Running strength isn’t quite as definitive as VO2Max or lactate threshold. It’s a bit ambiguous. However, as I
view it, it has two components: physiological and psychological.
The physiological component is related to running economy, but it is also different. I think of both running strength and
running economy as sub-elements of a broader subject that I call running efficiency.
Running economy is a measure of how efficiently you use oxygen while running at a specific pace. Improving running economy
means that you can physiologically sustain a faster pace at a given percentage of VO2max, or a given pace at a lower percentage
of VO2max, for a longer distance.
Running strength is a measure of how efficiently your muscles function at a specific pace, or what percentage of muscular
capacity is used to run a given pace. Increasing muscular strength permits you to sustain a given pace longer with less percentage
of your muscular capacity. In the latest (1999) edition of his book, “The Competitive Runner’s Handbook”,
Glover calls running strength “muscular fitness”. Some runners refer to “core strength”,
which I view as largely synonymous with running strength.
Hill running, fast continuous runs (like tempo runs and long MP runs) and higher mileage are all good ways to improve running
strength physiologically. By hill running, I don’t just mean periodic hill repeat workouts. Even on easy days, if you
have a choice between hilly and flat routes, the hilly one will be the more beneficial choice. It isn’t necessary to
run the hills hard on an easy day. But, just having to lift yourself up them will contribute to strength development.
You can even find ways in your everyday life that will benefit running strength. For example, if you have to go to an upper
level of a building and have a choice between stairs and elevator, choose the stairs. Anything that contributes to muscular
strength improvement, without building bulk (i.e., weight) will contribute to running strength.
An excellent non-running way to contribute to the development of running strength is weight training. Some runners believe
that leg weight training isn’t particularly beneficial for a runner. I strongly disagree! It will contribute
significantly to running strength improvement, which makes you a more efficient runner. You say that you don’t have
access to a fitness center for weight training? That’s no excuse. Most forms of weight training can be improvised using
items commonly found around the house. Heck, for leg presses, just put a kid on your shoulders and do 50 squats every evening.
Also, upper body work should not be ignored. Improving upper body fitness might be an obtuse element of improving running
strength, but it is a real one. As one tires in a long race, such as a marathon … even a half marathon … form
can deteriorate, which results in a decrease of running efficiency. A stronger upper body will help in maintaining form in
the late stages of a race. It’s all part of our strength as a runner.
I mentioned a psychological element of running strength. That relates to our ability and willingness to race outside of
our “comfort zone”. Again, that’s a bit nebulous. Just as different people have different thresholds
of pain, so to do different runners have different “comfort zone” boundaries.
Also, comfort zone has different meanings depending on race distance. For instance, I think the discomfort of a marathon
and a 5k are quite different. That of a marathon is one of extreme weariness and muscular “deadness”.
I just want to stop and rest … or stop completely. My legs get sluggish and want to stop functioning.
A lot of the discomfort battle is mental. My mind nags at me constantly over several miles for relief and I have to fight
it. The discomfort is symptomatic of glycogen depletion. OTOH, the discomfort of a 5k is gut-wrenching, lung searing pain.
Through most of the race, I want to ease the pace just a little just so I can breath again and get ready for the final push.
That type of discomfort doesn’t occur for me in a well paced marathon until I am in the final push to the finish line.
As we learn to deal with and overcome discomfort, our “comfort zone” is expanded. That makes us stronger
… and faster … racers.
Some forms of training workouts help us to work on our comfort zones. However, the best way to expand them is by racing.
That’s the only way we sustain a level of discomfort long enough to make it a really good “workout”.
The discomfort of 10k-half marathon distances are some combination of the marathon and 5k extremes.
Probably, the longer the distance, the greater the test of the marathon comfort zone and the better for working on our
“marathon comfort zone”. However, you can run 10-15k races a lot more frequently than half marathons. And I think
that race frequency is more important than race distance for “comfort zone” training. That’s why I always
tried to run about 20 races/year with most of them 10 miles or less.