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Speed

Three strength-training exercises to improve stride length and frequency

Walt Reynolds explains how to improve your speed by working on your stride length and strike rate.

If you are an endurance runner, should you carry out regular strength training workouts? Not a single published scientific study has linked resistance training with improved 5k, 10k or marathon times, but running books and magazine articles extol the merits of strength training, and countless runners spend time in the weights room.

Proponents of strength training for endurance runners claim that the activity bolsters muscle power, raises tendon and ligament strength, and lowers the risk of both acute and chronic injuries. On the other hand, critics of the "iron game" point out that most resistance exercises are mechanically dissimilar from running. They complain that strength-training manoeuvres, most of which require just seconds to complete, cannot possibly promote improved muscular endurance during a sustained, longer duration activity like a 10k race or marathon. They also suggest that weight training may decrease flexibility and produce unproductive increases in muscle mass and overall body weight. They frequently call attention to the fact that highly successful runners tend to be small and reed thin, the exact opposite of the strength trained athlete.

To date, much of the research exploring the link between strength training and endurance performance has focused on standard exercises such as leg extensions and curls, leg presses, bench and shoulder presses. Along with double leg squats, these are the same exercises which runners emphasise during their resistance training workouts. Overall, the exercises do a good job of developing generalised muscle tone and strength, but despite their popularity, no research has ever determined that they improve endurance running capability.

In fact, it is difficult to understand exactly how these standard resistance exercises would promote better endurance performances. Running involves multiple joint actions and forces, numerous muscle groups in the hips, legs, ankles, and feet to work concurrently to maintain control and balance. Weight training tends to focus on isolated muscles and ignores the complex, coordinated motor patterns required for running.

Take a common resistance exercise employed by runners, the knee extension. For this activity the runner remains in a seated position, their hips are relatively immobile, and their 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 scoffed that this traditional exercise will help you move faster - whenever you attempt to run sitting down!

The point is 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 in concert with the other muscles in the legs.

Since traditional resistance routines are of doubtful value because of their lack of similarity to running, what kind of strength training should you employ? To answer this question, it is important to remember that all 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. The power requirements for a marathon are lower (and running speeds slower), compared to a 5000 metre race, but both events require optimal power production during each foot strike. A lot of the power produced during running depends on the mechanical "energy return" properties of a runner's feet and legs. The muscles and tendons of the lower extremities act like springs during running, mainly by storing energy just before and during the compression associated with foot strike and then releasing ("returning") this energy during take off. This return of energy is influenced by both the elasticity of the muscles and tendons and by nerve cells which control muscle and tendon flexibility.

Better nervous system control of the muscles of the lower limbs should produce higher levels of elasticity and improved energy return. Resistance exercises aimed at improving running performance should not just attempt to increase general muscle strength, they should enhance specific activities of the nervous and muscular systems, which promote faster, more coordinated movements. (See D. Schmidtbleicher's analysis in "Strength and Power in Sport", edited by Paavo Komi, pp. 381-395, Blackwell Scientific Publications, London).

What is really needed is specific strength training for runners, exercises that target the muscles and neuronal pathways responsible for actual energy return during running. Although this may sound complicated, it should not have to be in actual practice, and it is not. In the paragraphs that follow, you will find three key power building exercises that are easy to carry out, will not take much of your time, and will rejuvenate your running because they replicate key motor movements involved in the process of running.

The Power Triad

These three exercises should be performed in the order in which they are presented, and only when you are well rested. Specific strength training 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 co-ordination and movements that are slower than desirable.

That means that the trio of specific 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.

While that may sound paradoxical (some might fear that strength training would slow down a subsequent training session), the truth is that positioning 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, Champaign, Illinois).

One final caution: perform the third exercise, "One Leg Hops in Place," only on an aerobics floor, wooden gym floor, grass, a rubberised track, or any resilient surface which offers some "give". Hopping repeatedly on concrete or asphalt may increase the risk of overuse injuries to the lower leg and shin.

Using the eight-week program below as your guide, here are the three key exercises:

  1. The high bench step up: This exercise strongly develops the hamstrings, with complimentary development of the gluteals (the "buttock" muscles) and the quadriceps. Simply begin from a standing position on top of a high bench (approximately knee height), with your body weight on your 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. Repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions. as shown in the training program, and then switch over 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).
  2. One leg squat: This exercise strongly develops the quadriceps and gluteals, with a complimentary boost to the hamstrings. To complete one leg squats in the correct way, stand with the left foot forward and the right foot back, with the feet about one shin length apart (your feet should be hip width apart from side to side). Place the toes of the right foot on a block or step, which is six to eight inches high. As in the step up exercise, most of the weight should be directed through the heel of the left foot. Bend the left leg and lower the body until the left knee reaches an angle of 90 degrees between the thigh and lower leg. Return to the starting position, maintaining upright posture with the trunk and holding your hands at your sides. Complete the prescribed number of repetitions with the left leg before switching to the right leg.
  3. 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. Simply start from the same position you used for the one-leg squat, with the toes of the right foot supported by a six to eight inch block. Hop rapidly on the left foot at a cadence of 2.5 to 3 hops per second (25 to 30 foot contacts per 10 seconds) for the prescribed time period as shown in the training program. The left knee should rise about four to six inches, while the right leg and foot should remain stationary. The left foot should strike the ground in the area of the mid foot and spring upwards rapidly, as though it were contacting a very hot plate on a cooker. The hips should remain level and virtually motionless throughout the exercise, with very little vertical displacement. After hopping for the indicated time on the left leg, switch to the right leg and repeat the exercise.

Why hop on one foot instead of bounding from foot to foot, as runners usually do during their dills? For one thing, it is very difficult to move fast while you are bounding, so bounding is not very much like sizzling through a 5k or 10k race. By contrast, you can move very quickly during the one-leg hops, so your power expands dramatically and your co-ordination during high speed running improves greatly. Eventually you will learn to move more quickly and efficiently. Research by Russian scientists indicates that one-leg hopping is far superior to bounding at inducing improvements in leg speed ("Muscles and the Sprint," Legkay Atictika, No. 5, pp. 8-11, 1992, cited in Fitness and Sports Review International, pp. 192-195, December 1992).

For similar reasons, the one leg squat is superior to runners' traditional exercise the two legged squat. While a much greater load can be hoisted on the shoulders during a two-legged squat, that weight is distributed through two legs, not one, so the actual resistance per leg is often less. In addition, the trunk of the body is often inclined significantly forward in a two legged squat but remains nearly vertical in a one-leg effort, so the latter more closely parallels the form required for running. Plus, for purposes of maintaining balance, the feet are often angled outward during the two-leg squat, which is unnatural to running, while the feet point straight ahead during a one-leg effort. Overall, the one leg squat has the added advantage of being safer, since less total weight is used.

The first exercise, the high bench step up, is like climbing hills in the comfort of your own home or gym. You are basically lifting your body repeatedly against the force of gravity and powering your hamstrings, quads, and gluteals in the process. Like hill workouts, the step up should improve your running economy.

Overall, the strength building triad 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. You will move quickly and aggressively from one foot to the other as you run, and you will reach the finish lines of your races in faster and faster times.

An 8 week Strength Training Program for the 5k, 10k and marathon

Weeks 1-2 Weeks 3-4 Weeks 5-6 Weeks 7-8
Exercise Introduction Strength Endurance I Strength Strength Endurance II
Step Up 15 reps/no wt
15 reps/no wt
15 reps/no wt
15 reps/10%
20 reps/10%
10 reps/15%
15 reps/10%
10 reps/15%
7 reps/20%
25 reps/10%
30 reps/10%
20 reps/15%
One Leg Squat 15 reps/no wt
15 reps/no wt
15 reps/no wt
15 reps/5%
20 reps/5%
10 reps/10%
15 reps/5%
10 reps/10%
7 reps/15%
25 reps/5%
30 reps/5%
20 reps/10%
One leg hops in place 10 secs
10 secs
20 secs
20 secs
10 secs
10 secs
10 secs
30 secs
30 secs

How to Read the Table

For each exercise, note that you utilise two or three sets per workout. For example, during weeks 1-2 with the step up exercise, you would complete 15 repetitions with no weight ("no wt"), rest for two minutes, complete 15 repetitions with no weight again, rest for two minutes, and then carry out a third set with 15 repetitions and no weight.

After a rest, you would move through the three sets of one-leg squats and then finish the workout with two sets of one-leg hops in place. "%" represents the approximate percentage of body weight added to the exercise by carrying dumbbells in your hands.

Example

Body weight is 140 pounds

  • 5% = 7 lbs. Use two 3lb dumbbells
  • 10% = 14 lbs. Use two 8lb dumbbells
  • 15% = 21 lbs. Use two 10lb dumbbells
  • 20% = 28 lbs. Use two 15lb dumbbells

Rest Intervals

  • 2 minutes between sets of Step Ups and One Leg Squats
  • 3 minutes between sets of One Leg Hops in Place
  • 3 minutes between exercises

Progression

  • After completing the above program, repeat week's 3-8 using weights, which are five to ten pounds heavier.

Strength-Training Program Summary

  • Frequency: Twice a week on non-successive days, such as Monday and Friday, or Tuesday and Saturday, immediately prior to speed training, running economy, or lactate-threshold sessions
  • Training Time Required: 20 minutes per session, not counting warm up time
  • Equipment Required
    • A sturdy bench of approximately knee height
    • A low step or block, about six to eight inches high
    • Free weights (dumbbells) in three to five pound increments up to about 10% of body weight
  • The Warm Up: Warm up for 10 minutes by performing light jogging, stretching, and range-of-motion activities for the trunk, low back, hips, quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and Achilles tendons.
  • Exercise Technique: Maintain an upright posture with your trunk at all times, and use smooth, controlled movements not out of control jerks. Devote the first two weeks of the program to the development of proper technique. As your skill at carrying out the exercises improves over time, increase your movement speed to near maximum while maintaining balance and upright posture. The idea is to exert high amounts of force in a short period of time, because that is what will give you an explosive foot strike during running and improve both your stride length and frequency.

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • REYNOLDS, W. (2003) Three strength-training exercises to improve stride length and frequency. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 7 / November), p. 8-10

Page Reference

The reference for this page is:

  • REYNOLDS, W. (2003) Three strength-training exercises to improve stride length and frequency [WWW] Available from: http://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/scni7a8.htm [Accessed

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