Brandon Hudgins discusses what strength exercises a Sub 4-minute miler performs to help his performance!
Every time I go to the gym I am almost always asked a variation of these questions “What’s the best (or favorite) exercise you do for running?” Or my other all-time favorite, “Why are you lifting with your legs, don’t you do enough running with them to make them strong?”
Answering these questions is nearly impossible in a gym setting. I never want to step on people’s toes or getting into a debate about the benefits of strength training, but there are a few principles that I think everyone should follow in the weight room.
My research during Graduate School at Appalachian State University focused on stretch shortening cycle (the energy return from the stretch of your tendons during muscle contraction) of runners and their ability to utilize that energy to enhance their performance¹ . We found that athletes that jump farther almost always run faster, regardless of the distance they compete in. The contribution of muscle power to performance in middle and long distances needs to be addressed. That can only be addressed through two mechanisms; sprinting and weight training.
Therefore, when training in the weight room, distance runners should utilize exercises to increase their ability harness and utilize the stretch shorten cycle and muscle power.
Now of course these exercises have to be worked into your schedule. I highly recommend that any exercise be done under proper supervision of a trained professional (strength coach or personal trainer), until proper form is learned. Learning bad form in your strength exercise can lead to magnitude of issues down the road. Just like training for distance runners, training in the weight room follows most of the same periodization principles (base phase, strength phase, speed phase, competition phase).
So, before adding these exercises to your routine, be sure to consult a professional.
Drop Box Jump
The drop jump involves stepping off of a plyometric box (or bench) landing on both feet and then immediately jumping as high as you can. This exercise is extremely effective at training the stretch shorten cycle mentioned above. Stepping down from a higher surface, loads the quads, glutes, and calves more than just a normal standing jump, plus it also stresses the tendons in the legs and loads then in preparation for the jump. Drop box jumps should be done in sets of no more than 5 and for maximum height. The goal with power exercises is achieving a high muscle output, not fatiguing the muscle with lots of reps or short recovery. An ideal protocol would be 2-3 sets of 4-5 repetitions.
The overhead squat may be the best total body exercise. Here is a list of muscles the that overhead squat works: shoulders, biceps, triceps, traps, abs, obliques, lats, low back erectors, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. The overhead squat also helps work on posterior chain mobility² and hip mobility (think range of motion).
The core has to be activated from the inside (not just the outside beach muscles) to keep you upright while squatting down and back to maintain your posture. This exercise definitely needs to be taught by a professional and done under their supervision, especially when adding weight. The movement can be practiced with a broomstick to learn the motion, but adding weight overhead always needs to be observed for proper form. Lots of trainers will shy away from the exercise, but I truly think the rewards of doing the overhead squat, when taught and learned properly, are worth the risk. Overhead squat protocols can mimic other multi-joint lifts. Early in the training cycle (and during the learning process) lower weight for higher reps, moving on to more sets and less reps. So start with 3 sets of 8 progressing to 4 or 5 sets of 3.
Hamstring Ball Curl
The posterior chain helps propel you forward when running. Most people are hamstring dominant when they run. So making sure the hamstrings and glutes are up to the task is very important². The old fashion hamstring curl machine is good for that, but doesn’t involve really any glute activation. Laying on your back, driving your heels into the exercise ball, lift your hips up off the ground, and pull your heels towards your hips. The hamstrings have to work overtime to stabilize, you have to activate the glutes to hold your body in the correct position, as well as use your core for stability. Using an unstable surface in the movement requires the muscles to activate more (think work harder) to follow the correct path, whereas on a hamstring curl machine the body is just lying flat and the machine has a preset pathway, so the body doesn’t have to account for possible adjustments. The hamstring ball curl uses the hamstring and glute in the same way that you would use while running, making the movement a much more functional movement to increase running performance.
Cable Wood Chops
Wood chops are my favorite “core” exercise. There are so many different variations, that you can keep it in the program year around. You can focus on different parts of the exercise or different stances and not get bored or stagnant with the exercise. The exercise involves using a cable machine (or bands) and twisting with a weight. You can have your feet parallel, staggered, or in a lunge position. You can also move the cable height to hit different angles, it can be above your head, waist height, or from the floor. I don’t think one position is better than the other. It’s refreshing to change the movement every 3 or 4 weeks to keep things new and not get burned out mentally on one exercise.
So those are some of my favorite exercises to help strengthen me for my competitive running. Remember, before you start any exercise program you should consult with your doctor, then seek a professional trainer to help teach you proper form and technique. Adding strength training is a must if you want to take your performance to the next level.
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