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Specialized strength training to improve your running.

Runners are always interested in an edge. How can you be a better runner--faster, injury-free, and fit? Although it is widely accepted mat strength training can improve your running speed and help to prevent injury, general weight training may not benefit the runner as much as exercises specifically designed to mimic the movements of running. This is based on the training principle of specificity--muscles make adaptations to training depending on the specific way an exercise is performed. An overhead barbell press, for example, is an excellent exercise for the deltoids and triceps--muscles that are used in running. But in the overhead press, the elbows are pointed out to the sides, while in the running stride the arm moves down from in front of the body. The press strengthens the right muscles, but not in the way they function in running.

What is a Specialized Strength Training Exercise?

The exercise must duplicate the same motor pathway pattern (movement) as seen in the running stride. This means that the exercise must duplicate the exact ankle, knee, hip or shoulder joint action as it is employed in the running stride. For example, using a hip abductor machine at the gym (in a seated position, legs press out, spreading the knees apart with resistance may not necessarily help the runner). The hip abductors play an important role in keeping the hips level during running and in the prevention of iliotibial band syndrome. However, in running, when the hip abductors play their role, the leg is in line with body as in standing, not at right angles as in sitting. The strength of these muscles should be developed in the upright position, not in a seated position, in order to have a carry-over to running.

The exercise must develop strength and flexibility in the same range of motion as is seen in the running stride. The abdominals are very important in running, particularly the obliques (the abdominal muscles that you feel on your sides at the waist). The familiar crunch with a twist strengthens the obliques, but does so in a far more restricted range of motion than is found during running. Even more important, the spine is flexed during a crunch while its normal curvature is maintained during your running stride.

The exercise should employ the same type of muscular contraction. For example, in the push-off, the calf muscles undergo a fairly explosive shortening contraction after being pre-tensed. This explosive shortening produces greater force to maintain or increase speed. A specialized exercise must include an explosive muscular contraction of the calf muscles.

What Can Specialized Strength Training Do for You?

Because this kind of strength training is designed to mimic the forces and movements used in running, there is a very high positive transfer to running. There is an immediate and dramatic effect. You are strengthening and improving the muscles exactly the way they are used for running and you can see changes very quickly.

Specialized strength training can teach you how to run effectively, improving form and running stride. You can correct technique errors and biomechanical problems as you develop strength and get a feel for the correct muscular movement. Directly applicable strength and power translates to better form and speed.

These exercises can also be used for troubleshooting and injury prevention. For example, if you lean too far forward, back raises can help strengthen the back muscles to hold the trunk more erect during your running stride. Improving running form can help you avoid repetitive stress injuries caused by poor mechanics and can strengthen your muscles and protecting your joints.

Specialized Strength Exercises for Runners

Try these two exercises which can give you more power and speed in your running stride.

1. Knee Drive--This exercise duplicates the action of driving the thigh forward, which is important for increasing speed and stride length. Using rubber tubing, attach one end to a stationary object about knee high behind you and the other end to your ankle. Stand far enough away so there is tension in the tubing when the leg is behind your body. Hold on to a partner or something stable for balance. Your thigh should be free to move through a full range of motion. Stand erect with the exercising leg behind the body as far as possible to duplicate the thigh position immediately after pushoff. When ready, drive the thigh forward with your knee bent and shin basically parallel to the ground, until it passes the vertical position. To duplicate more closely what occurs in running during the knee-drive phase, keep your trunk erect, fully straighten the support leg, and rise up on the ball of your foot as you drive the knee forward. Once you're comfortable with the exercise, perform it at a moderate rate of speed to develop greater strength. Warning--don't press the thigh upward to a parallel position with the ground. In the running stride, once the leg passes the position slightly in front of the body, the thigh continues on momentum to reach its uppermost thigh position.

2. Pawback--This exercise duplicates the thigh pawback action--the down-and-back pulling action of the leg to make contact with ground. Using rubber tubing, attach one end to a high stationary object in front of your body and the other end around your ankle. Stand so that when the leg is raised, with the thigh slightly below parallel, the tubing is vertical. When you are ready, straighten the leg and pull down and back fairly vigorously. Initial ground contact should be with the whole foot or the ball of the foot. Inhale and hold your breath as you pull down and back, and exhale and relax as you bring the leg back up in preparation for the next repetition. Balance your body in an erect stable position during execution. Hold on to a partner or something stable for balance.

(Michael Yessis, Ph.D. is a specialist in biomechanics and kinesiology. He works with runners doing biomechanical analyses of running form and prescribes specialized exercises for the individual. Visit his Web site for more information at or check out his book, Explosive Running: Using the Science of Kinesiology to Improve your Performance, 2000, Contemporary Books, Chicago, IL, $17.95, 173 pp.; available to members at a discount. Call 1-800-776-2732 or visit to order)

RELATED ARTICLE: Sometimes even the best fitting running shoe can still give you trouble, especially if you are blessed with hard to fit feet. Special lacing tricks can help you avoid some of the pitfalls that can develop if you have problem feet. If you have a high arch, for example, you may feel extra pressure across the top of the foot. These lacing techniques from the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine can help with a variety of problems. Check this list and give them a try before you toss out a pair of otherwise well-fitting shoes. If you have chronically troublesome feet, see a podiatrist or sports medicine orthopedist. For more information visit
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Author:Yessis, Michael
Publication:Running & FitNews
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
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