Strength Work or Stability Work – Do you need the gym?
I am often asked by runners whether they should be doing "strength work" to help their running. By "strength work" they are asking whether or not they need to be going to a gym and lifting weights. Before delving deeper into this question it is important that you understand the difference between strength and stability.
Strength is the ability of a muscle or group of muscles to develop contractile force against a resistance in a single contraction.
Stability is the resistance of a muscle or group of muscles to control joint position and balance. Stability is obtained through active, passive, and neural systems.
Strength and stability are two different qualities within the human body. Just because a muscle is weak, doesn’t mean it cannot stabilise. And, just because a muscle cannot stabilise, doesn’t mean it is weak. There is a strong neural aspect to stability which ultimately places more emphasis on the brain than any one specific muscle.
I have been treating injured runners for over twenty years and my priority, when writing training programs and prescribing exercises for runners, is to make sure that they stay injury-free. In my experience, the percentage of runners who lack stability far outweighs the percentage of runners who lack strength. The most common and obvious example of this is seen in the muscle groups around the hip and pelvis.
One of the tests I use to assess the strength of the hip muscles is to get someone lying on their side and lifting their top leg. I then apply downwards pressure on their leg until they can no longer hold it up. This test gives a good indication of how much strength the person has in their hip abductor muscles (Gluteus Medius, Gluteus Minimus, Gluteus Maximus and Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL)).
Most runners pass this test with flying colours.
However, I then take this same group of runners and assess what happens to the level of their pelvis when they bob up and down on one foot.
Most runners fail this test!
For runners who "pass" the strength test, but "fail" the stability test - no amount of "clams" or "leglifts" or even squats or deadlifts at the gym will improve their stability. Performing strengthening exercises at the gym will make their already strong muscles even stronger, but they will be at just as much risk of picking up knee injuries, ITB injuries and glute injuries.
Working to improve your strength, before you have improved your stability is counter-productive. The most important factor in becoming a stronger and faster runner is to stay injury free. Staying injury-free allows you to train consistently, and training consistently gets results. If you can train consistently for 6 months, for example, then you will have developed enough resilience in your body tissues (muscles, tendons and bones) to increase your training load. This increase might come in the form of hill reps, stair climbing sessions, speedwork or longer runs. These harder training sessions, when managed properly in your training program, will add further strength and resilience to your body, and help you to run faster.
Watch this video for a demonstration and explanation of stability
Should you lift weights?
Initially, probably not. You need to find out if you are stable through the hips and pelvis before you head off to the gym to make yourself stronger.
The easiest stability test for you to try is this one:
If you can't maintain your balance for 60 seconds then your focus for the next 3 months needs to be improving your stability NOT your strength.
Should you lift weights one day?
The answer to this question is probably yes. Once your body has reached a level where you can run the total weekly mileage you want to be able to run, and once you have strung together at least 6 months of running this mileage without injury, then you should be ready to progress to strength training.
Fast runners do actually have something in common which a lot of slower runners are lacking. Fast runners produce a lot of force, meaning they are capable of strong muscular contractions. These strong muscle contractions translate into speed. Just think: if you want a bouncy ball to bounce higher, you throw it down to the ground with more force. Your legs are just like a bouncy ball. More forceful contractions give you higher levels of force, which gives you a longer stride and a faster running pace. BUT - these stronger contractions require improved stability. So first work on your stability, then your strength.
What stability exercises should you do?
Use the 10 minute routine in The "Essential Core Workout For Runners" to improve your stability. Performing this routine 3 times/week for 3 months will have a huge impact on your stability, and therefore on your body's ability to tolerate harder training sessions.
To progress your stability to the next level, and prepare your body to be ready for strength training I will be adding new exercises and routines to The Locker Room over the next 2-3 months.
You should also checkout:
- Kettlebell Workout For Runners - a 10 minute kettlebell routine to make you stronger.