Calling all runners! Whether you’re braving the rainy outdoors or settling into a treadmill routine, we want to keep you healthy and running strong. Running is such a wonderful form of exercise due to its simplicity and lack of necessary equipment. It’s a great form of aerobic conditioning and a fun way to explore some pretty amazing places here in Oregon. However, it’s also one of the leading causes of injuries. Statistics show that up to 80% of runners will experience an injury each year1 . The good news is there is a simple solution that many of us overlook – strength training for runners!
Understanding the Demands of Running
Why strength training for runners is SO important
Running is a high load, high repetition activity. With every step, loads can exceed 2-3x/bodyweight. As speed, intensity, and volume increase, the demands on our bodies also go up. Running requires good body awareness and control, core strength and trunk stability, and global leg strength.
Running is essentially repeated single-leg landings, and our bodies have to absorb high amounts of force and then continue to propel us forward. While we are primarily moving our bodies forward in the sagittal plane, running is actually a multi-planar activity. As our arms swing with each stride, we naturally rotate through our trunk and hips, moving in the transverse plane. We also control movement through the pelvis with each landing, ideally preventing downward collapse toward our stance leg, which requires control through the frontal plane.
Running requires high amounts of single-leg control, with high demands at the foot, ankle, knee, and hip. Most running injuries actually occur at or below the knee2. With every step, we first dissipate load through the foot and ankle, before transferring forces up through the knee, hip, and torso. This means that our strength training regimen needs to be all-encompassing for the lower body and trunk.
Another component of running is high volume. Many runners are lacing up their shoes more than one day a week. On average, the cadence for novice and intermediate runners is around 150-170 steps/minutes – that equates to > 3000 steps or impacts in an easy 20-minute run. Now that doesn’t mean you need to be able to do 3000 single-leg squats, lunges, or step-ups to tolerate the loads of running, but it does offer some perspective for the repetitive nature of this particular form of exercise. To do more work requires building more capacity.
Why Do Running Injuries Occur?
Outside of the rare traumatic injury (like a fall or collision), most running injuries are caused by overuse. This is a relative term, meaning that the outside load we place on the body exceeds the capacity of the structures involved.
Take the example of Achilles tendinopathy – the load of running is greater than what the tissue (the Achilles) can actually tolerate. Therefore there are two simple solutions – we can either:
- Decrease the load (decrease running volume or intensity OR shift load to another part of the body)
- OR we can INCREASE the capacity of the involved tissues.
Often we do a little bit of both.
How Do We Improve Tissue Capacity?
The short answer is LOAD. Tissue adapts to load and gradually changes over time. In 1996, Scott Dye proposed the theory of the “envelope of function”, defined as “the range of load that can be applied across an individual joint in a given period without supraphysiologic overload or structural failure” 3.
Below, you can see the line defined as the Envelope of Function. Above that line the load is greater than what the joint or tissue can safely withstand; everything below the line represents tolerable activities or loads. If we spend too much time above the line, the result is tissue injury.
The good news? We can move the line! With progressive overload or a gradual increase in resistance training, we can create a larger space contained within our unique Envelope of Function. (If you want to nerd out with the whole article; The Knee as a Biologic Transmission With an Envelope of Function.)
Putting It All Together: How to start strength training
In a nutshell, to best prepare our bodies for the demands of running, we need to strengthen them properly. This requires strengthening the entire leg and torso, in multiple planes of movement, targeting both strength and endurance. While injuries can still occur, strengthening is an easy way to help mitigate risk while also improving performance. But be mindful that training regimen, overall volume, and running mechanics also play a role in staying healthy as a runner.
When building your own strength training program, aim for 2-3x/week to start, targeting all the major muscle groups of the lower body including the calves, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and abdominal muscles. Be sure to incorporate single-leg exercises to help promote multi-planar control, and help simulate the demands of running.
Single leg exercises that help with strength training for runners:
Stay tuned for next week’s post for a list of our favorite strengthening activities that every runner should be doing.
Don’t let pain stop you from running – WE CAN HELP!
To learn more about other conditions and how we treat different types of common running injuries, please visit our Running Injuries page.
Check out what injuries we commonly treat and what to expect during an appointment.
“Strength training for runners” References:
- Incidence and determinants of lower extremity running injuries in long distance runners: a systematic review. van Gent RN, Siem D, van Middelkoop M, van Os AG, Bierma-Zeinstra SM, Koes BW . Br J Sports Med. 2007;41(8):469.
- The proportion of lower limb running injuries by gender, anatomical location and specific pathology: a systematic review. Francis P, Whatman C, Sheerin K, Hume P, Johnson MI. J Sports Sci Med. 2019;18(1):21-31.
- The knee as a biologic transmission with an envelope of function. Dye S. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 1996;325:10-18.
Melisa Abesa is a California transplant who has come to love the Pacific Northwest. Since graduating with her Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Southern California in 2014, she has practiced in the Portland/Salem area. She is a huge advocate for patient empowerment, individualized care, and a holistic approach to health and wellness.
As a board-certified clinical specialist in orthopedic physical therapy, she enjoys working with a large variety of orthopedic and sports-related conditions, with special interests including runners, headache treatments, post-operative care, and adolescent athletes.