Brief workouts for runners: basic strength training

Most runners I work with are very good at putting in the miles. Give them a detailed programme and they stick to it, down to the last set or mile. Yet many neglect another vital section of their programme: the non-running part. Strength training. Working the core. Stretching. Plyometrics. Some blame a lack of time, others fear – wrongly – that they will become muscle bound, or be too sore to run, if they use weights.

That’s where this series of workouts will hopefully help. Over the next few weeks I will put together 12 non-running workouts for runners, which – combined with an effective running programme – should make you a better and stronger athlete. They are short (around 20 minutes each, sometimes much less) and effective – the idea being that you can train in your lunch hour or briefly after your run and still make it an effective session.

The idea came about partly from training my own clients but also from reading Mo Farah explain how squatting 200lb and doing core work had made a difference to his running. In case you missed it, he told the Guardian: “I was a lot weaker before. All the core stuff, all the weights? I couldn’t lift anything. I just used to run and do a bit of core but I never did specific stuff. That’s been the difference for sure.”

His coach, Alberto Salazar, addressed another common fallacy. “Now [Mo] is not just a skinny guy, he’s a strong, wiry guy,” he said. “And he has not gained more than a pound or two despite lifting heavy weights for power. People have always thought distance runners should lift light. Don’t you believe it.”

The science backs Salazar up. A study in 2008 by Storen et al looked at runners who performed heavy squats three times per week for eight weeks alongside runners who performed their normal distance training. They found that the runners doing the squats improved their running economy and time to exhaustion at maximal aerobic speed, without any change in body weight.

Strength and core work can be very effective for runners. The difficulty is fitting it into your schedule when you could be running five or six times a week already.

The plan

We will start slowly, with basic strength and core workouts, and build up to more challenging exercises and interesting routines. There will also be workouts you can do on holiday in the hotel gym, or when you have nasty blisters or fancy a change from running (ie swimming for runners, anyone?)

I have a good idea of the workouts I’d like to use, but at the same time I’m open to suggestions, so please post any thoughts below the line.

The workout

OK, on to the workout. As I mentioned previously, this isn’t designed to be too strenuous or difficult. We’re going to start with bodyweight exercises, as it is vital to get the techniques correct before adding any weight to prevent injury. Watch the videos carefully and, if you can, get a friend or instructor to check your form. You should do these exercises in order, resting
for around 20-30 seconds after each set, and aim to go through the routine three times.

Bodyweight squats x 12

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Stand with feet at shoulder width and your toes pointing slightly outwards; drop your bum slowly to the floor, pushing it backwards, keeping your head up. Get as low as possible, making sure your heels stay on the floor (hold your arms out in front of you for balance) and push upwards until straight (squeezing your bum when you reach the top). Make sure to breathe in on the way down and out on the way up.

Press up x 12

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You will see from the video that I have three different levels here. The first, and easiest, is press ups on the knees. If you can do this easily, move on to the next step, press ups using an incline. If that presents little difficulty you’re ready to do a full press up.

Get down parallel to the floor with your palms and toes taking your weight (try not to push your bum up, or let it fall). Keep your abdominals nice and tight and slowly bend at the elbows, bringing your body down until your nose is an inch from the floor; then push downwards until your arms are straight. Make sure you bring the hips down too, not keeping the bum where it is. If you want to make this exercise easier, bring the knees down to rest on the floor, move the hands slightly forward and descend in a diagonal motion towards the floor and push on the way up until the arms are straight.

Lunges x 8 on each leg

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Standing with your feet together (arms out for balance if required), take one step forwards and drop the knee towards the floor until both legs have a 90-degree angle. Then push yourself backwards to a standing position and repeat on the other leg. Perform this with alternate legs, making sure to stay nice and tall throughout each lunge, keeping the head up.

Dips x 12

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Using a step or a chair, face away from it with the heels of your hands on the edge and your feet extended out in front of you (the further away your feet are, the more difficult it is). Once into position, slowly lower yourself by bending your elbows to bring your bum towards the floor. Take it down until your elbows are at 90 degrees and then push upwards until your arms are straight. Remember to breathe in on the easy part of each exercise and out on the “effort part”, and take it down for two seconds and up for one second.

Plank (as long as possible)

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Hold the plank position on the toes and elbows, with feet together and elbows directly under the shoulders, while keeping the abdominals parallel to the floor. Remember to breathe throughout and don’t let the hips drop towards the floor. Thirty seconds is a reasonable start, but you should aim to work up to minute.

How often should I do the routine?

Ideally, you should complete a strength routine at least twice a week. When combined with the basic core training for runners workout I will outline next time, you should start noticing the benefits fairly quickly. I’ll also post a strength workout for runners using weights in the weeks ahead too.

Donald Maxwell is a personal trainer with a MSc in sport performance enhancement. He works at Virgin Active and can be contacted at [email protected].

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