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Why strength training is vital for marathon runners

If you plan to run marathons and other long-distance races, then you seriously need to work on your strength

You need to focus on your strength training.
You need to focus on your strength training. (Unsplash/Alexander Redl)

An accepted fact among running enthusiasts is that strength training is essential for long distance runners. As any coach would tell you, a runner’s muscles need to have the strength to endure the workload over the course of a long distance race. Rajat Khurana, the managing director of Asics India and South Asia, has run multiple marathons and understands the importance of strength training. He puts in 3-4 sessions of strength training everyweek in order to prevent injuries and improve his running form and efficiency. 

Vijayraghavan Venugopal, the CEO and co-founder of Aeronutrix Sports Products Pvt. Ltd, which owns the sports nutrition brand Fast&Up, is a fast runner with multiple sub-3-hour marathons to his name. “Strength training is required as part of any training plan for any kind of distance running,” says the 47-year-old, adding that 10km is a unique distance to run, where it’s more a test of speed mixed with some endurance. The new running season kicks off with this distance at the TCS World 10K in Bengaluru, which will see more than 27,000 runners run through the heart of the city on 21 May. The 10K is a middle distance race and it’s a fun distance because runners of all abilities can go out there and enjoy themselves as it gets over quickly, before any serious pains, aches or cramps kick in. 

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Endurance training enhances the function of the cardio-respiratory system and the oxidative capacity and glycogen stores of the muscles. However, in order to run 10km, speed plays a vital role, and for this you need strong fast twitch muscles, says Venugopal. “The only way to develop your fast twitch muscles is by doing strength workouts. The strength workouts help activate the fast twitch muscles whenever you run. That’s why most track athletes are very muscular and strong while long distance runners require the underlying slow twitch muscles to fire and endure over the course of a half or full marathon. Unlike the well-defined fast twitch muscles, the slow twitch muscles don’t add bulk and that’s why the best long distance runners are very lean to the point of being skinny,” he says.

In short, strength is the star (provided it is adequately supplemented by endurance and conditioning) in a 10K race, so strength should be the focal point of your training. A 1999 study supported by the Finnish ministry of education found that well-trained endurance athletes who followed a simultaneous strength and endurance training routine improved their 5km running times. The researchers found that the training didn’t improve their VO2 Max but the gains were due to neuromuscular gains that directly led to improved muscle power.  As per the scientific evidence available, strength training stimulates the central nervous system, which leads the muscles to increase their rate of force development, getting stronger, quicker, and more powerful. This efficient muscle force production translates into better running economy, which leads to improved time over short and middle distances.

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As part of his training, Khurana has tracked 582 10km runs over the last five years. This has been an important aspect of his preparations, because “they are very important in the preparation for a half marathon… they help you pace each kilometre better and keep the body fit by regularly indulging in running,” he says. When he laces up for the TCS World 10K Bengaluru, he is likely to rely on the strength training he has put in over the last few months to carry him over the finish line in the fastest possible time. 

Strength training makes our tendons and joints stiffer and springier, which in turn, make your strides more efficient, explains Mumbai-based running coach Girish Bandra, who is preparing for the Comrades Ultra in South Africa. “Strength training elevates running economy by increasing muscle strength, muscle-joint coordination and activation. Strength promotes capillarisation, a phenomenon that results in an increase in blood flow to the muscles. This specifically improves the flow of energy through your muscles, which helps improve your performance,” says Bindra. 

That apart, strength training also helps correct muscle imbalances and improves neuromuscular coordination — both factors that could lead to drastic improvement in your running form and efficiency. And the cherry on top is the fact that strength training also reduces the chances of injuries that could be caused by running long distances, Khurana adds. 

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and the co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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