Leg Strength and Running: The Great Myth of Our Time
I'm training for my first 1/2 Marathon. I'm embarrassed that it has taken me 10 years to actually learn enough about my body to be able to handle the training. But, thankfully, I finally feel that I am the master of my body…and not the other way around.
After learning my body's quirks and necessities, I've been able to discipline my food, supplements, caffeine, rest and exercise so that I am now half way to my half marathon. Armed with a solid constitution, I began logging and increasing my weekly miles. This new focus in my life inevitably leads to more conversations with beginner and advanced runners. I'm amazed by the number of runners that still aren't aware of the correlation between leg strength and success as a runner.
It is common to assume that because you run, you have strong legs. Running builds up leg strength, right? Yes…and no. Running will increase the strength of your legs only to the needs of your body weight. Once those fab legs are supportive enough for your weekly miles, they stop getting stronger. It is well documented that running (and similar endurance sports) increases the "muscular endurance" ability of your body- not strength. In order to effectively support the rest of the body, those support beams must be strengthened. I'm going to share something top secret with you: if you want to continue running into "old" age, lose weight MUCH faster, win your next race, or find that elusive "Runner's High" you must do one thing. Strength train your legs.
Most people assume that bones hold up our bodies. The truth is that our muscles hold up the bones. Correct alignment and proper strength of the muscles will allow the bones to move in the most efficient manner. The more efficient your bones and muscles move, the better you'll feel - and run. Strengthen your lower body muscles and you'll feel lighter, younger and less "achey". Correct muscular imbalances with squats and you will naturally run faster. Stabilize your hips with single leg strength exercises and running will be so easy that you'll solve the problems of the world in your new found Runner's High. Running will no longer feel arduous, taxing and exhausting, but liberating and pleasurable. If you are not currently strength training your legs, you will be amazed how great you feel after several weeks of proper strength exercises.
There could be pages of notes on exercise selection and periodization, but I will keep it simple. Aim to complete two strength workouts every week. Familiarize yourself with proper squat techniques (email me for recommendations) and choose one that you are comfortable attempting. Leg Press and Single Leg Balance exercises are also great choices as they strengthen the lower body "chain" by keeping the foot on a stationary surface. Find three of these types of exercises and complete 2-3 sets of each during every workout. Choose a weight that is challenging enough that you have to really work to complete 10-12 repetitions. Increase the weight load when 12 reps are easier. After 3 consecutive weeks of weight load increases, follow with one full week of active recovery (activities at much lower intensity levels). Follow this program and you'll see results in 4-6 weeks.
Please take note on two things: 1) to some, this information seems like common knowledge. You've heard it several times: "10-12 repetitions", "Squats!" "4-6 weeks!?" This time is different. You're reading this article because you are interested in running better. I guarantee if you follow a well-designed strength training program with excellent exercise technique, you WILL see a big difference in your experience as a runner. I've trained over 30 people for Marathons around the world, and proven the above suggestions.
2) Ladies: every woman fears larger thighs and "bulking up". 99.9% of women would have to be following a specific mass building program in order to increase the size of her legs. The body's energy is somewhat limited; the more miles a body runs, the less physical energy is available to produce large muscle gains. If you are logging miles each week (15 or more), you will not build mass unless you are increasing caloric intake. The subsequent increase in size would not be from your strength training program but from feeding your increased appetite.
Don't think. Try these suggestions; then after 6 weeks take an objective assessment and see how your fitness level has changed. Happy Running!
Holly Perkins holds a B.S. in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition from Pennsylvania State University. As a personal trainer for over 10 years, Holly has worked with professional and recreational athletes, celebrities, sports injuries, weight loss and general health programs in New York and Los Angeles. Holly can be contacted at Healthy2007@ca.rr.com.