Strength, Stability, Exercises and Drills by Mick Wall
In recent weeks, Striders coaches and run leaders have been lucky enough to attend a number of workshops. These have been funded by the South Yorkshire area of England Athletics and delivered by Accelerate Performance Centre with the main subject being running form, strength and stability.
During the workshops it became quite apparent that 90% of those in attendance were lacking strength and stability. If we take that 90% and expand that out across the club, that is a hell of a lot of members who could probably benefit from some extra training in those departments.
As we briefly discussed in the ‘How to build a training plan’ document: To become the best, most efficient runner you can be, just running isn’t going to be enough. Strength and stability training is one of the single most important non-running aspects of training that can help you become a better (faster) runner.
If you want to perform at your full potential, you need to take a comprehensive approach to your running. That means targeting areas of fitness you may not normally pay attention to, like flexibility, balance, stability and mobility, in addition to strength.
Running is often believed to be purely about endurance, or aerobic fitness, but muscular strength also plays a major role. Strength and stability exercises are important to create good running form, avoid injury, and become a more balanced runner.
And the one line that will probably appeal to most of you?
Strength and stability training is a key component in boosting performance. ie getting faster and being able to run for longer.
Strength and stability can added in two main ways
- Bodyweight Exercises
- Plyometric Drills
Both subjects go hand in hand and encourage good running form and technique.
Bodyweight exercises are so simple that you can even do them in your kitchen. You don’t have to visit expensive gyms, just find time in your week at home.
If you are just starting out you could just concentrate on your glutes. Sitting behind a desk all day can make your glutes inactive and you need to get them firing again and get them back in the game.
“No Glutes Equals No Results” say Higher, Faster, Sports in a fascinating article.
The glute muscles are the most important muscle in running and you would benefit greatly by making these stronger and powerful. Each stride you take uses your glutes to propel you forward. The stronger they are, they more they’ll push you with each step and take work off the hamstring and calves whilst at the same time keeping you more stable. If your glutes are weak and inactive you will be putting unnecessary load on other muscles.
Below are a variety of videos demonstrating glute exercises.
Superman (progress to various arm/leg raises)
Standard Two-Legged Squat
Single Leg Box Squat
As with all bodyweight exercises, ensure that each one is completed in a nice easy controlled movement, with as good a technique as possible. Rushing the exercises defeats the object of doing them.
Your core muscles, which include your abs, glutes, hips and lower back, work together to hold your torso solid when you run. They also keep energy from being wasted, prevent a litany of injuries and power your stride.
One of the best ways to strengthen your core is by performing plank exercises.
Tips for Plank
- Squeeze your glutes to stabilize the bottom half of your body.
- Avoid locking your knees by keeping them slightly bent.
- Avoid collapsing your lower back.
- Actively contract your shoulder blades (latissimus muscles) to pack the shoulders down in relation to your torso.
- Tighten your abdominals by drawing your belly button toward your spine.
- Lengthen your spine by lifting your head away from your shoulders.
- Position your feet at least hip-width apart.
- Perform planks with your knees on the floor for easier variations. (ie beginners)
Rather than just limit yourself to basic straight plank, try adding movement. ie front to side, back to front, then to side again. You could start to move your arms and legs during both front and side plank to replicate running motion.
Other important muscles
Calves, hamstrings, quads and abductors are all important. The internet is littered with articles such as “The Strength Moves Every Runner Should Be Doing” which adds squats, lunges, step ups and deadlifts into the mix.
How many times a week?
To complete a full set of the exercises above would take around 20 to 30 minutes. If you could fit this into your schedule once or twice a week you would begin to see a real benefit within 6 to 8 weeks.
You could start with as little as 5 to 10 reps per exercise. Remember though, a small amount of reps completed slowly and correctly is better than quickly thrashing out a high number of incorrect ones.
If possible, get someone to watch whilst you do the exercises to ensure you are doing them correctly.
Make the exercises easier or harder based on your ability level: Decrease the number of reps or time interval if any exercises feel too tough, or hold medium-weight dumbbells during the lunges, step-ups, squats, and deadlifts if you’re looking for a greater challenge.
New to Strength and Conditioning Work?
If you are overwhelmed by what to try first, why not start with this simple little routine that will only take 5 minutes a day. If you try this, every day for one month then you should be well on your way to getting stronger.
Try and complete each exercise for upto 1 minute or for as long as you can hold until you fatigue.
- Standard Plank
- Side Plank Left
- Side Plank Right
- Standard Two-Legged Squat
- Glute Bridge
All of which have instructional videos earlier up the page.
Below is an extract from David Palmer’s 2014 training diary as he worked towards the Rotterdam marathon where he ran a staggering and then club record time of 2:30:52.
As you can see, David put a hell of a lot of time and effort into strength that particular week and did so throughout the whole of his marathon training. He also managed to run a phenomenal 90 miles through the 7 day period listed above. Being strong goes a long way to keeping injuries at bay.
I’m obviously not suggesting we all devote so much time to strength, or indeed run 90 miles per week, but we do need to consider adding an appropriate percentage of our available weekly time to getting ourselves stronger for running. Maybe aim for 10% for starters?
Sparing just 30 mins a week at home once a week instead of watching the telly can make a real difference to your running.
Nike Oregon Project
Back in 2012, Mo Farah’s coach Alberto Salazar and the Nike Oregon Project’s Strength and Conditioning coach spoke at Coaches Clinic session. You can find all the videos from that presentation on the RunnerSpace website.
There is quite a lot of material to listen to, so to save you the time here are the main points that Dave McHenry, the Strength and Conditioning coach made:
- The Oregon project strength and conditioning is mainly based on clinical research
- Research tells us beyond a shadow of doubt what is effective and what is not for runners
- The Oregon project strength and conditioning is all about functional (running) training and injury prevention
- Glute and hamstring power = speed
- Plyometrics = efficiency and speed
- Endurance athletes HAVE to be strong and powerful to be the best they can
- Hip/Glute weakness is the cause of most running injuries; ITB/hip/knee/ankle etc
- Every runner, regardless of level should be doing hip/glute strength exercises
- Oregon project runners does hip and core strength and conditioning 3 to 4 times a week
- Foam roll 3 to 4 times a week to prevent injury
- a good dynamic warmup before every session
- static stretching only for AFTER activity
Here are the links to Dave McHenry’s recommended strength and conditioning exercises that are listed on his own website
One final take home quote from Alberto Salazar himself
Strength training can get you faster in a shorter timeframe than months of speedwork
Whilst YouTube videos are useful, nothing beats a good book explaining everything and Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras is a tremendous read.
It contains simple, but exceptional diagrams for all the exercises in the videos and more besides. There are also separate sections and descriptions for core, back, glutes, thighs etc.
Example from the book for the ‘Superman’ exercise that primarily works the glutes.
Getting advice and assessment
For specific advice or to help find where your strength and stability weaknesses are, Accelerate Performance Centre at Attercliffe run dedicated Strength and Conditioning courses. These can be booked on an individual basis or in small groups.
Pilates and Yoga
Pilates exercises create a stronger, more flexible spine and core by supporting and strengthening the muscles of the torso, hips shoulders and pelvis.
The strength and flexibility you develop in Yoga, namely in the core, quads, hamstrings, and hip flexors can help you run more efficiently and stay injury-free.
If you lack motivation to do exercises on your own, joining a Pilates or Yoga class could be a good option. Various providers now have Pilates and Yoga classes specifically for runners.
Plyometrics, also known as “jump training” or “plyos”, are exercises in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals of time, with the goal of increasing power (speed-strength).
Plyometric training takes advantage of a muscle process called the stretch-shortening cycle, which (without getting too bogged down in details) allows your muscles and tendons to temporarily store energy from impact for a fraction of a second, then release it to help rebound off the ground. This is what allows you to jump higher after doing a “windup” instead of jumping from a dead stop. The stretch-shortening cycle plays a major role in running economy in distance runners, as the greater the percentage of impact energy you can return, the less “new” energy you need to expend each step.
Why do drills? Drills can dramatically improve your running form and economy (or the ability to run fast efficiently) and increase your stride cadence and racing speed.
Each drill highlights one or more aspects of good running form and accentuates them through repetitive motion, which trains the body to become comfortable with that movement so it can be inserted into your typical running mechanics. These drills can serve as a dynamic warmup routine after a 10-minute easy jog before your regularly scheduled run or workout, or they can be completed after a run to reinstate the notion of running with good form while fatigued.
Try to do these drills on an ongoing basis, focusing on precise movements. There are numerous other drills you can incorporate into your routine, but the most important factor is doing them consistently.
Below are a variety of videos demonstrating plyometric drills.
Straight Hopping (no need to do the sprint)
Walking Lunges (ignore the weight)
High Knees (with butt kicks)
Zig Zag Hops
High knee skips
You can then finish off your drills session with some pace pick up bursts/short acceleration runs by starting slowly and finishing very fast whilst always maintain good running form.
How many times a week?
To complete the drills list above would take around 20 to 30 minutes depending on how many sets and the distance covered. Start with one drills sessions a week with 4 sets per exercise and each set over around 20m.
As with all exercises, as you become stronger you can increase the reps and distances to suit.
If you can do these in a group you can all watch each other to ensure the drills are done correctly and provide pointers if not.
Hills for strength training
We live in Sheffield, you don’t have to go very far to find a good hill, so let’s use them.
Brian Mac’s website recommends hills for strength training:
In hill running, the athlete is using their body weight as a resistance to push against, so the driving muscles from which their leg power is derived have to work harder. The technique to aim for is a “bouncy” style where the athlete has a good knee lift and maximum range of movement in the ankle. They should aim to drive hard, pushing upwards with their toes, flexing their ankle as much as possible, landing on the front part of the foot and then letting the heel come down below the level of the toes as the weight is taken. This stretches the calf muscles upwards and downwards as much as possible and applies resistance which overtime will improve their power and elasticity. The athlete should look straight ahead, as they run (not at their feet) and ensure their neck, shoulders and arms are free of tension. Many experts believe that the “bouncy” action is more important than the speed at which the athlete runs up the hills.
Hill work results in the calf muscles learning to contract more quickly and thereby generating work at a higher rate, they become more powerful. The calf muscle achieves this by recruiting more muscle fibres, around two or three times as many when compared to running on the flat. The “bouncy” action also improves the power of the quads in the front of the thigh as they provide the high knee lift that is required. For the athlete, when competing in their sport/event, it can mean higher running speeds and shorter foot strike times.
Hill training offers the following benefits:
- helps develop power and muscle elasticity
- improves stride frequency and length
- develops co-ordination, encouraging the proper use of arm action during the driving phase and feet in the support phase
- develops control and stabilisation as well as improved speed (downhill running)
- promotes strength endurance
- develops maximum speed and strength (short hills)
Remember, hill sessions should also include downhill variations to increase downhill strength. When racing, what goes up usually comes back down.
You don’t have to run up and down the hills like a mad person to get the benefit. Taking them slowly, ensuring good technique is a great strength workout.
Good running form and technique
Always try to run with good form; stand tall, use your arms and make short quick strides with your feet landing under your body (no overstriding). Push off behind you to create a heel flick and ensure that your head, shoulders and upper body are relaxed but stable with no side to side movement.
These are the two courses that Striders leaders and coaches went on and are highly recommended.