“Yeah, they should be fresh for weights,” the coach said. “We’re only running five or six miles before coming to lift today.”
Welcome to the world of weight training with distance runners.
If you’re anything like me, you’re used to working with the traditional stop and go sports like football, hockey, basketball, or volleyball. Not distance and cross country runners. And then one day I found myself—a former heavyweight weightlifter and powerlifter, strongman, and college football player— surrounded by a group of runners with way too little lean muscle mass, wearing way too short shorts, and mud all over their legs.
There we all were, standing in the middle of the gym. It must have looked comical. The standard mix of rock music spiked with the occasional hip-hop song was playing over the radio, and the smell of the 120 football players who’d just finished their workout was lingering in the air, so I did what I always do. I started coaching this group like any other team in for a training session.
Talking in my normal voice and cadence, I started coaching everyone through the basic warm-up, but instead of doing what I was instructing, the runners just sort of stood there blinking at me. Although I was in the weight room I designed and built, I felt suddenly transported into the Twilight Zone. The world didn’t make sense, and I felt I didn’t belong in the gym anymore—this was going to get real interesting for everyone, real fast.
Faster at Any Distance
While that was my first experience working with a cross country team, I’m happy to say it wasn’t my last. I want to document a few of my observations so others in a similar situation won’t have to go through the same growing pains that I did.
Before my staff started working with our distance runners, we would watch them train after practice. From what I saw, these runners wanted to run faster, but their training revolved around their prescribed distance and tempo, followed by a push-up and sit-up regimen. After we were first asked to help the team, we talked to the athletes and their coaches about their priorities. Here is what they asked for:
- Get faster
- Stay healthy
- Work arms and core
As I said, they wanted to run faster, but their training didn’t reflect that. Sure, they had their distance and tempo work, but doing countless sit-ups or crunches as well as push-ups with a super-wide hand position won’t help anyone get faster. So let’s ask the tough question: How do you get people faster?
To me, it starts with three basic ideas:
- Get them to put more force in the ground
- Have them put the same force in the ground, but at a faster rate
- Have them put the same force in the ground at the same rate, but at a lighter body weight
When we strip down a training program, we’re trying to manipulate one of these three variables. Let’s dig deeper into the first two ideas.
Creating Force Through Body Control
Getting strong isn’t simply about increasing your one-rep max of a back squat or deadlift. It’s about body control. Sure, I’m watching the same videos on YouTube or Instagram that you are with people moving very impressive weight, but I’m not showing those clips to our distance runners.
I’ve come to learn that working with distance runners requires adopting a different mindset. No one is going to be taking hits of Nose Tork before cinching up their belts to hit a new PR back squat, and that’s OK. Strength with this population means something else, and it’s all about body control.Strength for distance runners is all about body control, not hitting new PRs in the back squat, says @CarmenPata. #strength #distancerunners Click To Tweet
When I say that most distance runners are not very strong in the traditional weight room sense, I’m not knocking them. Part of the reason is they lack training, which I hope to help remedy with this article. And part of it is the sport itself. With traditional stop and go sports, a significant amount of change of direction occurs naturally. The deceleration creates an eccentric load, which over time creates a training stimulus that can improve an athlete’s strength profile and body control.
Body control and greater strength are more than having a big squat. They equate to faster running times because the athletes are strong enough to maintain posture and running mechanics over the thousands of foot contacts they experience during practice and competitions. My favorite exercise to access and improve on body control is a take on the classic Turkish get-up.
Video 1. The athlete replaces a kettlebell with a medicine ball to perform stand-ups to train stability and body control.
Video 2. The athlete performs get-ups for stability and body control using a medicine ball instead of a kettlebell.
I understand these are not picture-perfect versions of the get-up, and I’m OK with that. These two variations teach exactly what I hope to get across—how to create force from their hips and express it out through their feet and hands while controlling their body through the entire movement. Maybe one day we’ll transition into the actual get-up with a kettlebell.Our initial training sessions with distance runners focus on body control with non-traditional exercises, says @CarmenPata. #strength #distancerunners Click To Tweet
In the meantime, putting a med ball on their shoulders or in their hand and telling them to stand up may not be sexy, but it does work. All of the initial training sessions with our distance and cross country runners focus on body control with non-traditional exercises. In addition to the modified get-up, we use the dreaded push-up and renegade row.
Video 3. The renegade row is another non-traditional exercise we use with distance runners to train body control.
Ah, such a simple exercise but so difficult to accomplish correctly. Even our athletes who’ve been doing this exercise for nearly three months haven’t completely mastered the movements. Just watch the hips. During the push-up, the hip is solid with no visible movement happening at that joint, but with the row, we still see some rotation starting at the hip as she begins the row. This is unbelievably better than what it looked like months ago, but not as good as it will look in a few more months.
While these are examples of great starting exercises, if you truly want to see how the athletes are doing, you have to put them off balance. Literally. The single-leg med ball slam is another deceptively simple exercise we use to help teach body control and single-leg strength.
Standing on one leg combined with the speed of the exercise are enough to add instability during the activity. I really appreciate how the medicine ball, going from the floor to overhead, dynamically changes a person’s center of mass.
Video 4. Medicine ball slams force the athlete to try to stabilize and correct their balance during the movement.
As you can see in the video, the athlete’s balance is all over the place. The amount of rotation that’s happening at his knee and hips is exactly what we’re trying to accomplish. Remember, due to the sport or general lack of training, we’re trying to teach general body control during a dynamic change of the center of mass and force the athlete to flex and extend their hips, knees, and ankles.
Developing Strength and Power
Once we start seeing improvements in general body control, it’s time to develop additional lower body strength in these runners. As mentioned, the ability to put more force into the ground is one of three ways to improve running times due to the increased ground reaction forces. When it’s time to start moving some weight, our go-to exercise is the single-leg split squat. Yeah, I know back squats look far more appealing, but it’s not where I like to start people.
Video 5. Our go-to exercise to start moving weight is the single-leg squat.
Look at her depth. Would you be happy with that depth on a back squat? Look at her hip action. Would you be happy with the way her hips are moving on a back squat? Look at the time under tension. Would you be happy with the tension on a back squat?
Let’s stop looking at the exercise and look at what the exercise does for the athlete. In this example, we’re still getting her legs stronger without the mental stress of loading a relatively heavy bar on her back and squatting. Remember, this is a population that, as a whole, doesn’t yet understand the positive benefits of being in the weight room. If these athletes choose not to show up to the gym, it doesn’t matter how good your program is, they won’t get any benefit from it. The first step to winning is showing up.
When the runners have better body control and start developing leg strength, it’s time to focus on developing some power. At the start of this post, I explained three ways to get people to run faster: put more force into the ground; put the same force in the ground, but faster; put the same force at the same rate into the ground, but do it at a lighter body weight.
If you’ve read any of my other articles, you know that I’m a huge fan of doing all sorts of jumps to develop power and rate of force production. Working with distance athletes is no different. Unlike most of the other sports, however, we spend significantly less time working vertically and focus much more on horizontal movements.With distance runners, we focus on horizontal jumps to develop power and rate of force production, says @CarmenPata. #power #distancerunners Click To Tweet
These athletes want to run faster, regardless of the distance they’re covering. With anyone who runs for their sport, we try to improve the amount of time their foot is in contact with the ground. Without funding to purchase the right equipment to measure ground contact time, though, it’s nearly impossible to accurately measure this other than looking at each person’s time. So while we cannot measure this, we can explain it.
We tell the athletes that one of our training goals is to improve everyone’s foot contact time by 0.01s per contact. As a comparison, your eye blinks at 0.03-0.04 seconds—we’re trying to make changes faster than you can blink. If the runner can sustain this improved foot contact time for ten steps, they took 0.1 seconds off their sprint. If they sustain it for 100 contacts, they improved their time by one second. If they sustain the improved contact time for 1,500 contacts (the average number of contacts per mile), the athlete has improved their time by 15 seconds. Get the idea?
As I said, we can’t accurately measure their foot contact times. Sure, we could simply use their results from training and meets to look for improvements. But there are way too many variables that contribute to their times in both of these scenarios.
This is why I come back to using jumps not only as a test but also as a training tool. While there are so many types of repeated jumps you can use, if you’re looking to have your athletes do one jump as a training tool and a test, I suggest the med ball broad jump shown in this video.
Video 6. The medicine ball broad jump used for training purposes can also serve as an assessment method.
If Video 6 showed a testing session, we would have recorded the distance the person jumped, their body weight, and the weight of the med ball. That way, as the athlete loses or gains weight, we could adjust the weight of the med ball to account for the weight change and then have an accurate comparison of their jump distance.
This, in turn, gives a relative comparison of how their ground reaction force and ground contact times are changing. If the jump distance improves, you can assume these two factors have improved. If the jump distance gets worse, you can assume the two factors have gotten worse. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the best I can do while trying to measure things that happen faster than a blink of an eye.
After that first semester working with our college distance runners, plenty of learning happened for the athletes as well as our coaches. When our distance runners are in for a workout, we do many of the things from that first day. I didn’t decide to drop a bunch of weight to fit in, many of the runners still don’t appreciate my choice of music, and they still show up covered in mud. But at least now they have a change of shoes on.
With this group, I had to remember that the biggest challenge was that they were entering a world they were not only unfamiliar with but also had some very strong negative opinions about. We tried plenty of ideas with all sorts of results to help win over their hearts and minds, but that’s a story for another article (or two). Eventually, we figured out a winning combination. And while we still don’t have a distance runner whose highlight of the day is to get into the weight room (yet), it appears that no one hates being there.
The other big change? We’re beginning to move some iron during their training sessions. You’re probably not going to see many people post these workouts on Instagram, but that’s not the point. The point is that each week, these runners are getting a little stronger, they’re jumping a little farther, and they’re spending less time in the training room.
It’s the result of all of these little things that starts to make a big change, which is happening at their meets when they are seconds off their PRs. While I’m happy about these changes, I know that we can still get better.
Let’s keep the conversation going and find more ways to help distance athletes keep improving by leaving your thoughts or ideas in the comments section below.
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