Runners are often being encouraged to lift weights several times a week. But what if there was another, equipment-free way to build the specific strength required for running? Actually, there is: hills.
Renowned running coach Brad Hudson advises his runners to not lift weights and instead incorporate some hill sprints into their weekly schedule.
‘These brief, maximal-intensity efforts against gravity offer two key benefits,’ he told Runner’s World. ‘First, they strengthen all of the running muscles, making you much less injury-prone. They also increase the power and efficiency of your stride, enabling you to cover more ground with each stride with less energy in races.’
Hudson recommends hill sprints of no longer than 12 seconds in duration, to be run at a maximum effort with generous 2-3-minute recovery times between reps, and advises runners to tack these on to the end of their easy runs.
Shane Benzie, a world expert in the body’s fascial system and a man who works closely with some of the best runners in East Africa, also believes hills are a better form of strength training than weights for runners.
‘With strength and conditioning, I think we have to be careful that we’re not building strength that isn’t actually going to help with running,’ he says.
Instead, Benzie suggests that runners think about ‘conditioning their body for the specific movement of running’. To do that, strength and conditioning work has to relevant and similar to the task at hand. And what could be closer to running than, well, running up a hill?
‘Most East African runners don’t have access to any gyms or weights,’ says Benzie. ‘Their strength and conditioning is done out on the trails. They’re creating what I call Darwinian fitness: the fitness to perform that specific task.’
One of the East African runners that Benzie has worked closely with, Rhonex Kipruto, is a case in point. ‘Kipruto recently broke the 10K road world record, and the 5K road world record in the same race, but his arms and legs are tiny,’ he says. ‘If running was a muscle game, the East Africans would come last.’
That’s because making a muscle bigger is different to preparing a muscle for running. If someone training for the UTMB did 12-16 weeks of training in a gym building strong legs, says Benzie, they wouldn’t last very long on the hills because their body isn’t strong to take those forces; it’s just strong at doing whatever they did in the gym.
Movement is key
One of the main reasons touted for traditional strength and conditioning is its ability to make runners less susceptible to injury. Benzie, however, prioritises something else: learning to move well.
‘If you don’t move well, that impact of running could injure you. But if you do move well and dissipate that impact effectively, that’s actually going to strengthen your body: bone remodelling, muscle re-architecting, fascial rejuvenation all react to the pressure you put on them.’
One of the main reasons Benzie is a critic of traditional strength and conditioning is that he believes it affects how we view ourselves as runners.
‘So much of our movement is based on our perception of it,’ he says. ‘We grow up thinking that the skeleton is our main structure and we have lots of muscles that power that structure. If you go to the gym and start building muscle, you are bolstering our perception of being a muscle-propelled animal. But I think that’s wrong. We are dynamic, elastic and connected – the way the best East African runners move is testament to this.’
And they’re not getting their strength from lifting weights in the gym. They’re out there on the hills. Perhaps you should be, too.
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