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Training Runners: Strength vs. Endurance

by Meaghan posted February 16, 2016

I ran a version of this post before, but our Advanced Concepts students just finished learning about common lower body injuries so I thought I’d run it again. Among other issues, the topic of strength as pertains to running in order to prevent knee problems came up in their activity. The class did a great job not only planning and coaching a progressive program for a runner, but also articulating the plan so that it made sense to the client (AND her headstrong running coach!).

Here are some of the things we discussed:

First, realize and remember that running is a plyometric activity. Therefore, your joints have the potential to take a beating. As you may or may not know, plyometrics place a lot of load on your connective tissue (cartilage, bone, fascia, tendons, ligaments and the joint capsule), especially if your leg muscles don’t effectively absorb the force of impact. So, the risk of injury is quite high when sufficient levels of strength are not first established, and/or when hip/knee/ankle alignment is off. As the old adage goes, “You can’t run to get in shape; you have to get in shape to run.”

There seems to be a bit of controversy regarding the best way to do this, however. A lot of people think that since you’re doing endurance work when you run, training for muscular endurance (i.e., 2-3 sets of >12 reps with little rest) is the way to go. And for a new trainee, someone with a pre-existing injury, or as part of a periodized program for an endurance athlete, this may be good advice. But your body adapts pretty quickly to low-load training; and if you’re running regularly, chances are you’re probably getting plenty of that already. So why continue to overuse your muscles and joints?

Enhancing muscular endurance really shouldn’t be the main focus of a runner’s program after the first few weeks of training. For most runners, the bigger concern is getting strong enough to avoid injury. You see, your connective tissue adheres to what’s called Wolffe’s Law. Much like a muscle, if you systematically overload connective tissue, it will adapt and grow stronger. But it also has a “physiologic limit.” When you exceed this limit, the structure ruptures.

(The students learned all about ACL tears, too!) If you’re somewhat strong, your muscles can withstand the high-level forces of running – which, by the way, amounts to about THREE TIMES your body weight in force on ONE leg with EACH stride! – but your more slowly-adapting connective tissue often times cannot. Couple this with poor technique and improper landing skills, and you’re asking for trouble. Increasing the resilience of both muscles AND connective tissue with a progressive, strength-focused program (i.e., LOW reps, HEAVY weight) makes a lot more sense.

The odd thing is, people who think they aren’t ready for serious strength training opt to run instead. In fact, they aren’t ready for running!

There’s also sufficient evidence to show you actually LOSE strength with endurance training; so you better make sure you’re REALLY strong if you’re going to be doing a lot of it. You can’t produce much force and achieve any type of admirable time without good strength levels, anyway, so really it’s a no-brainer.

The take-home points are these:

1. If you choose to run, make sure you’re doing it for a good reason. GOOD reasons include enjoying running and wanting to do it competitively. “Getting in shape” and “losing weight” are NOT good reasons to run. In fact, they’re recipes for injury.

2. If you choose to run, make sure you’re READY for it. Otherwise, your connective tissue is bound to take a beating. Get stronger, last longer.

The end!

Filed under: fitness-related injuries, strength training, workout tips

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One response to “Training Runners: Strength vs. Endurance”

  1. Joe Masiello says:

    Over the years, we’ve seen countless people that have come to us after injuring themselves by trying to do too much too soon. Especially when it comes to running. Typically it’s the 30-something male that still thinks he’s on the varsity football team. Yet, it’s been 10 + years since he’s touched a weight or jogged more than 50 feet. Yet, he decides to run the corporate challenge with the guys from the office. Needless to say it becomes a recipe for disaster.

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