Training Essentials For Distance Runners
Distance running traditionalists have long resisted the idea that strength training can be beneficial to improving running performance. Fears that lifting weights will make runners” bulky” or “stiff” leading to decrements in performance or increased injury risk have never been substantiated.
Meanwhile, recreational runners are injured at a rate of 50% per year and with nearly 70% re-injury rates within 12 months. It only gets worse for marathoners who average an injury rate over 90% per year.
Wall Dorsiflexion Stretching:
The wall dorsiflexion stretch is an effective dynamic stretch for the posterior tissues of the lower leg that often will present with stiffness in running athletes. I will typically have athletes perform 10-20 reps of this prior to training or running.
Kneeling Plantarflexion Mobilization:
While we often spend lots of time discussing improving dorsiflexion I find running athletes often present with high levels of tension in anterior tibialis, limiting their plantar flexion range. In my experience by taking some time to improve plantarflexion mobility, athletes will often report reduced overall tension in their foot and lower leg.
Ankle Controlled Articular Rotations:
Controlled Articular Rotations for the ankle joint can be an extremely helpful tool to maintain overall ankle health and functionality. With increased, repetitive training stress we often see reduce overall variability of movement in the ankle joint. By performing slow, controlled active rotations through full range of motion you can help to renew synovial fluid, maintain health of the joint surfaces and re-establish end-range motor control of the joint.
One of the most common things that I see amongst long-distance runners who suffer from foot-related issues is the inability to control the toe flexors/extensors and intrinsic foot muscles. Lots of time in running shoes often means, very little time barefoot and disuse of the intrinsic muscles that control the toes and the feet. These can be great drills to do at home when relaxing or post-run to rejuvenate the feet.
Power and Elasticity Training:
“Endurance athlete” and “powerful” aren’t exactly two words you associate with one another but you should. Arguably there isn’t a quality that is more valuable to the long-distance runner than lower body power. If we go back to the idea of “filling buckets”, the power bucket is often the one that most needs filling, meaning there is most potential for training and impact on performance.
We should focus on training interventions that maximize neurological power and elasticity to improve power expression and running economy.
We know from the research that the inclusion of plyometric training can significantly improve the running economy and performance in low, medium, and highly-trained medium and long-distance runners.
Additionally, the development of tissue elasticity in the lower leg can help to develop resiliency in the local tissue, improving load tolerance and reducing the likelihood of stress and strain related injuries in the lower leg.
Hopping variations are one of the most valuable tools at our disposal for both performance enhancement and injury reduction. In one exercise we are able to train neuromuscular coordination, power development, elasticity, and eccentric deceleration. We will often progress these drills from a deceleration focus to and elasticity focus over the courses of multiple phases.
The typical progression demonstrated in the videos looks like this:
- Eccentric Deceleration Focus: Stick Landing
- Mini-Bounce Lower Leg Stiffness Focus: Mini-Bounce
- Elasticity Focus: Continuous Hopping
Linear Hopping Progression:
Medial Lateral Hopping Progression:
Diagonal Hopping Progression:
Bilateral and Unilateral pogo drills are a great exercise to work into an active warm-up or power session to work on lower leg stiffness and elasticity. We typically perform these for 10-20 yards at a time.
Acceleration Technique and Timed Sprinting:
Although it may seem counterintuitive, sprinting is a valuable quality to work on in training for the distance runner. The greater speed we can develop in the endurance athlete the easier it will be for them when needing to kick and push velocity during the race. It doesn’t take a ton of volume to make a significant impact on a distance runners mechanics and acceleration ability. We typically work this skipping and acceleration technique drills into warm-ups on lifting days and will work 2-3 full speed timed 10 yard splits into the work out 2x week.
Often we may progress from regular timed sprints to timed sled sprints for stronger, more advanced athletes. The addition of some external load can be a valuable stimulus to develop more force production into the ground. To determine loads for sled sprinting we simply take their best standing 10-yard timed sprint and multiple by 1.5 to find the time we want them to run on a flying 10-yard sprint with an external load.
Example: 1.5 second standing 10 yard Sprint * 1.5 = Desired time for loaded sprint = 2.25 seconds
Despite fears that strength training will make the endurance athlete excessively bulky or stiff the research is demonstrating that strength training can be a powerful tool to improve performance in endurance sports and reduce running-related injuries.
Research has shown that female runners presenting with patellofemoral pain tend to present with marked decreases of hip external rotation and abduction strength and show significant improvements and full return to training following hip strengthening.
Additionally, there is strong evidence to show that strength training can have a large impact on running performance. In the most comprehensive research review to date titled “Effects of strength training on the physiological determinants of middle-and long-distance running performance” they state:
“The research reviewed suggests that supplementing the training of a distance runner with strength training is likely to provide improvements to running economy, time trial performance and anaerobic parameters such as maximal sprint speed. Improvements in running economy in the absence of changes in VO2max, blood lactate and body composition parameters suggest that the underlying mechanisms predominantly relate to alterations in intra-muscular coordination and increases in tendon stiffness which contribute to optimizing force–length-velocity properties of muscle.”
When it comes to strength training for distance runners, a little goes a long way. More often than not runners will have a low training age in the weight room, making it very easy to have large impacts on performance even when only lifting two times per week.
Single-Leg Strength Training
We prioritize single leg exercises for running-based athletes as they will have greater levels of transferability to running, lower injury risk, and are more efficiently loaded than traditional bilateral lower body strength exercises.
Single leg training strength and power training allows for the development of multiplanar strength and stability and has been shown to produce higher relative force production than bilateral lower body training.  Single leg knee dominant exercises are especially helpful for developing deceleration ability and eccentric control of the lower body while hip dominant exercises will help to build the propulsion system necessary to keep the runner powerful throughout the run.
Single Leg Knee Dominant Exercises:
Single leg squats, split squats, and skater squats would be my primary choices for knee dominant exercise for running athletes. They allow for high loads relative to bodyweight while and are effective tools to develop the quadriceps, hip external rotators and abductors. We will typically try to include all three of these exercise over the course of a two or three-day program.
- Single-Leg Squat Progression:
- Split Squat Progression:
- Skater Squat:
Single-Leg Hip Dominant Exercises:
Externally loaded hip dominant exercises like single-leg bridging and single leg deadlifts are exceptionally valuable tools to develop hamstring and glute hip extensor strength. Slideboard leg curl and Nordic variations have proven to be especially valuable at improve eccentric hamstring strength and reducing the occurrence of hamstring strains. Be conservative when first prescribing slideboard leg curls as they are difficult to execute well and can cause high levels of soreness and cramping for the untrained athlete. Begin with the eccentric variation shown below and progress slowly towards the normal tempo variation before ultimately reaching the single leg eccentric slideboard leg curl and Nordic hold.
- Shoulder Elevated Single Leg Hip Bridge:
- Single-Leg Deadlift:
- Slideboard Leg Curl Progressions:
- Progression 1: Eccentric Only Slideboard Leg Curl
- Progression 2: Slideboard Leg Curl
- Progression 3: Eccentric Onle Slideboard Leg Curl
- Progression 4: Nordic Holds
Sled marching is a great overall lower body exercise that has low injury risk, is easy to teach and allow for high external loads on the quads, hips and calves in an acceleration-specific pattern. Typically, we will program these once per week for 3 sets of 5 to 10 steps.
I previously would have never programmed isolated calf raises but have recently found them valuable for distance running athletes and field sport athletes suffering from Achilles and patellar tendon pain. I tend to prescribe these proactively for athletes undergoing high levels of impact and repetitive lower leg stress like distance runners or basketball players.
Hopefully, this article has provided you with some basic guidance on how to develop a functional strength training plan for yourself or a runner that you coach. Distance runners of all levels of fitness and experience can benefit greatly from the inclusion of a basic functional strength training plan. Don’t let fears of getting big, bulky, and stiff dissuade you from including strength training as a tool in your arsenal to improve performance and keep you healthy.
 van Mechelen W. Running injuries. A review of the epidemiological literature. Sports Med. 1992 Nov;14(5):320-35. doi: 10.2165/00007256-199214050-00004. PMID: 1439399.
 van Gent RN, Siem D, van Middelkoop M, van Os AG, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Koes BW. Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med. 2007 Aug;41(8):469-80; discussion 480. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2006.033548. Epub 2007 May 1. PMID: 17473005; PMCID: PMC2465455.
 Michaud, T. C. (2012). Human locomotion. Thomas Michaud.
 Saunders, Philo U., et al. “Short-term plyometric training improves running economy in highly trained middle and long distance runners.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 20.4 (2006): 947.
 Turner, Amanda M., Matt Owings, and James A. Schwane. “Improvement in running economy after 6 weeks of plyometric training.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 17.1 (2003): 60-67.
 Cichanowski, Heather R., et al. “Hip strength in collegiate female athletes with patellofemoral pain.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 39.8 (2007): 1227.
 Blagrove, Richard C., Glyn Howatson, and Philip R. Hayes. “Effects of strength training on the physiological determinants of middle-and long-distance running performance: a systematic review.” Sports Medicine 48.5 (2018): 1117-1149.
 Bogdanis, Gregory C., et al. “Comparison between unilateral and bilateral plyometric training on single-and double-leg jumping performance and strength.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 33.3 (2019): 633-640.
 Graham-Smith, Philip, Natera, Alex and Jarvis, Mark. “LOAD COMPARISON RATIO IN SINGLE AND DOUBLE LEG MOVEMENTS.” UKSCA Annual Conference. 2020/12/22