Republished April 21, 2016
Training Talk with Philo Saunders: Strength Training for Distance runners
In a first of a series of interviews to be carried out with Dr Philo Saunders, Runner’s Tribe quizzes AIS senior physiologist, leading Canberra based coach and 3:41 1500m man Philo Saunders about strength training for distance runners.
RT: Let’s start with what you mean by strength training? Does it include hills, weights/gym work, plyometrics ?
PS: Training designed to add extra resistance/loading than can be achieved from running alone. The goal of strength training is to allow the muscles to produce more force to run faster, be recruited more effectively allowing better running mechanics. Hills definitely are included as a form of strength training and are common practice for most distance runners, but I am also referring to running specific drills, static strength holds, weights and plyometrics not as commonly performed.
RT: Focusing on gym work how often do your athletes hit the gym, what sort of exercises do they do, and how does this change throughout the years’ varying training cycles?
PS: At least 1 strength session per week (other than hills) and may be in the gym or on grass or track focusing more on drills, holds and plyometrics. In an ideal training week I would like to do 1 session in the gym and 1 non-gym strength training session.
RT: Now to hill work. How vital is it, how often do you do it, what are some examples of hill sessions, and how does it all vary throughout the calendar year?
PS: I think it is pretty important especially for 800/1500m runners as hills give you a lot of leg strength and allow development of anaerobic capacity. I think it really helps in finishing strength at the end of the race. We normally do some form of hill work at least once every 2 weeks and try to keep hills in the program all year round. Examples of hills sessions that we do are 8 x 400-500m hills with jog/float down recovery, 3-5km threshold followed by 6-8 x 300m hills done fast and controlled with jog down recovery, 6 x 3 min hills with 1:30 jog down recovery on a long hill (plenty in Canberra), 10 x 100m hills done fast with long walk/jog down recoveries.
RT: Do these hills vary in their steepness greatly? I.e., are the 300m hills much steeper than the 3min hills?
PS: Yes, generally the shorter the hill the steeper the gradient but depends on the location of session and availability of hill. Generally around 5-8% gradient is a good incline for the 3min hills, a 10% gradient is probably better for 300m hills and maybe 15% or more for the 100m hills.
RT: Do you do anything differently in regards to athletes of differing ages to cater for their specific requirements? For example yourself and Brett Robinson with over 10 years separating you in age?
PS: Definitely, younger athletes need a more graduated progression in all forms of training to allow their body time to adapt and absorb training. However, the strength training program is pretty similar for our entire group as we normally do all exercises together. Obviously not the first few sessions an athlete does but once they can do all the exercises well all athletes should be able to do the same program as I do. Anyone who does strength training for the first time will pull up pretty sore as you are using a lot of muscles that you don’t normally use and under a lot more stress. Once you get into a regular pattern of strength training this soreness goes away except if you step up the quality or quantity of strength training or have had a break from it.
RT: A lot of old-school distance coaches do no plyometric work at all. Can you explain the theory and specifics behind this sort of training?
PS: Plyometrics is the use of explosive strength exercises such as bounding, jumping, and hopping to enhance the muscles ability to generate power by exaggerating the stretch shorten cycle (eccentric muscle contraction immediately followed by concentric contraction). Plyometrics improve the elastic energy return from tendons/muscles during landing and takeoff with the ground, which can improve economy of running. I also feel that plyometrics help develop coordination and activation of key muscles such as hamstrings and gluts allowing better running mechanics. I think one of the most important benefits of doing plyometrics and other strength training is it makes your run with better mechanics. This allows you to run faster more efficiently and makes you more injury resilient.
RT: Does it increases risks of stress fractures with the extra jarring that comes with it?
PS: I don’t believe it increases the risk of stress fractures at all if done well and the right amounts. Starting off with 1-2 sets of a few different plyometric exercises on the grass is recommended and as the body adapts you can increase the sets and number of exercises done. In any given strength session we would probably do 3 sets of 4-5 different plyometric exercises. Most of our plyometrics is done on the grass but we also use synthetic track and dirt as my entire group are proficient at all exercises.
RT: Any upper body work?
PS: Not much but I like keeping a bit of basic strength in the upper body and we regularly do chin-ups, push-ups and bench pull ups.
RT: Main core exercises you live by?
PS: We start all of our non gym work outs with 5 minutes worth of bridging holds on side and front, we then do 10 minutes worth of static strength holds that focus on hamstrings, gluts, hip flexors and all require strong core. Lunges and 4-5 running specific drills are also performed 2-3 times through before we get into our plyometric exercises. We always finish with 6 maximal sprints over 50-100m to put all the strength work done into fast running. In the gym the main exercises are squats, reverse lunges, hamstring pull backs, knee lifts and box jumps.
RT: Do you do biomechanical analysis on each athlete or are the exercises more just general group ones?
PS: Biomechanical analysis is just by eye and exercises are general group exercises that are important in developing good running mechanics. I always look to see if runners are doing exercises well and not just going through the motions.
RT: I remember a talk I went to once where Mona said that he rarely stretches. Are your athletes expected to stretch regularly?
PS: I don’t place any emphasis in static stretching in my program as don’t think you gain much at all from them. We do go through a lot of dynamic range of motion stretching in our strength training which I believe is far more beneficial. I think stretching has a place if there is excessive tightness in muscles which stretching can help alleviate.