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!