Exercise Physiology for running performance

Running is an extremely popular form of exercise with almost no cost and fantastic physical and mental benefits. I’m sure we’ve all met runners who are almost obsessive about their running and are like a bear with a sore head when they can’t run. We see lots of runners at Central Performance, from office workers who run a couple of times a week for the health benefits to our elite running group coached by physio and track coach Ben Liddy.

One thing most of our runners have in common is that they would like to run a little better. Whether that’s reducing aches and pains they feel when running, improving their City2Surf time or lowering their 1,500m PB everyone wants to improve somehow. An often-overlooked way to improve running performance is to include some weight training into your training. The classic opinion was the weight training made you heavy and slow however there is a lot of good research that shows that weight training can significantly improve endurance, running performance and running economy.

It used to be thought that to improve performance in endurance sports like running that it was more beneficial to use a light weight for lots of repetitions when performing weight training. The theory was that it better replicated how the muscle worked when running and therefore it would lead to greater improvements in running performance. We now know that low repetition, heavy weight training and plyometric training is better for improving running performance and economy. This might seem counter intuitive but there are some good reasons for why that is the case.

First of all, heavy weight training and plyometric training both improve what is called Rate of Force Development (RFD). RFD means how quickly a muscle can produce force, the higher the RFD the quicker a muscle is able to produce force. A high RFD is important when running because ground contact time with each stride is so short. If you are able to increase the RFD of the muscles in the legs then you are able to decrease your ground contact time and increase your running cadence. Increasing your running cadence improves your running economy, making you a more efficient runner.

Secondly, a stronger muscle means that each stride requires relatively less effort from the muscles in your leg. For example, the soleus muscle in the calf has to deal with between 6-8 times body weight with each stride. That is an awful lot of force to be dealing with for a sustained period of time. A strong soleus, strengthened with the help of weight training, will be better able to handle 6-8 times body weight for a 800m race, 5km fun run or full marathon.

Thirdly, heavy weight training and plyometric training help to strengthen and stiffen tendons. A stronger, stiffer tendon is better able to transmit the force produce by the muscles into the movement of bones required for running. Better force transmission by the tendons again improves running economy and efficiency. It also has the added benefit of helping to guard against the development of tendinopathies such as Achilles or hamstring tendinopathy. We see many runners with these injuries and heavy weight training is the starting point for their rehabilitation.

As you can see there are some very good reasons for including heavy weight training and plyometric training to improve your running performance. As simple as two sessions of weight and plyometric training per week can lead to significant improvements in running performance. Below is an example of a simple weight and plyometric training session for runners.


Goblet squat:

The goblet squat is a fantastic way to introduce the squat movement into your training program and it is the first version of the squat we use with our clients. The squat is one of the key movements in weight training programs we develop for runners as it is fantastic for developing quad strength. This is important as the quads take the second most load during running after the calf muscles.


Single leg deadlift:

Another key movement in the weight training programs for our runners, the single leg deadlift is great for developing strength in the hamstrings and muscles of the lateral hip, particularly the glute medius. The glute medius plays an important role in maintain lateral stability of the hip, helping to prevent hip drop and subsequent valgus collapse of the knee when your foot strikes the ground. We also aim to have a mix of double leg and single leg exercises in our programs and the single leg deadlift is one of our favourite single leg exercises.

Bent knee calf raises:

An often overlooked muscle group when weight training, the calf muscles have the highest demand on them of any muscle group when running. As stated earlier, the calf muscles must handle between 6-8 times body weight with each stride. Therefore, it is important to strengthen the muscles of the calf. The bent knee calf raise helps to prioritise loading on the soleus muscle and better replicates the ankle position during running.

Hurdle hops:

Hurdle hops are one of our first plyometric progressions we introduce into our runners programs. It is a great exercise to help develop power on one leg and get our clients used to the landing forces associated with plyometric exercises. With a hurdle hop we emphasise ‘sticking’ the landing which requires our clients to be able to control the landing forces.


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