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Jessica Lacoursiere had been a long-distance runner for a decade before the accumulated impact of thousands of miles caught up to her.

Though the 40-year-old Edmonton-based personal trainer included some cross-training in her exercise routine, the pounds she lifted decreased as her race distances increased. After suffering from what she called a “laundry list of injuries” as well as soft tissue aches and pains, she started seeing an athletic therapist who helped her reincorporate strength training.

“Honestly, I’m a totally different athlete now,” she says. “I’m much more confident in my body’s ability to tolerate load and recover well, and there’s a sense of trust in my body that I was lacking before.”

While logging time on your feet is necessary to prepare your body to make it from the starting line to the finish line, supplementing with strength training can improve endurance and speed, and help reduce the risk of injury.

“Simply running more will not make you a better runner,” says Chris Lewarne, a chief instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp in Toronto.

As the weather gets warmer, more of us will be tempted to lace up and head out for a run. Here’s what you should keep in mind to ensure you can run longer and stronger.

Improve your running performance

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Chris Lewarne, a chief instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp in Toronto.Supplied

Toronto-based runner Mauricio Prada, 36, started lifting weights three or four times a week, and he immediately felt less muscle fatigue and cramping during long runs. He also says he noticed improved race times and faster pace acceleration in speed workouts.

There’s a good reason for that. A 2017 meta-analysis in the journal Sports Medicine found that supplementing distance runners’ workouts with strength training can lead to improvements in running economy (the amount of oxygen your body needs to maintain running speed), race performance and pace. Adding core-specific (chest, back, abs and obliques) strength training into the mix can lead to improvements in posture, balance, and power transfer in the lower body, Pilates instructor Marnie Adler explains. “Engaging your core effectively can transform your running and enhance your performance.”

Strength training can also help maintain a base level of fitness when running isn’t an option because of injury or illness. Lyn Housser, a 39-year-old distance runner from Listowel, Ont., focused on lifting when she had to stop running while recovering from long COVID. “It allowed me to come back to running easier because I had kept it up,” she says.

Injury prevention

“Something that I tell the people I train is, ‘You’re either going to spend time cross-training or you’re going to spend time injured and in physical therapy,’” Martinus Evans, author and founder of the Slow AF Run Club, says in an interview.

Around 50 per cent of runners suffer injuries each year, including runner’s knee, Achilles tendinitis and plantar fasciitis. These overuse injuries are often caused by muscular imbalances, or weak, inactive or tight muscles. Of particular concern for runners is a weak posterior chain, which includes your glutes and hamstrings – muscles that are underused when running.

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Martinus Evans is the author and founder of the Slow AF Run ClubDrew Reynolds/Supplied

While there are conflicting studies on the impact of strength training on injury prevention, this form of cross-training can improve muscular imbalances and bone density, which may decrease the risk of stress fractures, another common overuse injury.

How and when to incorporate strength training

When and how often you lift should be determined based on your running goals. Evans suggests at least one day of strength training per week for the average runner. For marathon runners, he recommends two or three times a week, with one day devoted to heavy lifting and the others focusing on CrossFit-style circuit training that incorporates cardio.

He also recommends a break of 48 hours between a lifting session and your long run to allow for recovery time. If you’re going to lift and run on the same day, keep your run easy or short. If your central fitness goal is completing a race, Evans suggests going for your run first.

An easy routine to get started

If you’re not working with a coach, Evans recommends a site like Darebee, which offers free workout programs, including ones for marathon and half marathon training that require no equipment.

For a basic scalable circuit, Lewarne suggests the following movements for four sets of eight to 12 repetitions, with about 60 seconds rest in between:

Lunges: You can select jumping lunges to activate fast-twitch muscle fibres and improve speed. Or, slow the pace with bodyweight reverse lunges, adding weight when you feel comfortable, to improve the overall strength of the major muscle groups.

Squats: Variations include static squats, jumping squats without weights, or weighted squats with dumbbells, a kettlebell, or a barbell.

Romanian Deadlifts: These can be done with a light load such as a resistance band under your feet stretched over and across your shoulders, a moderate load such as a single kettlebell or a pair of dumbbells, or a larger load such as a barbell heavy enough that you struggle to perform more than eight reps. Focus on pushing your hips back through your lift and keeping your legs relatively straight while allowing for slight natural bend in the knees.

As any of the above exercises become easier, you can add weight. “Your muscles are not going to change in function or form by doing the same thing over and over again under the same load,” Lewarne says.

For dedicated core work, Adler suggests:

Plank progressions: Begin by holding a forearm plank, ensuring your back is flat and your legs and glutes are engaged, for five sets of 30 seconds. Progress to rocking forward and back on the toes for five sets of ten reps. Next, try the same movements with straight arms.

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Pilates instructor Marnie Adler says engaging your core effectively can transform your running and enhance your performance.Supplied

Side planks: Begin on forearms and progress to straight arms, performing three sets of 30 second holds. For an added challenge, try lifting and lowering the bottom hip for three sets of 10 reps on each side.

Alyssa Ages is a journalist and the author of Secrets of Giants: A Journey to Uncover the True Meaning of Strength. She is also a strongman competitor and endurance athlete, as well as a former personal trainer and group fitness instructor.

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