Strength and conditioning specialist Andy Kay offers advice to athletes entering this crucial preparation phase

One of the big reasons for adding in strength training would be to improve running economy, meaning you’ll be able to run at any given speed for less energy input.

It’s also true that the stronger and more economical you are then you’ll have more left to give at the end of a race.

I would say, though, that the biggest reason to start including it is injury prevention. A lot of injuries and issues come about through weaknesses. I can’t think of anything that’s caused by being too strong.

You won’t get too big

There’s still some stigma around strength training and fears around “I’m going get too big”. But that’s just not going to happen. Unless you stop running and just focus on the gym, you just physically haven’t got the resources to build muscle like that.

Also, with the kind of strength training that we want you to do, you’re not training like a bodybuilder. We want to train movements rather than muscles and by that I mean we’re looking at hip extension force, knee and ankle extension – things that will translate to running.

Think differently

There’s still a bit of a hangover where some coaches think the old school circuit mentality takes care of your strength training. It doesn’t.

That’s just aerobic work, really, and as a runner you’re already doing plenty of that.

In my view, you’d be better off spending that time doing the things you don’t normally do, such as heavy strength training, loaded jumps, speedwork, lifting fast – that’s where you’re going to get a real bang for your buck. 

In the beginning

Start with two sessions a week. Pick a handful of exercises that are big hitters, staple ones that you’re going to keep in all the time. I like to use things like a trap bar deadlift and a hip thrust because they’re very big, easy exercises to learn. Knee extensions are great too for the glutes, hamstrings, quads and calves.

Start learning those really well technically and keep them in mind as the exercises you are going to progress. They’re the ones where you’re going to get heavier and heavier.

Around that you can use “accessory exercises” and you can vary those. That can be anything that works the glutes, the quads, etc. Single leg exercises are probably king for most runners, so lots of lunges, split squats, single leg Romanian deadlifts and single leg calf raises.

An example session

I’d always start with some kind of plyometric or drill exercise, such as box jumps or pogos. That ticks off that speed and power type work but it also acts as a primer to help get the nervous system firing and ready for the rest of the session.

Then I’d be looking at one of those big hitter primary exercises. After that, bring in a couple of single limb accessory exercises, such as split squats or some stiff leg deadlifts on one leg. 

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Then you’re looking at local conditioning exercises like calf raises or hamstring curls. 

Once that’s done, do some work on your core. Planks or side planks will really help. 

If you do that twice a week, for most people that’s more than enough for a couple of months.

How heavy should you go?

A good rule of thumb is something we call Reps in Reserve or RIR. What that means is how many reps you think you could have done beyond what you actually did.

For the big exercises, six to eight is the upper limit because they’re strength exercises. If I’m working to two reps in reserve, for example, I’ll do five reps, but I want to be able to feel like I could have squeezed out seven at a push. 

If you’re finishing those five reps and it felt too easy then add some more weight on. If you feel like you squeezed the last one out and you nearly died then it’s too much!

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Being at around two to three RIR is more than enough for most people. But be honest with yourself. Subjective effort is the best way to look at it.

The priority for the first four to six weeks, though, is getting really comfortable with the technique.

Fitting it in

What I’ve found to be effective is to put strength training on a session day, but as far away from your running session as possible. If you’ve got a session in the morning, then do your strength work in the evening that day, because then the next day is more of a recovery day. Just make sure that you refuel and rehydrate properly between and after sessions. 

Dealing with DOMS

People will often report having an issue with Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) to start with. The thing to remember there is that actual muscle soreness is not an indicator of muscle damage. What it’s actually telling us is that you’ve done an unfamiliar exercise and it’s just been hurt for the first couple of times you do it but it will get better. The best thing for DOMS is doing some light exercise, so going out for an easy run in the morning afterwards will be ideal. 

Keep progressing

A lot of runners will take a strength programme and it’s meant to last maybe six weeks and then they’ll do that for five years. They won’t change the exercises, they won’t change the reps, they won’t put any more weight on. 

READ MORE: Using winter to identify weaknesses

If you do the same run to the same place every day you’re not going to get any better because your body adapts to a point and that’s enough. So you have to keep progressively overloading, changing things and challenging yourself.

Get a coach to help you for the first couple of months and follow the programme. It’s the best thing you can do. 

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