HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR RUNNING SPEED &
ENDURANCE WITHOUT RUNNING AT ALL
Charles Poliquin always tells a story of NFL running back N’iall Diggs who came to train with him in one off season from the Green Bay Packers. Apparently N’iall had always been injured during his career and after his offseason with Charles he put up a career best season.
Former Canadian Olympic Strength & Conditioning Coach Charles Poliquin
Anyway, at the start of the season the strength coaches of the Packers were blown away with how much quicker N’iall had gotten when he returned to the squad and how well he could repeat that top end speed. They were so impressed they immediately contacted Charles and asked to purchase his sprinting/running program. Charles said fine and then promptly faxed them a blank piece of paper. When the Packers strength coaches got the empty fax, they immediately thought it was a mistake and asked him to re fax it. Being the humorous creature Charles is, he sent them another blank piece of paper. This time the Packers strength coaches had had enough and rang to see what the heck was going on.
Charles’ response (imagine him smirking like no tomorrow) – “We didn’t do any running with him so that was his running program.”
Anyway one of the reasons N’iall got faster was Charles made him alot (and I am talking ALOT) stronger. Here are just a few of the things getting stronger will help you with (especially in regard to running or any endurance activity):
1) It Moves The 1RM Continuum
Your 1RM continuum has been used for decades by weightlifting and powerlifting coaches as an easy way of estimating what an athlete should be lifting for a given % of their maximum weight that they can lift once (which is their 1 repetition maximum or 1RM).
Anyway as you get stronger, this continuum moves to our advantage. For example, if your squat was 100kg, that would mean you would be able to complete around 6 reps with 85kg (85% of your 1RM 100kg). Now say you do 12 week strength training block and your squat goes to 150kg. This means that now you should be able to do 6 reps at around 127.5kg (again 85% of your new 1RM 150kg). The kicker here for endurance is that if you went back to 85kg (which you could only complete five reps of before your got stronger), you would now be able to complete over 20 reps with that weight.
So strength training increases your endurance by enabling you to do more repetitions at a certain level of resistance. Now to illustrate this from a running perspective, consider that running a 5k would be similar to doing a thousand reps of squats1 (which remember is still just a percentage of your 1RM continuum) and you could run the 5k in 20 minutes. Then you strength train for 6 weeks and you increase your 1RM squat. This would mean if you re ran the 5k in a 20 minute pace, you would now be able to run it at a lower intensity without having to expend as much effort and energy. You wouldn’t have to work so hard to maintain that same pace because now that same amount of reps (in a 5k run) has moved further down the 1RM continuum. Pretty cool huh?
2) N/K pump
The Sodium/Potassium pump is what our body uses to control the balance between intracellular and extracellular fluid volume. It is also a key regulator of how much we sweat, how well we recover from exercise and our work capacity during exercise. Many supplement companies sell electrolyte formulas for endurance exercise with the sole purpose of improving N/K pump function.
Anyway the best thing you can do to improve a poor N/K pump is to strength train. By strength training intelligently, it will improve exercise endurance, work capacity and recovery rates. It will also allow you to exercise for longer in humid and hot conditions due to the effect loss of electrolytes in sweat.
3) Greater ability to store muscle glycogen
If you get stronger by lifting weights, one of the very welcome side effects is that you normally experience a hypertrophy effect and gain lean body mass (LBM). This gain in LBM does not need to be great but it will allow you to increase the amount of muscle glycogen you can store in your body and how well you can use it.
Why is muscle glycogen storage important? In plain English, muscle glycogen is just like petrol for your car in almost all exercise. So if you can create a bigger tank for your car you should be able to go further. Also the higher ratio of lean body mass to total body weight means that you are more effective and efficient at using your “petrol”. You will also be able to replenish these stores at a faster rate during exercise if you consume carbohydrates and carbohydrate loading before a big race will also be much more effective. So to keep the car metaphor going, you now have a larger tank that can be filled up quicker. Plus you have just upgraded from unleaded 91 to premium petrol!
Ask any runner (or athlete) and they will tell you efficiency is key to running quick times. Although this is related to the 1RM continuum mentioned above, strength training is perhaps your most effective weapon at becoming an efficient runner. If done intelligently, strength training will improve your dynamic flexibility, joint mechanics, tensile qualities2, ability to generate force and decrease your incidence of injuries.
Lets take the two functions of the hamstrings: hip extension and knee flexion. If you improve the eccentric (lowering) strength of the hamstrings as hip extensors, this will improve stride length during running and enable longer stride lengths when fatigued. Then if you improve the eccentric strength of the hamstrings of knee flexors, this will reduce the stance phase (the amount of time you spend on the ground with each stride) and increase your stride frequency during your run3. Although this increases might be minute for each stride or stance phase, if you do enough of them (e.g. run a marathon) this can turn into huge differences.
In a real world example, you run a 10km (10,000m) race and it takes 5,555 strides (1.8m stride length) and you complete it in 50 minutes (a 3.33m/s pace and 1.85 s(tride)/s frequency). Now say you improve your stride length by increasing strength of the hamstrings as hip extensors and this increases your stride length to a very conservative 1.85m4. This would mean you now complete the 10km in 5,405 strides. Then say your stride frequency remains the same at 1.85 s/s you would now finish the race in just over 48 minutes taking almost 2 minutes off your time.
Then you increased the strength of your hamstrings as knee flexors, which decreased your stance phase by (another super conservative) 0.05s5. This would mean that each stride would now take you 0.49s instead of 0.54s, which will increase your stride frequency to 2.04 s/s (0.19 s/s higher than the previous 1.85 s/s). Now if you keep the new stride length of 1.85m and combine these two, you will now run the 10km in just over 44 minutes taking almost another 3 minutes off your time (and 6 minutes in total)!
So now you know that strength training can make you run quicker and longer without even doing any running at all, what do you do about it?
You want to use relative strength training protocols with some functional hypertophy work to finish. The relative strength training (high sets, low reps) will increase your strength dramatically without activating the hormones that signal hypertrophy or significant increases in LBM. Meanwhile the functional hypertrophy work (moderate reps, moderate sets) will add LBM that you can actually use for your sport i.e. the gain in LBM is still capable of generating force and will more than offset any associated gains in bodyweight.
This type of training is great for athletes like gymnasts, kayakers, swimmers and runners where your body weight can play a big part in the sport. Here are what two leg training sessions for running would look like:
A1: BB Back Squat 6 x 3 4110 120s
A2: Prone Hamstring Curl 6 x 3 5010 120s
B1: DB Split Squat 4 x 8 3110 75s
B2: BB Clean Grip Romanian Deadlift 4 x 8 3110 75s
A: BB Clean Grip Deadlift 7 x 2 4010 150s
B1: DB Side Step Up 3 x 12 2110 60s
B2: Reverse Hyper 3 x 12 2012 60s
B3: Seated Calf Raise 3 x 12 2210 60s
Strength training should be an integral part of your preparation for any sort of running let alone a marathon. But just like so many other training tools, you have to make sure you do it right and you do not want to be spending your time on machines that only make you too big or too slow. To learn how to strength train correctly for running and to run a marathon in only 8 weeks, click here to check out my RUN A MARATHON IN 8 WEEKS PROGRAM.
- There are actually studies that show squats replicate the EMG activity of high paced running the closest out of any exercise. This includes single leg exercises, which I found quite surprising. EMG measures the type, frequency and strength of muscular contractions during exercise so squatting and running are actually very similar movements for our body.
- One of the easiest ways to improve your running times is to improve the tensile qualities of your muscles, tendons and ligaments. The greater the amount of tension your legs generate with your foot makes contact with the ground, the more ground reaction force you will create which will “push” you forward much quicker.
- Interestingly enough, elite coaches used to think that stride frequency could not be improved after a certain age, normally in the teens. So they used to concentrate on improving stride length mostly. However Ben Johnson’s overtaking of Carl Lewis as the world’s best sprinter in the mid 1980s come about from mainly increases in stride frequency according to statistics from his coach Charlie Francis.
- Normally with athletes (and sprinters especially), a 15cm increase in stride length following good strength training is quite normal.
- Again this is very conservative – a 0.1s decrease in stance phase length over longer distances is quite normal with good strength training.