I have always recognised a place for weight training in sport and still do. As an 83kg front row provincial rugby player in Scotland I came to South Africa in 1981 with a training week that spent at least 3 days in the gym. 20 years and nearly 200 ultras later I am nearly 20kg’s lighter and even the thought of trying to squat the weights I used to bench-press (!) makes me go dizzy!
This change in sport does not change the necessity for a good strength to weight ratio, so although my mass has dropped, theoretically the relationship to strength should be the same. Of course the muscle use in rugby differs from that of distance runners. For instance heavy arms become unnecessary weight to carry in distance running, whereas in rugby they are a necessity for rucking and tackling (are you listening Butch, my ‘Bokkie’!)
The use of weight training to rehabilitate weak or imbalanced muscles, or in post injury work is without doubt useful, but the relationship between the ‘pace’ of weight training (say sets of 10) to the stride rate of running is tentative at best.
In running we ‘propel’ ourselves from one foot to the next in bounds or jumps at a rate of around 80 to 100 strides per minute. This is one reason why Hill training is also a way of improving strength. Pushing a bar or doing calf raises at 10-15 per minute is hardly comparable to the specifics of running.
This is where plyometric exercises come into their own. Plyometrics involve bounding and jumps and are one of the best ways of improving the specific type of strength applicable to runners. It has recently been adopted by the rugby fraternity. Watching 90 and 100kg forwards do standing jumps from floor to 1.5m height is an awe-inspiring site, but improved their speed and power over the short distances.
The benefit of plyometrics was reinforced a few years ago when meeting Carl Lewis in Houston. This world class sprinter used only plyometrics and sprint session for developing specific strength. The combination of bounding, start sessions (against the 6 other gold medallists in Santa Monica club), and a weekly 6 x 200m sprint session provided the strength training. This was all similar stride speeds to his running.
The problem for many experienced road runners (and longer distance runners in particular) is that the ‘elastic’ strength has been ‘slogged’ out of our legs. For such runners to commence straight into full-blown plyometrics is neither advisable nor possible.
So where can the journey for newfound elastic strength begin? An easy ways is to simply include a couple of skipping and jump sessions into your training. Using a rope twice a week do a series of 100 alternate leg skips, followed by 100 single leg and then 100 on the other leg. These simple actions make use of a similar foot action to that of ‘quality’ running. At first you will probably find it difficult to maintain non stop skipping and will probably find a difference between the ability of left and right feet, but soon your co-ordination and agility will improve, which will also improve running style.
Aerobic step work is also useful. Start astride the step and simply do small jumps from the floor to the top of the step and back. Try to keep these fast – as if your feet are touching hot surfaces. Sets of 30 are good. Aim to use your ankle for the driving force not through bending your knees. Two footed jumps from the floor onto the step and onto the other side are also worthwhile and when comfortable with that you can always raise the height slightly. The higher you get the more important a good “forgiving surface’ becomes important. Perhaps a stretching mat. The agile might attempt side jumps across the step, but rather gain confidence first by taking a piece of card board and making a small 150mm triangular length with a 100mm wide base and try double foot jumps from side to side over that.
A final base level exercise is to adopt a stride/lunge position (i.e similar to a long running stride) to use a 100mm high step, put your rear foot on the step, then use your forefoot and ankle to lift your foot off the ground at as fast a rate as you can in sets of about 40-50. This is a very specific strengthener, which puts you in a running position. It can take time to build up to 40 of this, particularly if you have had knee problems before.
With the addition of ‘scooter’ work, which we covered previously in hardcore, you have some great ways of improving specific running strength and elasticity. Interestingly, after a warm up, these can also be used BEFORE a quality session (as long as you don’t overdo it) as it prepares you for the faster work. The advantage of these exercises over hill training is that they tend to be in one location allowing you to focus on the movement and gaining greater height or length (i.e concentrating on the strength aspect) whereas your hill running ability is often be limited by other factors, and after each up you can cause further damage when running back downhill. In UK there is at least one coach who drives his car up the hill to give the athletes a lift back in order to avert such damage!