If you want to improve performance, the cardinal rule is: be more specific
Your best gains in performance will be achieved when key parts of your training closely mimic what you do when you compete. To put it another way, the more specific your training, the greater the impact of your training on your performances. Expressed one final way, as the specificity of your training increases, the likelihood that your training-induced physiological gains will actually be beneficial in your races also increases.
This is absolutely true in running training: conducting 5-minute intervals at your 5-K pace will do far more for your 5-K race performances than will long runs at slower paces, and carrying out 10-minute intervals at your 10-K race pace will improve your 10Ks more than 25-minute ‘tempo runs’ at a speed slower than 10-K velocity.
It also applies to strength training. For example, scientific studies have shown that when individuals isometrically train their arm muscles at an elbow-joint angle of 150 degrees, they achieve major gains in strength at that specific elbow angle but almost no improvements at an angle of 60 degrees, even though exactly the same arm muscles are involved.
And when strength athletes train with very heavy weights and therefore slow lifting velocities, they make major gains in their abilities to handle high resistances at slow speeds, but they’re still very poor at lifting more moderate weights at high velocities. Conversely, when strength athletes train with moderate weights and high velocities, they become very adapt at such activity – but have little capacity to lift extremely heavy weights at slow speeds.
Expressed yet another way, the performance of slow, heavily loaded strength training tends to aggrandise maximal strength but does not improve the rate at which athletes can apply force (ie, it helps their strength but not their speed or power). On the other hand, doing explosive stuff makes athletes great at developing muscular force quickly, but maximal strength doesn’t budge. The latter effect has been documented in work with plyometrically trained athletes; for example, athletes who carry out ‘drop jumps’ during training (in a drop jump, an athlete jumps off a box or step, lands on the ground, and then explodes into the air as quickly as possible), develop useful upgrades in the rate at which they can develop force in their leg muscles, but their maximal leg strength may not improve by even one uptick.
From strength training to running
And specificity also applies to the transference of improvements from strength training over to running. When most runners go to the gym, they focus on the usual, traditional, tried-and-true exercises that they’ve read about in magazines, heard about from other runners, and/or know how to do. These include bench presses, squats, power cleans, leg extensions, leg flexions, biceps curls, abdominal crunches, and calf raises. Such exercises are great for developing generalised strength, but there is one small problem: none of them has anything to do with running.
Basically, squatting makes you a better squatter. Bench presses improve the strength of your pectoralis and triceps muscles. Ab crunches help you get better at bringing your shoulders toward your hips and may make you look prettier at the beach. Leg extensions increase your quadriceps-muscle strength when you are in a seated position. None of them helps you run faster in your next 5K.
That’s why we always recommend that runners carry out strength routines which are more specific to the muscular patterns associated with running. Instead of squatting, ab-crunching, and bicep curling, you should be carrying out exercises such as one-leg squats, high-bench step-ups, and one-leg hops in place, all of which closely mimic the overall body posture and muscle mechanics of running. And once you’re good at doing such specific exercises, we recommend that you move on to strength routines which will help you exert muscular force in a rapid manner in a horizontal direction, ie, toward the finish line of your race. High-speed bounding, running while attired in a weight vest, and hill repetitions will all help you do that.
Okay, you say, that all sounds plausible enough, but where is the proof that such training is better than the traditional fare of leg extensions and bicep curls?
Strength-training modes compared
Thanks to work carried out at The Centre for Exercise Science and Sport Management of Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, the proof is close at hand. At Southern Cross, scientists divided 30 exercise-science students who had been engaged in weight training for a period of at least one year (all the subjects could perform a half-squat exercise with a load greater than body mass) into two different groups. One group, the control subjects, simply continued their normal training over an eight-week period. The second group also trained normally but added in two additional strength sessions per week, each consisting of four to six sets of six to 10 maximal-effort reps, with three-minute rests between sets. Only two exercises were used in the training – the squat and the bench press (each was completed for four to six sets per workout). Resistance was such that a subject could perform at least six, but no more than 10 reps (resistance was gradually increased over the eight-week period as the athletes became stronger).
At the end of eight weeks, both groups were assessed on a variety of tests of strength and power, including:
1) A bench-press throw at a load of 30 per cent of maximum (a bench-press throw is just like a bench press, except that you try to throw the weight as high as possible; fortunately, a special electro-magnetic braking system catches the weight before it can tumble back and strangle you);
2) A counter-movement jump (a vertical jump performed while swinging the
arms back and then forward and up);
3) Maximal squats and bench presses (the two key exercises in the study);
4) A press-up test performed on a force platform to precisely measure force generated by the shoulders and arms (this was like a normal press-up except that subjects pushed against the platform with maximal force and attempted to rocket their upper bodies as quickly away from the ground as possible; their hands actually left the ground as their torsos moved upward);
5) A maximal 40-metre sprint;
6) A 6-second exercise-cycle test in which subjects tried to exert peak power, and
7) A series of tests designed to measure shoulder- and leg-muscle strength carried out on a Cybex machine.
The results of these tests strongly supported the specificity-of-training principle. For example, if we focus only on the leg muscles for a moment, two of the tests – the maximal squat and the vertical jump – were very similar to the basic exercise used during training – squatting. The only difference between training squatting and test (competitive) squatting was that non-maximal loads were used during training. Similarly, the body posture and muscle-loading patterns of the vertical jump are very similar to what happens during squatting (both require a crouching position; both require that powerful forces be exerted in a vertical direction).
And how much improvement did the athletes make in maximal squatting and vertical jumping after eight weeks of squat training? A not-too-shabby 21 per cent! Maximal squatting capability climbed from 115 to 139 kg, and vertical jumping ability rose from 20.8 inches to 25.2 inches.
What about cycling and sprinting?
Meanwhile, sprint cycling is less like squatting than maximal squatting and vertical jumping (true, cycling and squatting both involve force application in a more or less vertical plane, but in cycling the legs push against pedals and move downward; during squatting, the legs exert force against the ground and push the body upward), and sprint-cycling power output improved by just 9.9 per cent after eight weeks. 40-metre sprinting is even less like squatting (when you sprint, you apply force in a horizontal direction – toward the finish line, whereas squatting involves force application in a vertical direction; in addition, the high muscle-contraction speeds of sprinting are dissimilar from the slower speeds used during squatting), and sprint ability increased by only 2 per cent.
Now here’s the big one: knee-extension power, when measured on a Cybex machine at two different speeds (60 degrees per second and 270 degrees per second) with the subjects in a seated position, was totally unchanged after eight weeks. There was no improvement at all, even though the key muscles involved in knee extension – the quadriceps muscles – also play the dominant role in squatting (during squats, the quads stabilise the knee joint as an athlete goes into a crouch position; they then provide the major power required for the upward movement of the athlete’s body and attached barbell).
Why didn’t squatting boost knee-extension power? Even though both activities focus on the quads, they are actually totally different. Squatting is carried out in a standing or crouched body posture; knee extensions are conducted in a seated position. Squatting requires the leg muscles to support full body weight; during knee extensions, body weight is supported by the seat – and the leg muscles support nothing. Ultimately, nervous-system recruitment of the various motor units within the quadriceps muscles is totally different in the two activities, so we shouldn’t expect squat training to benefit knee-extension power.
And we shouldn’t expect knee-extension exercises to benefit squatting prowess, either (fortunately, scientific studies confirm that they don’t). Nor should we expect knee extensions to upgrade running ability, yet knee extensions are among the most popular exercises carried out by the running community!
The upper body
The story for the upper body was pretty much the same. The exercise utilised for upper-body training was the bench press, so it wasn’t surprising that maximal bench-press prowess improved by 12.4 per cent after eight weeks (from 82 to 92 kg). Likewise, the bench-press throw, which mimics bench pressing exactly except that the bar is actually thrown vertically into the air, improved by 8.4 per cent.
However, here’s the really good stuff: the athletes did not improve at all on the maximal press-up test, even though press-ups involve the same shoulder and arm muscles utilised during bench pressing. The difference, of course, as we saw in the squatting case, is not in the muscles actually utilised but in the specific way in which they are utilised.
As the Australian researchers put it so well: ‘The press-up test involved a similar action to the bench press and bench-press throw and employed a similar resistance, but it was performed in an inverted body position such that force was directed downwards, as opposed to vertically upwards.’ In other words, training a particular muscle to be more powerful won’t make that muscle more powerful in competition, unless the precise movement patterns used in training are very close to those used in competition.
Finally, ‘arm-adduction power’ (power exerted as an athlete’s straightened arm is brought toward the middle of the body against resistance) was also unimproved after eight weeks, even though the key muscles involved in arm adduction – the pectoralis muscles – are the same ones which are the prime shakers and movers in bench pressing. By now, you know that the reason for the failure of bench pressing to enhance arm adduction is that the former is specific to the latter only in the muscles used, not in the way they are used.
What should you do?
So what’s the bottom line if you’re a runner? You should engage in regular strength training, because scientific studies confirm that it can lower your risk of injury during training and also enhance your running economy, making it easier for you to train with higher quality and run faster races.
However, the strength exercises that most runners utilise – bench presses, squats, power cleans, push presses, biceps curls, sit-ups, calf raises, hamstring curls, and knee extensions – are not specific to the body postures or neuromuscular patterns employed during running and therefore won’t help your running very much.
It’s fine to do such exercises for a little while, in order to enhance your general strength and get used to the idea of strength training. But if you really want to improve your running, you should really focus on resistance exercises that are more specific to the act of running – such as one-leg squats, high-bench step-ups, and one-leg hops in place.
Such exercises are good because they mimic the body postures required for running, but even they have some limitations, especially since force application is still in a vertical plane. Of course, the idea behind strength training for running is ultimately to improve your power in a horizontal direction (most of us don’t run upward; we run straight ahead – toward the finish line or toward the end of our workout route).
Boosting horizontal power
That means you’ll have to follow your one-leg squats, step-ups, and hops-in-place with the ultimate in horizontal-power-enhancement exertions. There are four that are especially great for you (we rank them from least to most effective):
1) Speed bounding, in which you bound along with longer than normal strides while attempting to maintain high speeds (this is different from ‘classical bounding’, the stuff that is usually recommended for runners; the trouble with classical bounding is that it emphasises excessive vertical lifting of the body and overly slow movements, ignoring the need to move quickly horizontally);
2) Running while wearing a weighted vest;
3) Hill training, and
4) Hill training while wearing a weighted vest.
In your training, you would want to progress gradually from the one-leg squats to the speed bounds to the vest, hills, and hills with vest, progressively enhancing your leg- muscle power and ability to run quickly. If you do so, you’ll be far ahead of the people doing their leg extensions and bench presses in the gym. And you’ll be on your way to some truly amazing PBs, too!