What A Runner's Strength Training Session Looks Like
I'm going to focus this article on actual exercises that I train my running clients with, and that they've had plenty success with.
Let's start with your running mechanics first, because that can be a strength or an Achilles heel.
Upon assessment, if I find you heel strike, or toe strike, or shuffle your feet I'm going to start with Mach drills. The A march, A skip, and A run are perfect and simple enough to teach what it feels like to land on your mid-foot, which is described as having enough room to swipe a credit card under your heels at all times. This will be important going forward as we introduce acceleration work and possibly sprints, to minimize your risk for injury and to effectively train the elastic qualities of the lower limb and foot. Speed work is strength work for the distance runner.
I'll typically start the session with a speed or elastic component to prompt technical improvements that get you feeling smooth and springy. Intentional bursts over short distances will allow for you to sense an immediate difference in your mechanics while gradually building tissue tolerance over the training weeks. For me as the coach, this is also where I can spot a "strong core" and where you might create effort from. Some runners will strain their neck and shoulders, or change their stride in attempts to run faster. I've found that weaker athletes will pop upright as soon as they start accelerating, versus stronger athletes who can maintain a forward lean for longer distance. If you're looking to improve your race time, you'll need to learn how to run fast with sound technique.
Once we transition into strength work, I like to marry the gait cycle with exercise positions that will train the chains of muscles responsible for stance and swing phases. This isn't always 100% necessary, but every runner I've ever worked with has some sort of chronic ache or pain that they can't seem to shake. If we can get things to move according to blueprint, where they have not been doing so, you'll be astounded by how much your mechanics clean up and/or your aches suddenly diminish or disappear. The less held back you feel, the more potential to become the runner you strive to be!
Let's say we start with a bodyweight split squat, right leg in front. To position you, I'll have you feel your right heel weighted, and your left big toe to push your left hip forward towards your right knee. This will bias weight transferred through the right hip and trunk, as is what happens when your right foot lands on the ground during a run. In gait this is called stance phase. You should sense your right obliques, hamstring and inner thigh muscles, and your left quad and glute to position the back leg in swing phase. Then we need to make sure the opposite happens when you switch legs, especially because the left side will be trickier to reciprocate.
For single-leg strength exercises, I'm a fan of having both feet in contact with the floor or some other constraint because it teaches your back foot how to unload while the front leg does the bulk of the work. You'll be surprised how challenging it is to train a real stance phase position just bodyweight, but once you feel it things will start to click real nice and you can load it up!
You can apply the stance+swing phase positions to the following exercises:
Foot on wall 90/90 hip bridge
Valslide reverse lunge
Staggered stance DL
I'll also progress you to transitionary exercises where you have to finish pushing off one leg completely to load onto the other:
Forward lunge hop
SL RDL w/ toe off
The upper trunk is where a lot of mechanical improvement can also be made through positional training. I'm a big fan of rotational/anti-rotation exercises like the following:
Split stance cable press w/ reach
Seated LM press w/ reach
Split stance/Squat position 1-arm cable row w/ reach
Seated 1-arm pulldown or row w/ reach
I say anti-rotation because I can have you resist motion while performing a unilateral exercise, or I can have you reach the non-working arm to encourage scapular alternation and rotation through the upper trunk. My selection will depend on how you present and what you need to start with.
Rotation should happen naturally in the upper trunk when you walk or run, but it often doesn't due to the stressed sedentary lifestyles we've become accustomed to, so people end up pseudo-rotating in the wrong places. Therefore training the appropriate joint action from various angles should be a staple in your strength program to properly integrate the obliques and shoulders with counter rotation of the hips. The less energy leaks, the more efficient you will be.
To finish the session I'll program 2-3 stability exercises, often performed as isometric holds and progressed with small controlled movements. Here is where you can also stress the subtleties of stance+swing phase positions depending on the variation. Some of my favorites are:
Resisted side planks
Sidelying trunk lift w/ hip shift and band row
SL march holds
SL RDL/squat to drive up
Suitcase carries, marches
Pallof press from standing, half kneel, split squat
The key for doing these well is breathing through the positions without straining your neck. If you have to hold your breath or if you can't own the position, we modify the exercise to meet your threshold. You don't hold your breath when you run, so you definitely shouldn't hold it when you're training to improve mechanics!
Any and every exercise I prescribe will be based on your initial assessment and how you progress through the motions week by week. There are some qualities you'll need to improve, and others you'll just need to maintain competency in. Ultimately your race day performance and how you feel leading up to it is what's most important, so everything we do will cater to your running goals and longevity of the sport.