Why you should compliment running with strength, plus benefits of strength for stage running

A common fear shared by first-time stage runners is the overall distance, and the potential inability to complete it! Fear not, we’ve got you covered. By introducing strength workouts to your training programme, you will not only improve your efficiency and fitness, you’ll be sure to power all the way through the five days of the inaugural Richtersveld Transfrontier Wildrun® and finish strong! So, do you need to be an active gym member and how is strength training actually going to benefit you? 
Physiotherapist at the Sports Injuries Centre UCT, Iain Sykes, spends a large portion of his day managing athletes and runners. He believes that “a strength exercise routine makes a significant difference to running economy. On a multi-stage race, where fatigue is a large component, any assistance in terms of running efficiency will be of benefit and likely make a difference.” But what is strength training and how can you do it?
The Integrated System
So often the word 'strength' conjures up images of heavy weights, sweaty gyms and hard reps, but it has evolved from 
that in more recent years. As experts increase their insight to the body’s economy and muscle usage during running, so have the exercises in a typical ‘strength session’ evolved. What this means is that there are less machine exercises and tummy crunches, and more exercises that replicate the movements of your muscles and joints during running. The idea is to build strength within a specific movement and range, to match what is required on the trail. There’s no point in having bulging quads if your body hasn’t adapted to using them. 
“Obviously, strength training for sport must be as functionally sport-specific as possible. Hence for trail runners, most of the focus is on strength, stability and control of the lower limbs. By focusing on weight-bearing functional exercises including squatting, lunging, etc. and throwing in some plyometric (more explosive jumping-based exercises) you can cover most bases. You want your exercise to largely be in a closed chain (weight bearing) rather than lying on your back and waving your legs around in the air (hopefully not something you are frequently doing while running!),” says Sykes.
Every trail runner needs a stable core
But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook from planking! Trail runners, and all runners for that matter, require a strong, stable core to ensure stability of the legs and upper body while running. Without this core stability, you’re going to look like a salsa dancer out there, your body will pay the price and your newly strengthened legs will be rendered useless. As Sykes goes on to say, “the body is an integrated system and you must incorporate a significant amount of closed chain upper body work into your work out like push-ups, burpees, planks, etc. All of these integrate the abdominal stabilisation structures with the upper and lower limb structures.” In a sense, having a strong core is what will link and support your upper body to lower body and make you an efficient trail runner.  

Run more efficiently
“Running is a very repetitive and linear motion, even trail running. By introducing some form of functional training including exercises such as squats and lunges you are forcing structures to dynamically function through a way more significant range of movement,” says Sykes. In layman's’ terms, a few lunges will actually improve your muscles and joints abilities to propel you faster and more efficiently (i.e. less loss of energy). So expend less energy and run faster and stronger… it’s a no-brainer! 
Prevent injuries
It will also help you to a) discover and b) iron out any injuries or discrepancies in your body. “If when doing lunges your left leg is consistently stiffer and tighter than the right, you know you need to work on stretching and mobilising the structures in the front of the hip. If standing on one leg and doing quarter squats you are way more shaky and your knee is squinting inwards in comparison to the opposite side, you need to work on strengthening your hip stabilisers,” says Sykes. With a few sessions of functional strength training you may discover one side of your body is much weaker, and invest in a rehab programme and prevent the onset of an injury. Bonus! 
Avoid running into a wall
Lastly, by including some strength work into your training plan, you’re going to be optimising muscle function which means you can function “more effectively and efficiently for a longer time period which will likely reduce and delay the onset of fatigue,” says Sykes, which is exactly what you want in a five day stage race. When everyone else hits the Day Three wall, you’ll be screaming ahead and into the Fish River Canyon! 
But do I need a gym contract?
Finally, you don’t need a gym to do most functional exercises (good news!). “For your average recreational athlete, a gym setting or equipment is most definitely not required,” says Sykes. In fact, you can do a lot of the exercises at home. Why not head over to the Spur Trail Series website and get a few ideas of strength exercises you can do at home in this article. Or, as per Sykes’ tip, there are great apps out there, Sworkit being one of the more popular, where you can follow routines or custom make your own.
So there you have it, several reasons why you should include strength work into your RWR training, especially if you want to power over that finish line on Day Five feeling awesome. And remember, “never exercise into pain. If you are consistently sore doing certain exercises or unsure of what you are doing, consult a health professional.” 


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