Running strength training and exercises were regarded as an oxymoron as recently as 50 years ago. The relationship between running success and overall physical strength was poorly understood; it was believed that intense running workouts, conducted using varying speeds and surfaces, was the key to better performance. A prominent example of this approach is the career of Roger Bannister, the English runner who was the first athlete to break the 4-minute mile barrier; Bannister perfected interval and tempo run training, and he never participated in resistance or free weight training of any kind.
Modern sports science has confirmed the significant benefits of strength training in running, across all running disciplines. Sprinters require the development of maximum explosive power to drive themselves from the starting blocks, and the strength to maintain their speed through to the finish. They will look to resistance training that facilitates the development of overall muscular strength. The arms and the shoulders of a sprinter are essential to maintaining the counterbalance to the thrust of the legs on each stride as the athlete powers through to the finish. A hurdler has similar strength requirements to those of a sprinter in relation to an effective start, with the additional need for a powerful, yet fluid knee
Middle distance runners, whose events may range in length from the 800 m to the 5,000 m distances, require strength balanced with aerobic endurance. For these athletes, the relationship between strength and weight is an important factor. Middle distances runners will employ training exercises that strike a balance between the fast-twitch muscle fiber speed capabilities and the slow-witch endurance component of these events.
The strength training undertaken by a marathoner is the converse to the approach of the sprinter; muscular power is subordinate to stride efficiency, oxygen uptake (VO2max), and cardiovascular power, but muscle strength in the core muscles of the body will enhance the marathoner's form and the ability to have an effective countering mechanism to the operation of the legs. In every physical endeavor, the human body operates best when it is in balance. Strength training will achieve balance for the marathoner.
Strength training must also be assessed in terms of how the runner will be approaching the competitive season. All sports training, to be effective, should be "periodised." The athletic season, typically assessed with reference to the entire calendar year, is subdivided into the competitive season, the preseason, and the postseason, or off-season. Each of these periods may be further defined to take into account any factor that might impact on the quality or extent of training or competition. A period of travel, or academic or employment obligations are such factors. Within each period, the athlete sets training or competitive objectives. As a general proposition, strength training for running will be more important in the off-season and preseason than during the competitive season, but importance will be balanced against all other physical requirements.
The strength exercises useful to the sprinters and the hurdlers will be emphasized during the buildup and preseason; given the importance of strength to success, most athletes in these disciplines will continue with a modified degree of strength training throughout the year. These athletes will generally embark on strenuous free weight and resistance machine programs that engage the upper and lower body. Traditional routines such as bench press, curls, squats, leg press, and various extension exercises are useful. Sprint athletes also use resistance training in the form of stationary starts pulling a weighted object or employing the drag of a small parachute. These exercises have the additional advantage of simulating an aspect of competition while providing strength development.
All sprint athletes benefit from plyometrics exercises to assist with the development of explosive power in the start blocks. Hurdlers obtain a specific benefit from bounding plyometrics training to provide greater knee lift in clearing the hurdle and landing efficiently.
World-class 800 m and 1500 m races are run at lap times that average between 50 seconds and 60 seconds. The strength to generate a powerful kick over the final 200 m to 300 m is essential to success. These runners cannot be as bulky as a sprinter and expect to move a larger mass efficiently around the track. Middle distance runners seek to balance speed with efficiency through intense interval training, to replicate the kick distance, with high repetition/low weight resistance training; the middle distance runner requires excellent core strength (torso, gluteal, and abdominal muscles) to provide musculoskeletal balance.
Distance runners also benefit from whole body weight training at reduced work volumes. The stronger that the body may be constructed as an integrated unit, the less likely the chance that a muscle injury due to muscle imbalance will occur.
For all runners, strength training must be accompanied by flexibility and stretching exercises. Running, due to its precise and repetitive nature, creates a naturally inflexible muscle environment. Ideally, the runner should stretch before and after all runs; the same routines should be completed before and after all strength training.