Resistance Training Technique for RunnersDec 21, 2023
A common question we're asked during strength training consults for runners is "how much weight should I use?" It's rare that we actually tell someone a starting weight instead of giving a set/rep range and having the equation solve itself, but someone's technical proficiency is going to guide where this even starts. Blagrove et al. found that heavy strength and explosive strength training are effective for improving running economy and running performance, but a lot is still unknown, including:1,2
1) What is the mechanism that improves these running variables?
and 2) Is there a different way to achieve the same goal?
The reason question #1 is important is because if a mechanism is discovered to be general rather than specific, we don't need to force one particular solution. Question #2 is reasonable to ask because most runners can't just walk into a gym with 0 years of resistance training experience and start lifting heavy without risking injury. There are several barriers to entry for runners to go from non-resistance trained to well-trained and ready for heavy and explosive strength training; perhaps one of the largest is technical proficiency.
Technical proficiency sounds like it'd be pretty straightforward in identifying. That movement looks "bad" (large red X) and that movement looks "good" (large green O). The cutoff point between bad and good can be referred to as the "technique threshold." Theoretically, we want everyone working at the highest intensity before they hit their technique threshold to maximize strength gains and minimize risk. If we pass threshold, form breaks down, and we start to overcompensate and risk overloading certain areas that aren't conditioned to tolerate that much load. The main issue with grading movement, though, is that it's entirely subjective. How "bad" was that squat? Is that lunge "good" enough to progress in load? All clinicians and coaches are coming from different backgrounds with different biases that will influence how strict their technique guidelines are. It's still intuitive to think we should be on the more conservative side when grading form for individuals with a low training age, but if we take both extreme examples, they have their downsides:
The "perfection is key" coach:
Well that's, uhhh...
- Likely lower risk for injury, as the athlete has such a high bar to progress load that it takes forever to get to a higher-risk environment.
- Performance gains are minimal, as the athlete is potentially under-loaded and progression is slow.
- Motor learning is potentially limited if the coach over-cues without fading feedback.
The "whatever, just squat" coach:
In Jim's defense, someone has done this while he's doing his job too
- Performance gains are potentially higher as the athlete achieves higher working loads.
- This coach is possibly less annoying.
- Likely higher risk for injury, as progression may be too quick because of a low standard for technique.
Neither of these seem optimal, so there's the need for some conditions and not a blanket statement. For now, we assume:
1) For maximal running performance benefits, strength training NEEDS to include both heavy and fast exercises
2) The runner recognizes that the benefits outweigh the cost (time, money, energy) when starting a resistance training program
How do we agree on someone's technique threshold? While it is subjective in nature, I'm a big fan of Adam Meakins' (The Sports Physio) pragmatic approach to coaching.3 This is his adapted look/feel matrix for coaching:
Adam Meakins' Look/Feel Matrix
It starts with how the exercise feels (internal feedback) compared to how it looks (external feedback) and results in a few different conditions:
Feels good? Looks good? Onward.
Feels bad? Regardless of if it looks good or bad, we probably want to change something. With so many different ways to accomplish the same goal in resistance training, there's no sense in hammering your way through something that feels bad when we can change some variable to find something that feels better. It may not even be a permanent change, just something temporary while the original selection isn't well-tolerated/executed. These changes may include (but are not limited to):
Different exercise cues
Extrinsic (environment) vs. internal (body) cues
Different exercise selection
Pick an exercise with a similar focus/goal that just feels better
Decrease the weight used or add assistance to reduce bodyweight
Starts to feel bad at repetition number eight on each set? Let's work a few sets of six or seven.
Slow the eccentric or concentric portion down or just focus on overall time under tension
Range of motion
Feels bad through the last 20 degrees? Stop just before and work through the range that feels good.
Feels good but looks bad? This is the tough one, and probably what most coaches get hung up on. We don't know what our actual limits are when loading an exercise with "bad" form. That's likely because it's based on a few considerations:
The vomit test
How bad does it look? Is that knee just a little shaky at the bottom of the squat, or does it crank inward so far you're ready to jump in and grab the bar?
Novice athletes are at a higher risk of injury than well-trained athletes, pretty much across the board in sports. It's likely that well-trained athletes have adapted to being able to tolerate higher and more variable loads. Derek Miles from Barbell Medicine has a very comprehensive multi-part review of resistance training in youth athletes that emphasizes the process of technical skill training in this population.4 When someone is less experienced, we should probably err on the side of caution with our coaching.
Load and volume
Under a minimal amount of weight and with few repetitions, one ugly movement isn't going to be what breaks someone. The heavier the load and/or under a high volume of training, "good" form likely decreases the chance that we overload less tolerant structures (while certainly not guaranteeing that we don't).
How often is the task in question? Is this something someone does once a week? Daily? Bi-weekly? For that matter, is bi-weekly twice a week or every other week? I've never understood that one. Anyway, training with "bad" form but with low frequency (plenty of time to recover) may be less stressful than "good" form at too high of a frequency for adequate recovery and adaptation.
In summary, this seems like common sense, but it can be unsettling to not have concrete answers in this space. It's sensible to try to achieve "good" form when we can, but we probably don't need to 1) obsess over it to the point where it interferes with our progression or 2) assume that nothing matters. If you're looking for some guidance on adding strength training to your running program, don't hesitate to reach out!
- Blagrove RC, Howatson G, Hayes PR. Effects of Strength Training on the Physiological Determinants of Middle- and Long-Distance Running Performance: A Systematic Review. Sports Med. 2018;48(5):1117-1149.
- Trowell D, Vicenzino B, Saunders N, Fox A, Bonacci J. Effect of Strength Training on Biomechanical and Neuromuscular Variables in Distance Runners: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2020;50(1):133-150.
Questions about how we can help?
Leave us your questions below and we will respond ASAP!
We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.