There is a growing body of evidence suggesting the benefits of strength training for endurance athletes, including runners. These benefits are predominantly, improved performance and decreased injuries (which in the medium to long term improves performance). But how, when, and what differences there are between road and trail runners in terms of programming are where most people struggle.
Differences between roads and trails
Fundamentally road and trail running are more similar than they are different. But some important differences exist in training for races as is highlighted in this article: “Training for a Trail running Race”. When it comes to strength training, the differences are somewhat dependent on your level of experience in strength training, as generally, beginners need little more than a very general and basic program to see good benefits and build an appropriate base of ability and strength from which to continue.
In general, trailrunners will need to focus more on a vertical than a horizontal movement pattern in their lower bodywork. This is due to the significantly larger emphasis on hills, in both the ascent and descent. An example would be the emphasis of a horizontal movement like a hip thrust for a road runner whereas a trail runner may put more emphasis on a more vertically biased movement such as the step up. As mentioned, this is a relatively small detail and quite a general view; both planes (and mentioned exercises) have a place and value in a program for either type of runner.
Additionally, trail runners need to have a bit more stability in many areas of the body. Carrying a pack (as is required for many trail running) means raising your center of mass and thus increasing some of the moments on the lower body joints. So an increased stability is required in the hip, knee, and ankle joints. Likewise, if poles are used, increased stability is required across the thoracolumbar pelvic region (between shoulders and hips). This increased requirement for stability is required in a shorter time frame or rather at an increased rate/against greater external forces as descending hills is much more forceful in trail running generally, so this stability needs to be tested more dynamically and paired with the ability to absorb force.
Runners, in general, should focus on muscle groups in the lower limbs surrounding the hip, knee, and ankle which will provide force for running movements. This is true for trail runners also, but as mentioned, trail runners will require more of a vertical component to their exercises. Likewise, they will require more stability in these joints as well as an increased focus of stability across their spine.
Most research suggests strength training for runners should be done at least twice a week. It should be done in a repetition range of six to twelve repetitions and should be done for three sets per exercise. These sessions should take between 30 and 45 minutes. This is a good starting point, but some runners may see increased benefits from deviation from this, particularly in times of lower or higher running loads.
When to do these strength training sessions is something that runners need to use some trial and error with. General advice would be to have these sessions on days where they won’t be impacted by key sessions. That said, some runners find these sessions actually aid recovery and they run better after them, this is not something that is predictable and will be a matter of observation over a period of weeks to months.
Clearly there is great variance in runners and the way they respond to training stimulus but this article provides a solid starting point. It is suggested that runners interested in strength training seek guidance in both program construction and technical performance of exercises. Likewise monitoring a total load of training is crucial in ensuring appropriate adaptation to training and prevention of overtraining associated issues.
Written by: Dr. David Lipman, Podiatrist and Exercise Physiologist