How much back strength do you need for running?


I'm going to make a bold statement, most runners/triathletes have weak backs that are actively holding their running back.

This is ridiculous no? Surely you run with your legs and your back can't be doing THAT much work when you run?
You would be surprised.

I know what I am saying here is not completely out of left field, as everyone knows the importance of 'core strength' in sport, but do you really know what that means and how much you need?
For extreme simplicity the core can be thought of a front, back and sides (although there is so much more to it). The front is normally not a big issue, we generally have enough strength in this area so there is very little point in all the crunches! (we'll get to this more in a minute)
The sides or obliques are often fairly weak, this is driven in part by the minimal twisting that occurs in running, cycling and swimming. However, it has always been noted that swimmers work on their obliques more than many other athletes, this is due to the generation of a powerful kick which can place a twisting load on the lumbar (lower back region and therefore a powerful kick requires excellent oblique strength).

But it is the back which everyone almost forgets.
It becomes weak throughout our daily life as we sit down, drive etc. etc. Its strong enough that we don't notice it. We walk around and it supports us and keeps us upright.

But what happens with the back when we run?

It not only stabilises us as we run upright, but it allows the huge gluteal muscles to do their job. Extend at the hip.
If the back is weak and the gluteal muscles contract then nothing much happens, very little extension at the hip, this is REQUIRED for fast running.
It is often said that it is this gluteal extension of the hip that seperates fast runners from not so fast, this is very true. But a fast runner CANNOT extend without a strong back, even with very very strong gluteal muscles.

NB. A study which compared the strength of the gluteal muscles with running performance (in racehorses, whom we surprisingly share a significant amount of running mechanics) found a direct correlation between the two, so stronger glutes = faster running. Its likely if they had extended the study to the lower back it would have shown the same.

So, I hope I have convinced you that the back is important. Its almost always the key problem/cause of poor posture and bending forward at the hip (bad!). Its not that the runner doesn't want to stay upright, its just they can't.
This becomes more apparent the longer you run, so in half-marathon and onwards it becomes a real problem that has a dramatic effect on performance.

What can be done about it?

The answer is pretty simple really, the back needs to be strengthened. But there is more to it than that! The back needs to develop isometric strength, understanding this is critical.
There are 3 main forms of muscle contraction (there are 2 more which we will not concern ourselves with here).

Concentric - where the muscle shortens as it contracts
Isometric - the muscle remains the same length as it contracts
Eccentric - the muscle lengthens as it contracts (used to decelerate limbs)

Whilst there is an interplay between these a muscle can have significant strength in one area over another, so we must train the muscle for what it is required to do.

The core and back are contracted isometrically for swimming and running. Therefore there is little need in working the muscles concentrically if we need isometric strength.

So, the back needs to be worked isometrically, not only this but you need to appreciate that when running (and swimming) the limbs are moving around a rock solid core. Your limbs weigh a lot, far more that you appreciate, this puts significant strain on your core and its ability to hold you firm with these flailing limbs.
Therefore, just doing planks IS NOT ENOUGH!

Test - Can you hold a plank position for 30 seconds? Yes? Can you hold the same position and alternate lifting the left leg/right arm and visa versa? Its much harder isn't it? That demonstrates a small amount of the strength required at the back.

Once you can do this comfortably there is one exercise which rules them all when it comes to bringing the back up to scratch, that's the dead lift.

Either with dumbbells, or a barbell a dead lift with a decent weight (a weight you could lift about 6 times but then require a rest) will do more for you back than anything else.
But you NEED to learn proper form, otherwise you risk injury. I will find a video and post it here of proper form, but that's not enough really. The best thing to do is find an experienced personal trainer, who knows a thing or two about strength and conditioning.
It is critical during a deadlift to keep the back isometrically contracted, with a slight inward arch, keeping the chest up and out.
The back remains isometrically contracted throughout using the glutes and hamstrings to extend the hip to lift the weight.

If you only ever did one weights exercise this is the one (although when you are proficient a clean and press/clean and jerk/muscle jerk, is the ultimate exercise, taking the barbell from the floor to over your head combines a deadlift with a full body workout).

Ok, that's it for today. I will be expanding the weightlifting topic further.

When you come in to see us at Tri-mechanics we can both assess you functional back strength and help simulate what it would be like to increase that strength, this would give you a picture of how important it is to work on this!

Till next time!

A new take on interval training?


Ever wondered why you work really hard but seem to go nowhere?
This could be part of the answer

A recent study showed that when 2 groups underwent VO2max training it was the group who were prescribed slightly shorter intervals at VO2max speed that came out on top.

Group 1 were asked to complete intervals of 60% Tmax, (Tmax being the time they could hold THEIR Vo2max speed till failure) improved far greater than the 70% Tmax group.

Why was this? It's not instantly apparent, but when you delve into the study you find the 60% group actually completed MORE time at VO2max pace than the 70% group, completing 96% of the interval time per session they were prescribed, compared to the 86% in the 70% group.
So, each session the 60% group spent on average an extra minute at this pace.

This explains how the 60% improved more over the 4 weeks. Physiologically this is explained by an improvement in running economy in the 60% group (3.3% compared with 0.8% in the 70% group) and a huge improvement in Ventilatory threshold int he 60% group (6.8% compared to 1.7%).

Why did this happen? Its likely related in part to the increased amount of work the 60% did per session. But I also think the increase in economy is related to the fact that the 60% stopped the interval BEFORE they were to fatigued. This is great for running economy as the one thing running economy hates is when fatigue builds up resulting in a loss of technique and damage to the neuromuscular control (I will be covering this in a whole series on running economy and why you should care about it, ALOT!).

What can you do with this to enhance your training? Firstly these results show that significant improvement can result very quickly with high intensity training, so its worth including in a training plan.
Secondly, if you are going to implement these sessions its worth paying attention to how much work (the interval part) you are completing in each session. In this study the participants were completing about 13 minutes hard work. For VO2max and running that is about right. Aiming for 15 minutes is a good target. If you are only able to complete 10 minutes or less you could be going too hard and possibly too short.
The runners in this study had T-maxs of around 4 minutes, so were completing intervals of 2-2.5 minutes long, with a work rest ratio of 1:2.
This is about right for running (but too short for cycling, in running you ramp to Vo2max faster due to you having to support your body weight and using more muscles).
And aim for around 6 or 7 of these.
If you are failing at 5 you are going a little too hard. But, the best way to find this pace is to test yourself and see how fast you can run for around 4 minutes (it may take a few goes to get the pace right).
The work at this pace for around 2 minute intervals, or 2.5minutes if you have been running/training for a good few years as your capacity to hold VO2max pace will likely have increased.

Keep a check on how much work you are getting done each week at this pace. If its not going up then you may need to change things around, either running faster or running slower for slightly longer.

Hope that was interesting!

Running Technique - Paralysis by Analysis?

This may seem a very strange topic, coming from a running technique coach.
Have I gone stark raving mad on a Monday morning?

No, it is my belief that running technique has a 'middle zone' when it comes to analysis. More common is to do too little, but you can also do too much.

I have never, ever told or suggested to an athlete how their foot should strike the ground.
I just don't think its necessary.

The footstrike is a function of posture, particularly the hips/pelvic position, coupled with cadence and its impact on knee drive.

If you are upright and not leaning forward, or collapsed at the pelvis, your cadence is quick (thanks to a quick arm movement) and you have a snappy knee drive (where you are driving the knee not striding forward) then you are hard pressed to land anywhere but beneath your body.
To land anywhere else would quickly imbalance you and your body would correct.

Telling someone how to strike the ground is always going to end in disaster. If you tell them to land on their forefoot they will reach forward and land in front of the body on their toes. A few weeks later they will have a good going Achilles injury.

I was told in the distant past to heel strike, this caused me to reach forward with my heal and land in front of the body, causing a massive brake.

Where you land is far more important than the details of how you land, in terms of which bit of the foot lands first. How you use the energy from the impact, now that's a different story!

So,stop worrying too much about how you land. Work on your posture (see articles on posture) and you cadence/knee drive and the rest will take care of itself.

Born to Run?

Ever since the release of Chris McDougall's book 'Born To Run' debate has raged over whether humans are born runners and whether we should be running barefoot or in minimalist footwear.

Significant evidence does seem to suggest that running was not only part of our distant history, but it may also have shaped our evolution and development.

Fossil records have supported the development of humans as relatively proficient endurance runners in comparison to other species creating the hypothesis that we used endurance running as a method of catching our food (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004).

Added to this we have the anatomical traits such as the nuchal ligament (positioned perfectly at the back of the neck to stabilise the head whilst running) and an incredibly long Achilles tendon (for the return of elastic energy).

Without these elements we would not be very good runners at all and indicate that running had a prominent place in our distant past.

So with this in mind, why do we find it so hard?

Wander down to your local athletic club for the juniors session and you'll see that we didn't always find it so hard.
Better still, watch a game of tag on the streets and you will get an even better idea.
Children love to run, they don't think about it, they just do it.

They don't care what shoes they are wearing (and will happily run around barefoot), they don't move their arms in a specific way, they just use them to maintain balance. They don't heel strike, or land in front of their body.
They land in the way that is most comfortable and will provide the most speed.

So, why do we find it so hard? We've lost it. We WERE born to run but we beat that out of ourselves with regimented training, supportive shoes, desk jobs with endless hours sitting.

BUT, all is not lost. It can be found again, you just need to find out how YOUR body wants to do it.