Improve your Running Economy in 30 – 60 Minutes a Week
Running economy is a measure of how efficient you are at using energy. The more efficient you become, the faster you will be able to run over longer distances. Incorporating 30 – 60 minutes of whole body, intense strength training into your running program, will help you do that.
This year I set an audacious goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Incorporating strength training into my overall running plan was something I knew I needed. I followed this plan, and don’t think it’s a coincidence I PR’d in the 5k, half and full marathon.
Obviously strength training is only one variable in the equation of becoming a strong runner. However it is often the most overlooked. Here is why you should pay more attention to it.
What is Strength Training?
When I hear “strength training”, I think football players, not runners. I talked with Luke Carlson, founder and CEO of Discover Strength about this.
Carlson is a bit of an expert on the topic, with an impressive resume. He has trained hundreds of Minnesota Vikings players, was the head strength coach at Blaine and Minnetonka High Schools, and co-authored two books. He has his Master of Science in kinesiology and has spent years researching the best way to exercise.
He said strength training is simply a biomechanical or anatomical movement “with resistance. It’s designed to improve the contractile function of the muscles. It is how you improve the way your muscles interact with your tendons and joints.”
It allows all runners (not just elites or those trying to qualify for Boston) “to run with decreased risk of injury while improving your overall health (improved body composition, increased metabolism, increased bone mineral density, etc.) as well as running economy.”
Running economy… what’s that?
Running Economy is About Being Efficient
Running economy is basically how efficient your muscles use oxygen at a given pace. Oxygen breaks down glucose which fuels your muscles. While running, they are working harder and naturally need more.
By using less oxygen to run the same pace, you’ll be able to hold that pace longer. This is what we all want, right?
Think of it like a fuel efficient car. You can drive farther in a Prius then a Suburban. Strength training is one way to improve running economy, but it’s often confused with “core work.”
Hey, What’s Wrong with Core Work?
There is nothing wrong with core work! Runners often only focus on a handful of exercises built for abs. I won’t complain about six pack abs, but alone, they won’t improve my running economy. Carlson said “there is no scientific research to suggest ‘core training’ alone will improve distance running.”
Improved running economy is a result of strengthening your whole body. Core is part of that (and shouldn’t be ignored) but don’t forget the rest of your body.
How Much Strength Training do You Need to Improve Running Economy?
If you’re like me, you don’t have extra time to spend in a gym. Turns out, you don’t need that much more. Carlson recommends 1 – 2 days per week of 30 minutes each for optimal results.
Carlson suggests, “…you start with 1 – 2 strength focused workouts per week. Each one would consist of 10 – 11 exercises, that would take about 30 minutes to complete.”
Their website elaborates, saying, “More frequent strength training is not more beneficial because the body does not actually get stronger while strength training; instead, we get stronger while we recover from strength training.”
This is why Carlson has athletes strength train on the same day as a key workout. For example, if you are doing speed work on Tuesday morning, you would strength train later that day. If you run at night, do the workout the next morning. After your weekend long run is another optimal time.
By packaging strength training with a key workout, you fully fatigue your body. Allow 48 hours (or more) before your next key workout, so you are fully recovered. This is the getting stronger part as your body adapts.
He went on to tell me that, “…the stimulus for improving strength [and other benefits] is intensity, not volume, frequency, or duration.”
Lifting heavy or light doesn’t matter. The key to improving running economy through strength training for runners is in the “momentary muscle fatigue.” Carlson suggests to,
lift whatever weight will bring you to that momentary fatigue in 8 – 15 reps. Lift slow and controlled until you feel like you can’t do any more, then do one more rep. That’s where we recruit the fast twitch muscle fibers.
Improve your Running Economy Now
If you’ve just completed a major race, you may still want some time off. That’s fine (I took 9 days off before doing anything after TCM), but Discover Strength recommends getting back into strength training as soon as possible. Year round strength training has been shown to have tremendous benefits.
If you’d like personal, one-on-one training, stop in and see them at Discover Strength. They have a plethora of options depending on your needs and goals. From individual to group training.
If you don’t live near one of their three Twin Cities locations (Plymouth, Chanhassen, Minneapolis), you can contact them to get a personal plan. They also have a DVD, “Strength Training for Distance Runners.” In addition to step by step instruction and exercises, it’s packed with research to backup the claims.
They also have some sample workouts listed here.
Do you Strength Train?
If you want to improve your running economy and hit your next PR, consider strength training. If you already incorporate strength training, what results have you seen?