I read a runner’s blog recently in which he signed off by stating that if you wanted to be a better runner all you had to do was decide to become one. His story was a familiar read, full of words, honesty, inspirational sentences and even brought the odd wry smile to my face.
However, it was also devoid of specific advice. Yes, it was a good read and yes it resonated with something inside but unfortunately (for me) it was the opposite of a John Kynaston piece and therefore, a little disappointing.
We’re here to progress, to move forward, to collectively do better than what’s gone by. Are we not? How else do we do this in the age of social media, if not by collaboration?
In this post, I will discuss leg strength training, how to perform it and how to incorporate it properly into one’s training regime. I will do so in a way which will be both detailed and straightforward.
However, a word of caution, the workout I come to describe here is an advanced level session. If you gloss over the detail, you will fail to achieve the consistency and progression it is designed to give you.
Can we simply decide to become better runners?
Yes and no. The author of the blog I read seemed to make several assumptions and provided little substantiation for his opinion. It appears he has had some success in the short time he has been running and has possibly overlooked his superior genetics.
No-one will improve at anything unless they decide too. However, we do the best with the limits with which we were born e.g. hardly any of us have the capacity to break a world record in distance running; we can’t simply decide to overcome this hurdle.
That said, for me (and perhaps for the gentleman in question) the power of mental strength knows almost no bounds. Where people perceive something as impossible, it often is, for them. That doesn’t mean that with a different mindset, in another era, they can’t overcome their greatest of challenges.
Like I said, I liked the blog, it resonated with me. But this post intends to add a little meat to that bone, if you will.
What factors must we contend with?
Anyone reading this should have a basic understanding of running training. Among the factors that determine our potential are;
1. VO2 max,
2. Running economy,
3. Mental strength, and,
4. Muscle capacity to store energy.
The training described in this post covers a myriad of factors which ultimately boil down to those mentioned above. If you have thus far failed to achieve distances and associated times which are closest to your realistic expectations, you will begin to from now on if you incorporate these tips into your own programme.
I have a higher than average VO2 max, a much-lower than average resting heart rate and better than average overall strength. However, I have poor biomechanics. Therefore, any personal running performance is determined by this factor alone.
I’m certain there will be many others who like me, have certain things going for them when it comes to undertaking ultra-distant challenges but who also have something else with which to contend, that makes the road to be travelled, less than straightforward.
If you want to improve, you would be well placed to address your greatest weakness. I can’t get myself a new body so everything I do in training is geared towards creating a fatigue resistance factor that is greater than (or at least equal to) the other things I have in my favour.
There are a number of ways in which I try to achieve this;
Leg strength training - there are a number of ways this can be gained but as long as you understand how to appropriately sprinkle it into your programme, you’ll be good. In base training, it should cover about 20% of your volume and by the time you are peaking it should take the form of plyometrics. You also need to know that leg strength gains are lost 10-14 days after a specific session. This post details the leg strength session I undertake.
Plyometrics – by the time I need to take my training to the next level, I will replace leg strength training with this, the details of which may follow in another post.
Interval training immediately following leg strength training – after all, we’re training to become faster runners! By running lactate or VO2 max intervals with fatigued legs we give ourselves a supremely high quality workout, one which trains the muscles and the brain to perform when we need them most.
Long runs – I don’t do long slow distances as one might suggest, instead I run long distances as ‘progression runs’. So, for the first two thirds of any (long) distance try to run at a 70% (Karvonen formula) effort, allowing yourself to extend up to 80% on long inclines. Personally, I am happy to walk for periods of time but only where my heart rate looks like it is about to extend beyond 80%. For the last third, you should open up and run within yourself, pushing the pace but not so hard that you blow up. I suppose there is an element of caution that is required with this. In my experience, this type of run trains the mental strength associated with running slow AND then later, that required for running hard when fatigued. One other thing with this, run these sessions on the same surface you intend to race on.
Back to back runs – this is running two days in a row but crucially for the purpose of this post, it specifically refers to running the day after either a strength day or a long run. It will be nigh on impossible to treat this type of run as a recovery workout due to the fatigue you will be feeling from the previous day’s work out. Try not to limit your effort to 70%. Instead, run freely but try to avoid going over 90%.
Recovery – this is just as important as the highest quality training session in your regimen and is something which only you can decide is an appropriate volume of time. I’ve read somewhere that a runner should take 5 days off after running hard for 20miles or so. This assumes we’re all the same. It will depend on your ability and training history. What I would say is this - the leg strength training I suggest next really affects muscle glycogen depletion rates. Recovery should consist of adequate glycogen replacement, rest and a gradual return to training. Personally, where I do the following workout, the next day I run hard then the next day I rest. The day after that I will either undertake a recovery run (70% effort) or if I am feeling well enough, a long progression run.
Leg strength training
A few years ago, I did this training in order to become a better fell runner. I stumbled upon it quite by accident. Sometimes, we like to revert to type. I like weight training. I thought I was being innovative by creating a leg strength training programme.
But do you know what, it worked. My ability to get up and down hills quickly, dramatically improved. My mates started copying my training techniques and soon they were witnessing fantastic results for themselves.
Back then the focus was on going up and coming down fast. In a leg strength session, I would perform 3 or 4 sets of an exercise before moving onto a different exercise. This developed strength, as well as fatigue resistance, in a specific direction.
Clearly the focus is different now (I am no longer fell running); forward propulsion is more important. Now I perform a set of each exercise within a complete circuit, taking no rest between each set. My intended peak workout, is the following circuit which will be completed three times in total;
· Rack pull (8reps),
· Single leg squat (20reps each leg),
· Hip flexor raise (30reps each leg),
· Single leg side raise (20reps each leg),
· Single leg bench step up (20reps each leg),
· Weighted box step-ups (30reps),
· Skipping (80reps).
At the moment, I am completing the circuit twice and am up to 14 reps in the third circuit. The next time I do the workout I will do 15 reps in my last circuit, 16 the next and so on.
Rack pull – 6 to 8 reps
Start the session with this (after warming up) which I recently pulled from some running magazine. It’s a close variation of the deadlift though you don’t go all the way down. Move straight onto the next exercise.
Single leg squat – 12 to 20 reps
Find a box to put your rear non-weight bearing foot onto. Perform the required number of reps for one of your legs then move onto the other. Move straight onto the next exercise.
Hip flexor raise – 20 to 30 reps
I stand on a bosu ball as an extra aid to balance training and use ankle weights to increase resistance. Some books suggest we extend the weighted leg behind us before pulling back to the horizontal. However, I don’t believe there is a specific requirement for us to extend the leg back; next time you’re out running slow have a look at how your leg lands and how it is then brought back up. Move straight onto the next exercise.
Single leg side raise – 12 to 20 reps
Glute strength is vital in terms of overall stability. Move straight onto the next exercise.
Single leg bench step up – 12 to 20 reps
In this the important thing is that the rear, non-weight bearing leg, does not take any weight when lowered. The weight bearing must be maintained over the working leg for the duration of the number of reps. Note, I am not holding onto anything here, my arm is extended outwards simply to aid with my balance. Move straight onto the next exercise.
Weighted box step-ups – 20 to 30 reps
I wear a 50lb pack on my back to do this. Sometimes with this, I have a bit of a spring in my step which should be encouraged but in base training it’s not specifically sought after. The important thing here is that you’re able to do it. Move straight onto the next exercise.
Skipping – 60 to 80 reps
This brings a recoil action to the set and addresses the lower legs. It also brings the circuit to an end.
The interval session - this doesn’t need to be structured, there will be time for that closer to the priority race (for which you are training). The pace of the intervals should be either lactate or VO2 max, not both. The duration of intervals and rest periods need not be consistent and there is no minimum number of intervals required but be careful overdoing it. Again, progression will depend on your ability and training history; 4 or 5 intervals over a distance of 5 or 6 miles should be sufficient though.
This session develops aerobic conditioning, leg strength and fatigue resistance; going for an interval running session immediately afterwards simply reinforces the workout.
Through superior fatigue resistance you will bolster your running armoury in a way like no other. Try it in 2018 and see for yourself. Don’t pay too much attention to your times in the short term though, this is all about being strong towards the end of an ultra where otherwise the wheels would be coming off.
Finally, approach this training with caution always thinking of where you want to be in 3 to 4 days from the workout. If you find you are unable to train consistently over a period of 2 to 3 weeks, adjust the session downwards to make consistency your priority. As an example, and if you have never done this sort of thing before, I suggest your very first attempt at this type of workout should be for the minimum number of reps and for only one circuit prior to your run. Even if this seems easy, be careful in ramping it up too quickly.