Strength Training for Runners

I’m not always the most decisive when it comes to making certain decisions. For instance, it’s not uncommon for me to sit down to watch a movie on Netflix and spend so much time agonizing over which movie to watch – scrolling through the options, looking up reviews online, reading plot summaries – that I run out of time and end up watching a TV show instead. Decision paralysis has been studied, and as it turns out I’m not alone. Being presented with many choices, while seemingly appealing, actually makes people less likely to reach any decision at all. When it comes to strength training for runners it’s easy to be overwhelmed by information online. People paralyzed by the lack of clear direction often end up settling on doing nothing instead.

When we work with the On ZAP Endurance team and our adult running campers in the weight room we break down the purpose of the exercises and break down the movements so they have a better understanding of how to perform their core and strength exercises. Having a more thorough understanding of the primary movements involved in runner specific core and strength training allows you to better perform and evaluate the sensibility of an exercise routine. When it comes to runner specific strength training the primary focus should be on the stabilization and strengthening of the hips. There are other areas that may have specific relevance on an individual basis, but a focus on hip stability will make you a better, healthier runner.

When people think about strength training for runners the first thing that pops to mind is abdominal strength. This is important, but not in the way you may necessarily think. Strong abdominal muscles do help stabilize your trunk and aid in rotation. But the specific abdominal muscle we want to strengthen is one most people have never heard of. The transversus abdominis is the deepest of your abdominal muscles and wraps around your torso to stabilize your spine.

Andrew performing strength training for runners with this plank.

Transversus Abdominis

Learning how to activate this muscle while you are doing any core exercise is the most important part of improving hip and spinal stability. Stabilization of the spine is important for efficient communication between the nervous system and your extremities. If spinal stability is compromised your nervous system has a harder time communicating to your larger stabilizing muscles – sort of like a kink in a garden hose. As a result, running efficiency will suffer leading to slower times and increased risk of injury.

In order to activate your transversus abdominis, Jay Dicharry, author of Anatomy for Runners and Running Rewired, suggests mimicking the abdominal activation of coughing. When you do you’ll notice your belly button pull in toward your spine. This activation stabilizes the spine and is an ideal position to start any core or strength exercise.

Another way to think about it is to brace your core as if someone is about to punch you in the stomach. Before starting any strength exercise engage this muscle throughout the exercise. This helps avoid a lot of postural mistakes and ensures the exercises you are doing will improve your running.

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

One thing you’ll notice is that keeping the transversus abdominis engaged results in far less anterior rotation in your hips. In other words, the hips remain more level from the front to the back. Anterior pelvic tilt is a relatively common problem where the front of the hips tip forward.

It can be the result of both tight hip flexors as well as a lack of spinal and pelvic stabilization. Quite often it is a combination of the two. Anterior pelvic tilt causes your lower back to overextend, often leading to low back tightness. This is a sign you are lacking spinal stability.

When this happens your body has a hard time activating your larger stabilizing and propulsion muscles. The most common victims are your gluteal muscles. If you’ve been to see a physical therapist for a running injury you’ve probably been told your glutes are weak. This is a very common problem, and can often be traced back to lack of spinal stability.

Hip Stability

A strength training program for runners should include abdominal exercises. However, it must also include exercises that activate and strengthen the hip stabilizers as well. The primary hip stabilizers are your gluteus medius and maximus. They are responsible for stabilizing the hip joint upon impact during running. If your glutes aren’t functioning properly you’ll notice your hips dipping or your knees collapsing inward on impact.

The lack of stabilization in the hip joint leads a whole host of other problems as the rest of the body compensates in an attempt to provide that stabilization. Hip stability and deep core activation is not the end-all-be-all of strength training for runners, but it is the best place to start. And these principles are the most important components to staying healthy and moving efficiently.

Once you are stable in the spine and hips you can move on to more performance oriented strength training such as weight training and plyometrics. However, until you master the basics those advanced exercises will only strengthen dysfunctional movement patterns.

Don’t let information overload prevent you from implementing a strength training routine. Let the simple principles of activating your deep abdominals and maintaining spinal and pelvic stability be your guiding light. Importantly, a good exercise done poorly is a poor exercise. There are an endless number of exercises that can improve your running (check out our YouTube page to get you started). But above all else, focus on the principles and get started!