Are you strong enough to run without injury? How to test and improve your running strength
So you have entered a running event, your goal is either one of completing the distance, or getting round the course in a specified time. You are following a training plan that means you will carefully increase your distances over a few months, with maybe some periods of training designed to increase your speed. The plan is well structured to improve your cardiovascular endurance by gradually exposing you to increasing challenge of distance or intensity, but have you given any thought to whether your muscles are strong enough to cope with the loads that running is going to demand of them?
If you ask most people they would think they have plenty of muscular strength and power to run because they can jog across the road to avoid traffic if needed, but this is only a short distance of a few strides which most people can cope with. An average runner during a 10km run will take about 12,000 steps (1), and because running necessitates landing and absorbing forces on a single leg at a time each step will expose your legs to a load of 2.5 times your bodyweight(2) this means that a runner who weighs 60 kg will have to absorb a force of 150kg 6000 times per leg over the 10km. These forces mean that the most common injuries that runners will suffer are lower limb overuse injuries (3).
Developing the ability to resist and absorb these forces through strength training has been shown to reduce the occurrence of overuse injuries by over 50% (4), while a lack of strength in the major running group muscles have been shown to be a factor in common running injuries such as
- Patellofemoral joint pain (runner’s knee) (5)
- Iliotibial band syndrome (6)
- Medial tibial stress syndrome (shin splints) (7).
- Plantar fasciitis (8)
So with this in mind, every running training program should include some training that will help develop muscular endurance as well as cardiovascular endurance. This is especially true in people who are just starting to run as beginners are more likely to suffer an injury (9). More experienced runners may find strength work useful to improve their ability to maintain higher speeds for longer while keeping the risk of injury low (10).
So how strong should you be, and what exercises should you be able to do in order to keep your risk of injury low? Well, good question, there is no hard and fast rule, and data is lacking over what would be considered adequate. However, coaching sources (2, 11) seem to agree on some targets that runners should aim for in order to have the muscular endurance to run. On the right is a set of targets that all runners should be aiming to be able to achieve (You can also download the exercises here). Most of the exercises are focused on elements of ‘triple extension’, a combination of lower limb movements that are vital for running, hip extension, knee extension and ankle plantar flexion (2).
If you cannot complete these exercises to the ‘good’ level described then you may benefit from strengthening the areas that are lacking twice a week, with three sets on each until you reach the desired level. If you find these exercises very hard or they cause excessive strain then you may need a more personalised basic exercise plan to build up the weak areas. Please be aware that these are an entrance level set of exercises, there are many variations and progressions that can be used to improve the endurance and speed of runners of all abilities. Runners who are more focused on mountain or fell running will need more focus on quadricep development to assist with long downhill sections (12). The tests above can also be useful in determining areas that could be improved if you are currently suffering from an injury that keeps reoccurring when you attempt to run over a certain distance.
In our clinic we have helped scores of runners either get over chronic injury or improve their performance. We use strength, endurance, and core stability testing, as well as analysis of training schedules and running styles, to help runners of all abilities to achieve their goals pain and injury free. We can provide individualised treatment plans and exercise programs to suit all needs.
Is an injury stopping you from running, or has pain stopped you achieving your running goals? If so why not book a running injury consultation with our expert osteopath Jay Ruddock. If you need some advice or more information on running injuries you can find more articles in our symptom guides, or basic exercises for various conditions in our Resources section.
1 – Hoeger WWK, Bond L, Ransdell L, Shimon JM, Merugu S. (2008). One-mile step count at walking and running speeds. ACSMs Health Fit J; 12(1):14.
2 – Blagrove R (2015). Strength and Conditioning for Endurance Running. Crowood Pres, Wilts.
3 – Gallo, R. A., Plakke, M., & Silvis, M. L. (2012). Common leg injuries of long-distance runners: anatomical and biomechanical approach. Sports health, 4(6).
4 – Lauersen JB, Bertelsen DM, Andersen LB. (2014) The effectiveness of exercise interventions to prevent sports injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials. British Journal of Sports Medicine;48:871-877.
5 – Prins, M. R.; van der Wurff, P. (2009). Females with patellofemoral pain syndrome have weak hip muscles: a systematic review. Australian Journal of Physiotherapy, 55, 9-15.
6 – Fredericson M., Cookingham C. L., Chaudhari A. M., Dowdell B. C., Oestreicher N., Sahrmann S. A. (2000). Hip abductor weakness in distance runners with iliotibial band syndrome. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine 10(3):169–175
7 – Winkelmann, Z. K., Anderson, D., Games, K. E., & Eberman, L. E. (2016). Risk Factors for Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome in Active Individuals: An Evidence-Based Review. Journal of athletic training; 51(12):1049-1052.
8 – Rathleff, M. S., Mølgaard, C. M., Fredberg, U. , Kaalund, S. , Andersen, K. B., Jensen, T. T., Aaskov, S. and Olesen, J. L. (2015), HL strength training and plantar fasciitis. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 25: e292-e300.
9 – Taunton JE, Ryan MB, Clement DB, McKenzie DC, Lloyd‐Smith DR, Zumbo BD. (2002). A retrospective case‐control analysis of 2002 running injuries. Br. J. Sports Med; 36(2): 95–10
10 – Yamamoto LM, Lopez RM, Klau JF, Casa DJ, Kraemer WJ, Maresh CM, (2008). The effects of resistance training on endurance distance running performance among highly trained runners: a systematic review. J Strength Cond Res, Nov;22(6):2036-44.
11 – Hoborough, P. (2016). Running Free of Injuries. Bloombury, London.
12 – House S, Jornet K, Johnston S, (2019). Training for the Uphill Athlete. Patagonia Press.