Running is hard. It’s even harder when you're constantly running into issues.
Achieving better run times, building your skills, and work capacity come down to more than just being able to push yourself a bit further every time you hit the pavement. The choice of direction in your training tends to determine whether you finish in the higher rankings of a race, or whether you finish at all.
What can actually make you a better runner? Is it simply a matter of running longer or do you need something else to keep you ahead of the game?
As much as is is a noble task to just run longer every time you hit the road, your body does have barriers. Perhaps getting stronger may be one of the necessities to overcoming those barriers and leading you to run better, faster, and longer.
As an example:
Let’s say the average runner puts out 50n of force out for a run and they have to repeat this amount of force 40,000 times during a race. Let’s say that their maximum force output is 100n every time their foot strikes the ground. Being able to push through fatigue at that same force output isn't going to make them faster in their run. It may allow them to push a bit further than other opponents, but we want to get as close to winning as possible, right!
What if we could take those same runners and make them stronger so that their max force output is 200n, leaving them only using 25% of their max effort. Now it takes less energy to create the same amount of force! You can still run at 50% effort if you want to, but your output is 100n instead of 50n, meaning you will be running faster than those slowpokes around you who are only putting out 50n at 50% effort.
More strength = More Speed = You win or at least place better.
There is an obvious necessity to actually practice running technique and go out for timed runs to improve in those areas as well. Some genetic predispositions and running skills will still give others an advantage over the average runner, this is simply stating that you can improve your running capacity through some added strength.
Strength training also helps to increase bone density which means you are less likely to break something if you fall during your run. Long distance runners often complain of pain, generally in the IT bands, ankles, knees and back at one point or another. Often you will see those same with people with legs that look like the knee joint is about to rip in half.
Most people are not this exaggerated, but the point is made.
A general guideline you might hear may be that it’s probably your tight/weak adductors pulling your knees towards the middle of the body. So you should simply make them stronger and then you won't have that issue, right?
We should, however, take into account that the body is a whole, not one or two simple muscles that are getting cranky from an cause all of your agony.
Look at the hip muscles and their jobs in terms of function:
Anterior (Front) View
The Adductors contract as we turn the knee inwards. Which, tends to be the issue for runners in the first place (outside of a physical trauma to the body).
Therefore, we can assume with good reason that getting the adductors stronger is actually not the way out of that situation.
Instead, we look for the areas that ought to turn the knee out to bring it back to a neutral position. Muscles like the Glutes, Hamstrings, Abductors and deeper core muscles for this.
There is also a noticeable trend that muscles that have been trained for strength and muscular endurance fatigue much slower than muscles that have not. They don't have to work as hard as muscles that are deconditioned to heavy resistance training.
Strength training will not only increase your power during your run, but also reduce your risk of injury. It can increase the size and strength of tendons and ligaments (Fahey et al. 1975), leaving you with tendons and ligaments that are more resilient to fraying and tearing. They can handle the beating your body takes during a long run or sprint more effectively than one that aren't conditioned from proper training.Speaking of resisting injuries, you can significantly reduce your risk of injury by addressing muscle imbalances as well. Trainees who have a strength imbalance of more than 10% between left and right limb are at a higher risk of lower body injury than those who do address them (Bender et al, 1964). Pretty cool.
So what are the implications of all of this?
Add strength training into your workout regime. As much as just running is great, it is not the be-all and end-all of becoming better at your sport. There are a couple of key pointers that I tell clients that want to get better at running, the first being:
Train for Strength
You want to be light on your feet, fast, and consistent during your run. How will you do that if you constantly feel like you're dying? Add some movement work into your program, squats, hip hinges, rotational work, and even upper body strength. All of these muscles/movements come into play when running.
Train for Low to Moderate Reps
Most trainees don't need to add a ton of muscle mass to get good at running. They do need to get stronger though. Meaning that in your training, you are better off training for pure strength and a moderate amount of hypertrophy (muscle gain). Aim for compound movements like the ones listed for somewhere between 4-12 reps and anywhere from 3-5 sets of each exercise.
Work on running technique
You still won't get better at running if you don't practice it. The biomechanics of your run will have the biggest effect -- or not if evidenced by the anomalies witnessed during some of the recent top 10 finishers in publicized media. They were exhausted beyond measure and still spectacularly managed a strong finish, just with terrible form.
Still worth mentioning is the fact that you can't go wrong by continually trying to improve your running mechanics.