity strength session activates the nervous system, increases the “firing rate” of nerve cells which control muscles, and improves the overall “recruitment” of muscle fibers during a workout (see Paavo Komi’s “The Stretch-Shortening Cycle and Human Power Output,” in L. Jones, N. McCartney, and A. McCornas, eds., Human Muscle Power, pp. 27- 42, Human Kinetics). Ok.. so, here we go!
The high bench step up: This exercise strongly develops the hamstrings, with complimentary development of the gluteals (butt muscles) and the quadriceps. Begin from a standing position on top of a high bench or step box (approximately knee height), with your body weight on the left foot and your weight shifted toward the left heel. The right foot should be free and held slightly behind the body. Lower the body in a controlled manner until the toes of the right foot touch the ground, but maintain all of your weight on the left foot. Return to the starting position by driving downward with the left heel and straightening the left leg. Then change to the right leg. Maintain absolutely upright posture with the trunk throughout the entire movement, with your hands held at your sides (with or without dumbbells). Beginners should start with 10-12 reps no weight.
One leg squat: This exercise strongly develops the quadriceps and gluteals, with a complimentary boost to the hamstrings. Stand in an upright position with your back to the side of your bench. Place one foot (rear foot) behind you with your toes on top of your bench. Your other foot (support foot) should be flat on the floor and directly under your center of gravity. Bend the knee of your support foot and allow your body to drop until your leg is bent at a 90 degree angle. Do not allow your knee to move in front of your support foot. Keep your rear foot stationary on the bench. Slowly straighten your support leg and return to the starting position. 10-12 reps then switch legs.
One leg hops in place: This exercise builds strength and co-ordination in the entire lower extremity, including the foot, ankle, shin, calf, thigh, and hip. The resilient, bouncy nature of the exercise makes it the most specific of the three and extremely close to the actual movements involved in running. Stand in an upright position with your back to the side of your bench or six to eight inch block. Place one foot (rear foot) behind you with your toes on top of your bench or block. Your other foot (support foot) should be flat on the floor and directly under your center of gravity. Bend the knee of your support leg slightly. Do not allow your knee to move in front of your support foot. Now, keeping your rear foot on the bench, hop up and down on your support leg as quickly as you can. Concentrate on quickness, not on height. Perform 30 repetitions, then switch legs and perform 10-12 repetitions using your other leg as the support leg. Switch legs.
Overall, the strength building trio carries little risk of injury, takes little of your time, and is very specific to the actual act of running. The three exercises will improve both your co-ordination and leg muscle power, and after several weeks you will notice that your legs feel much stronger and that your stride length and frequency have improved!