The following post is by guest author Brett Warren, a biochemical research scientist based in Boston. He puts his expertise to work on a daily basis by developing sports supplements for Force Factor.
All athletes -- not just runners -- have a favorite form of exercise. But focusing on just one type of motion tends to cause some muscle groups to become stronger (and tighter) at the expense of other muscle groups -- leading to injuries. Cross training, by lifting weights for added strength or doing yoga to increase flexibility, can not only add variety to a workout routine, but also make workouts safer by preventing overuse injuries.
Some runners argue that the weight they add by bulking up with more muscle will slow them down when they are running, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, increasing muscle strength will add power to each step, more than making up for the additional muscle weight that you will be carrying around. You will run more efficiently and with better form as a result of strength training. In fact, a University of Alabama study showed that marathon runners who included ten weeks of strength training in their pre-marathon regimens shaved 20-24 minutes off their total time, improving their speeds by eight to ten percent. Moreover, strength training gives you a cross-training activity to use on the days when you are taking time off from running so that your muscles can recover. You are cycling running days off into your training schedule, right? It's important to do so, because when you run or engage in any kind of exercise, your muscles develop microtears that need about 24 hours to recover. While they are recovering, though, you don't need to be on bed rest -- you can be training in other ways.
Muscle GroupsHere are just a few muscle groups, commonly overlooked by runners, that can benefit from strength training:
- Core muscles. The core muscles in your abdomen and back support the stomach, back, hips, and pelvis. Strengthening these muscles improves the alignment of your pelvis when you are running -- in other words, strong core muscles can improve your running form, giving you better economy of movement and making you a faster runner. If your pelvis is not aligned properly during a run -- if you are running inefficiently and with poor body mechanics and poor posture -- you are more likely to injure your hamstrings, develop low back pain, or have Achilles problems. Sit-ups and other crunch variations can help you to improve your core strength, but ONLY if you do them with good form, making sure to pull your navel in toward your spine as you sit up, without holding your breath. You can also strengthen your core muscles with Pilates or even with certain yoga poses (such as bridge, boat, or plank). Tai chi can improve your pelvic alignment. Push-ups are an excellent core exercise. You can also improve core strength by working with a stability ball, balance ball, medicine ball, or balance board.
- Glutes. During running, the gluteal muscles hold the pelvis steady, keeping the pelvis, torso, and legs in good alignment. When glutes are weak, runners are prone to developing shin splints, runner's knee, Achilles tendonitis, and injuries to the iliotibial-band. To work your glutes, you can start with traditional squats, but you might want to also branch out to lunges, quadruped hip extensions, step ups, four-way hip extensions, and a one-legged squat. If you're into yoga, try chair, warrior one or two, floating stick (which is also good for your core), half-moon, or crescent pose.
- Leg muscles. Do runners really overlook their leg muscles? No, but we tend to assume the legs are already covered by a running routine. However, strength training can build those muscles more, adding power to each stride and helping to preserve a range of leg motion beyond the motion that is used to take each step during a run. Fortunately, many glute exercises, such as squats and lunges, will also work your leg muscles.
Protect Yourself with Strength TrainingAs you train, have good form, balancing opposing muscle groups, and using a schedule that keeps your training regular but also allows for periods of rest and recovery. If possible, get advice from a personal trainer so that you can customize your strength building regime, and the amount of weight you use, to your particular goals. Moreover, a personal trainer can explain how to use the machines in your local gym to add weight to your strength training regimen, which gives you a way to make your training even harder as your body gets used to working with its own weight (as it does when you do squats, Pilates, yoga, and the like). You can add weights without using machines, though, by holding dumbbells in your hands while you do certain exercises -- but get some advice from a trainer to be sure that your form and body mechanics are right on target. No need to injure yourself with the injury prevention plan!
Protect yourself from injuries with strength training, and keep in mind that building muscle has another benefit as well -- as you increase the percentage of muscle in your body, you also increase the calories that you burn. It's a win-win situation -- just like running. Otherwise, you're likely to become what Tom Holland at Active.com calls an "accidental triathlete" -- someone who starts swimming and biking after being sidelined by a running injury.