Strength Training

One of my biggest pet peeves is the phrase “proper running form.” I can’t stand it. Why? Because it implies that there’s only one correct way to run, and nothing could be further from the truth. Even worse, it implies that good running form is defined by how the stride looks, which further implies that the most effective way to improve the running stride is to consciously endeavor to make it look a certain way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.

Studies have shown repeatedly that when runners are asked to consciously alter their natural stride to make it look more “textbook,” they become less, no more, efficient. The well-known POSE Method is all about trying to make the stride look a certain way. A 2005 study led by George Dallam of Colorado State University-Pueblo found that 12 weeks of supervised training in the POSE Method left a group of eight experienced triathletes with less efficient strides.

The issue is that good running form is determined not by how the stride looks but by how hard a runner’s brain has to work to generate and sustain a given running velocity. This might sound weird, but it’s actually how skill in any motor activity, from archery to drumming, is defined. The more skilled you are in a given activity, the quieter your brain is when you do it. Conscious efforts to make the stride look a certain way are counterproductive because they unnecessarily increase the amount of brain activity required to run.

Okay, so where does this leave us? If the monkey-see-monkey-do approach to running more efficiently doesn’t work, what does?

Practice is the number-one factor. How do you get better at juggling? You juggle. It’s the same with running. Throughout every run you do, your brain is in constant communication with proprioceptive nerves in every part of your body, looking for ways to trim waste from the motor program it uses for running. This process is unconscious, automatic, and highly effective. In a 2012 study, Sharon Dixon of the University of Exeter in England measured changes in a number of stride features as well as changes in running economy in a group of 10 beginner female runners. These women trained for 10 weeks without any technique instruction. They just ran. During that period their running economy improved by 8.4 percent.

There is evidence that, although this process does slow down, it never stops. Indeed, ongoing, practice-based improvements in stride efficiency are probably the main driver of performance gains in runners who have already maxed out their aerobic capacity and other major fitness components. A 2011 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire compared various fitness measurements and also running economy in runners representing three different age ranges: 18 to 39, 40 to 59, and over 60. Unsurprisingly, they found that VO2max, maximal heart rate, maximal speed, strength, and power all declined with age. But guess what? Running economy did not. And because factors such as muscle strength contribute to running economy, these findings suggest that, on a neural level, the oldest runners were actually more efficient than the younger ones.

In short, efficient running comes from experience, and experience takes time. There are certain ways to accelerate the process of becoming a more efficient runner, however. One such method is uphill interval training. A 2013 study led by Kyle Barnes of the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand found that six weeks of high-intensity uphill interval training improved running economy by an average of 2.4 percent in a group of well-trained runners. It has been speculated that uphill interval training serves as a kind of movement-specific strength training that enhances the springiness of the legs.

Springiness? Yes, the human body operates as a spring during running, and just as a pogo stick with a stiff spring will bounce higher than a pogo stick with a loose spring, a runner with greater leg stiffness is able to capture more of the “free energy” that rebounds from the ground into the foot after impact and use it to propel forward motion. Certain forms of strength training (particularly high-load weightlifting involving the legs) have been shown to improve running economy specifically by increasing leg stiffness on impact. Plyometrics training (i.e., jumping exercises) are also effective in this regard. A 1999 study by Leena Paavolainen and colleagues that reported significant improvements in 5K race times and in running economy after nine weeks of plyometric training also found a significant reduction in ground contact time, lending support to the spring theory. 

Core strength training has been shown to enhance running economy in a slightly different way. Efficient running depends partly on efficient transfer of forces between the upper body and lower body. (This is one reason it’s essential to move your arms in opposition to the legs when you run). Core strength training aids this transfer and may also mitigate the negative effect of trunk muscle fatigue on running economy. A 2019 study appearing in the journal PLoS One reported that eight weeks of core strength training reduced oxygen consumption at a moderate running velocity by 4.6 percent in a group of college athletes.

Related to plyometrics are form drills—high knees, butt kicks, and so forth—which isolate and intensify certain elements of the stride. There is no scientific proof that doing form drills regularly has any beneficial impact, but the fact that they are almost universally practiced by elite runners says something. What you will discover if you do practice form drills regularly is that you aren’t very good at them initially but you get better over time. This improvement almost has to translate back to your running. And even if you can’t measure the effect, you can certainly feel it. Runners who make the effort to master form drills often report feeling more athletic.

Another proven way to improve running economy is barefoot running. When you run without shoes, you run differently. And if you do enough barefoot running, some of those differences transfer back to shod running. A small 2013 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire found that a 10-week barefoot run training program improved running economy by 4 percent.

Barefoot running has drawbacks, however. It’s impractical and even dangerous in many environments and requires a long period of adaptation that can be highly disruptive to the flow of training. An alternative to barefoot running that may offer the same benefits without the disadvantages is a clever little product called ShoeCue. ShoeCue is a unique, textured insole that fits inside any running shoe and works by enhancing proprioceptive feedback from your feet to your brain during running. Essentially, ShoeCue tells your brain when you’re landing too hard, allowing you to adjust your stride automatically as you go. 

One final method of accelerating the process of becoming a more skillful runner is cadence manipulation. Each runner has a natural stride rate that tends to gradually increase with fitness and experience. As a general rule, it’s best not to interfere with this process, particularly if the interference involves forcing yourself to consciously think about your step rate. But there is a way to get a little practice at a slightly higher step rate that may soon be natural for you without turning your attentional focus inward, and that’s by running with a metronome set at 110 percent of your natural stride rate and matching your steps to the beat.

It’s best to do these “cadence runs” on a treadmill, as there is a natural tendency to speed up when trying to achieve a higher stride rate. Step one is to download a metronome app onto your smartphone. Next, hop onto a treadmill, start running at your normal easy pace, and adjust the tempo of the metronome to match your step rate. Now increase the metronome tempo by 10 percent, adjust your step rate to match it, and complete the run at this higher cadence. Do this one a week or so.

As you see, there are ways to become a more skillful runner, they just don’t include trying to look like Genzebe Dibaba when you run.

There’s a moment in the film It Might Get Loud, a 2008 documentary centered on guitar heroes Jimmy Page, the Edge, and Jack White, that has stuck with me over the years. It’s the part where Jack is discussing the rationale behind his minimalist musical style, and in so many words he explains that making things harder for himself artistically forces him to become more resourceful in the creative process, thereby enabling him to come up with stuff he would never have come up with otherwise.

There’s a deep human truth embedded in this mindset, which is that with constraints come opportunities. When something is taken away from you—like, say, your ability to train and compete in groups because of a viral pandemic—it is natural to regret the loss. But the most resilient among us quickly pivot from focusing on what we can’t do to what we can do, and that’s exactly what many athletes are doing in response to the current crisis. If you’re open to turning the lemon of coronavirus into lemonade, here are four potential ways to do so.

Augment Your Home Gym

The day I learned that the health club I’m a member of would be shutting down, I went online and bought a 45-pound kettlebell. It was the one piece of equipment I felt I needed to perform at-home strength workouts that were just as effective as the ones I normally do at In-Shape. (I already had a Swiss ball, a pair of 35-pound dumbbells, TRX straps, resistance bands, and slide disks.) It doesn’t take a lot of dough to create a home strength-training set-up that is in no way limiting compared to what can be done in the gym. If you don’t already have all you need to do challenging and well-rounded strength workouts at home, take this opportunity to fill the gaps.

Expand Your Healthy Cooking Repertoire

By coincidence, my sister-in-law Jennifer gifted my wife and me with a delivery of Hello Fresh! meals three weeks into the shelter-in-place period here in California. In case you’re not familiar with the service, Hello Fresh! home-delivers fresh ingredients and original recipes for meals that customers then cook in the comfort of their own kitchen. The timing couldn’t have been better for us. With more time to cook and with restaurants closed and trips to the supermarket being risky, we recognized Jennifer’s thoughtful gesture as a great way to not only survive the pandemic but turn it into an opportunity. I’m not trying to sell you on Hello Fresh! specifically, but I am trying to sell you on the idea of using this challenging time to expand your repertoire of healthy homecooked meals.

Bone Up on Your Sport

If you enjoy reading, the natural thing to do when you’re stuck at home more than usual is to accelerate your reading rate. And if you’re an endurance athlete who likes to read, a great way to make productive use of extra time at home is to educate yourself about your sport. I’m mainly a fiction guy myself, but I recently enjoyed and learned a lot from Tait Hearps’s and Matt Inglis Fox’s charming little book Eliud Kipchoge, which describes the authors’ experiences inside an elite Kenyan running camp in the summer of 2017, and next up for me is The Athlete’s Gut by Patrick Wilson.

If I may make a somewhat self-serving book recommendation (and I may, because this is my damn blog), consider preordering a copy of Running the Dream: One Summer Living, Training, and Racing with a Team of World-Class Runners Half My Age. I wrote it in the hope of entertaining, inspiring, and edifying my fellow runners all at the same time, but I’ll let you judge whether I pulled it off.

Build Better Sleep Habits

For as long as I can remember, I have utterly refused to compromise on my sleep. I get eight-plus hours a night year-round. But most adults in the U.S. and a lot of other places are chronically underslept, and endurance athletes, being busier during the day than most adults, are even likelier to sleep too little. This isn’t good, because endurance training increases sleep needs and exacerbates the costs of under-sleeping. 

Chances are the current health crisis affords you more time to sleep than your normal lifestyle facilitates. If you’re among the majority of athletes who don’t sleep enough, take advantage of this opportunity, not just by sleeping more now but by doing so with a view toward establishing a new routine that you can carry forward after this nightmare has passed. And, for that matter, be sure also to carry forward the Jack White mindset that with ever constraint comes the potential to discover new ways forward.

To train with maximal effectiveness, you have to be mean to yourself. And you also have to be kind to yourself.

Every week I do two full-body functional strength workouts at a local gym. The specific exercise selection evolves over time, but there is one exercise I never fail to include among the dozen or so that make up each session: side planks.

“Why side planks?” you ask. “Is it because they’re so effective you consider them indispensible? Or do you just love side planks?”

Neither. The true reason I do side planks every single time I hit the gym is that I hate them. A properly executed side plank is quite painful. About halfway through each 75-second hold I begin to feel an unpleasant burning sensation deep inside my mid-back area on the floor-facing side, a burning that gradually intensifies through the remainder of the hold. And when I work my weak (left) side, my body begins to literally quiver with fatigue in the last few miserable seconds.

No doubt there are other, comparably effective core exercises that I would find less dreadful, but I force myself to keep doing side planks because I believe it’s good for an endurance athlete’s mind to do some things that suck for the suck’s own sake. It’s a bit like the practice of taking cold showers to build mental toughness. Although some folks claim that cold showers confer physical benefits, the real point of the practice is to do something not necessary that sucks. Endurance racing is extremely uncomfortable, and to do it well you must be comfortable being uncomfortable. If you suffer in training only as much as necessary, you won’t reach the same level of mental toughness you’ll get to if you sometimes do the exercise equivalent of taking a cold shower.

On the flipside, one element of my training that I really enjoy is running laps. For me, going around in circles is sort of the opposite of doing side planks. Unfortunately, the running tracks in my area are protected like Fort Knox, so the laps I run are on roads and bike paths in my neighborhood. There happens to be a circuit of precisely two miles’ length that starts and ends at my front door. I use it way more often than necessary and in ways few other runners would. For example, if I have a 20-mile run with alternating easy miles and marathon-pace miles on my schedule, it’s likely I will set up a little makeshift aid station at the end of my driveway and run 10 laps around this circuit. I think a lot of runners would rather drink paint, but I love going in circles and I have no qualms about indulging this predilection in my training.

As with my insistence on doing side planks every time I hit the gym, there is a principle behind my heavy use of lap running, and that is the belief that it’s good for an endurance athlete’s mind to do some things that are enjoyable for enjoyment’s own sake. In much the same way that physical preparation for racing requires a balance of hard days and easy days, mental preparation for racing requires a balance between misery and fun. There is no single perfect way to train for any given event. Among the various options that will yield similar results, you should feel free to sometimes pick the option you most enjoy.

A runner I coach currently absolutely loves running uphill. Even though she doesn’t run hilly races, I give her more hill work than I otherwise would because A) it yields more or less the same benefits as “flat” workouts done at the same intensity, and B) it keeps her happy, and a happy athlete is more invested in the overall training process. This is just one example of the many ways I incorporate methods that aren’t strictly by-the-book into the training of the athletes I coach for the sake of a psychological benefit.

There’s another athlete I coach who loathes track workouts, not because they hurt but because his times are always slower than he thinks they ought to be. To his credit, this athlete recently told me he wants me to give him more track workouts. As a trail runner, he could get away with making only occasional visits to the track, but he wants to do more than the minimum because he recognizes their physical and psychological benefits. Track workouts are his side planks, if you will—his cold showers.

How about you? Which part of the training process do you hate the most? Do it regularly. And which part of the training process do you most love? Do it often.

Recently one of the athletes I coach (we’ll call him Scott) came to me with some concerns about the results of his latest DEXA scan and weigh-in. Although he had lost both overall weight and body fat, he had also lost some muscle mass, and the body-fat percentage in his arms had increased slightly. Scott wanted to know if he should add biceps curls and triceps dips to his strength workouts to correct these last two items. I told him absolutely not, and here’s why.

First off, it probably goes without saying that, although biceps curls and triceps dips are effective exercises for improving body composition in the arms, they achieve this effect by increasing muscle mass, and muscle mass—particularly in the arms— is dead weight for the long-distance runner. It can only slow you down.

I speak from experience. Last summer, when I trained with the Northern Arizona Elite team in Flagstaff, under the guidance of strength and conditioning coaches AJ and Wes Gregg I reduced my strength training frequency from three sessions per week to two and removed upper-body movements such as push-ups from my strength workouts. The resulting loss of upper body mass made a small but vital contribution, I believe, to my setting a marathon PR at age 46. (I promise to stop bringing this up after the one-year anniversary passes.)

Hardly shocking. But what may surprise you is that muscle mass in the legs is also dead weight for the long-distance runner. In 2004, exercise scientists at Ball State University examined the contractile properties of individual calf muscle fibers in college cross country runners over the course of a full cross country season. They found that the cross-sectional area of the runners’ muscle fibers decreased during this 12-week period, meaning their calf muscles shrank. That sounds bad, but the ratio of force-generating capacity to cross-sectional area of the muscle fibers increased during this same period, meaning that, pound for pound, their muscles got stronger.

The human body is not stupid. When you subject it to a specific type of training in preparation for a specific type of competition, it adapts in appropriate ways, even if certain adaptations seem negative at first glance.

Muscle tightness is another example. It is not uncommon for runners to go from being able to touch their toes when they start training to being unable to touch their toes after a few weeks or months of progressive running. An individual runner who experiences this change might think, “Oh, no! I’m losing flexibility!” But, like the decrease in muscle mass we just discussed, this tightening of particular muscles is also a beneficial adaptation to training.

It’s not tightness per se that you want as a runner but stiffness, which comes with tightness. The legs function as springs during running. Half of the energy that propels a runner forward comes from the ground as an equal and opposite reaction to the impact force delivered from the foot to the ground with each landing. A stiffer spring/leg is able to capture and reuse more of this free energy than a looser leg, improving running economy. A new study by researchers at the University of Calgary reported that greater Achilles tendon stiffness was associated with better running economy in a group of 46 elite runners, and prior research has shown that elite runners are generally less flexible than nonelite runners.


The bottom line is that if you are a runner seeking better race performance, you need to keep your eyes on the prize. Stay focused on the overarching goal—increasing the speed you are capable of sustaining over a given distance—and don’t get distracted by secondary goals such as maintaining muscle mass and flexibility. This is not to say that strength training and stretching should be avoided entirely, but these practices should be incorporated in targeted ways that contribute to the only thing that really does matter.

The strength-training methods I use today are different from those I practiced before I spent 13 weeks as a guest member of Hoka One One Northern Arizona Elite, a professional running team, in the summer of 2017. It’s not that I lacked commitment to strength training prior to this experience. As a self-coached athlete I hit the gym three times a week for 20-minute full-body strength sessions. But my Flagstaff experience resulted in changes that have enabled me to strength train more effectively.

The NAZ Elite team meets every Thursday for a one-hour strength workout designed and overseen by brothers AJ and Wes Gregg at Hypo2 Sport. Runners are expected to do a second, similar strength workout on their own, something I chose to do on Mondays. My very first team strength workout was embarrassing and eye-opening. I came into it thinking that strength was my strength, so to speak, but that first session just about killed me. I realized then that I had been coasting through my solo strength workouts—just checking the box by doing the same, familiar, comfortable exercise again and again in a half-assed sort of way.

Two separate factors made these professionally designed strength workouts tougher. One was exercise selection. Many of the exercises required balance and challenged important stabilizing muscles that are underdeveloped in most runners—including me, apparently. An example is the single-leg reverse deadlift, which entails standing on one foot and reaching a dumbbell toward the toe of that foot with the opposite hand by tilting the torso forward and kicking the non-supporting leg out behind. A muscle-bound bodybuilder might sneer at the puny size of the dumbbells we used to perform this exercise, but when he tried the exercise himself and couldn’t complete two reps without losing balance and touching the other foot down, he would cry like a little baby, and when he woke up the next morning feeling sore in muscles he never knew he had, he would cry all over again.

The other factor that made pro-style strength training tough for me was the intensity of the sessions. Virtually every exercise was done until it hurt. For example, when I saw side planks listed on the workout sheet I was given at the start of my first team strength workout, I celebrated, because I did this exercise at home—one 30-second hold per side, three times per week. I was forced to do three 75-second holds per side, and it was the single most painful thing I did in Flagstaff, including all of my run workouts.

It’s impossible to quantify the benefits I derived from this hard work, but I’m certain I benefitted. Within a few weeks of arriving in Flagstaff I felt like a different runner—tighter, lighter, more athletic, even younger. One of the main purposes of strength training as a runner is injury prevention. I did not escape Flagstaff without injury, but that’s what the second component of pro-style strength training is for: rehab.

The same guys who administer the strength workouts for NAZ Elite—the aforementioned Gregg brothers—are also chiropractors who function as full-service physiotherapists. I dealt with two minor injuries and one major one during my summer with the team, and each time I got dinged up, AJ gave me corrective exercises intended to restore function and prevent the problem from recurring. A typical exercise entailed lying face up on the floor with a resistance band looped around my feet and pulling my right knee toward my head while keeping the left leg straight. Collectively, these exercises made my body more balanced and functionally symmetric, and enabled me to overcome the breakdowns I experienced and race well at the Chicago Marathon.

I’ve incorporated much of what I learned about pro-style strength training into my new 80/20 Strength Training Plans, available here:

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