Can You Squat Your Way to a Better 5K? Sara Hall Says Yes

Strength training can boost your running performance.I’ll admit it: Strength training is my least favorite part of what I do. A lot of people ask me, “How do you motivate yourself to train when you just don’t want to run?” Truth is, I don’t struggle in most aspects of my job—I love lacing up and taking to the open road. But one area that takes discipline (and one I rarely feel like doing) is strength training.

Recently I’ve been logging 120 to 125 miles a week. When I’m not running, I try to expend as little energy as possible—largely so I can spend time with my kids. But I do currently carve out two to three hours a week for strength training because I’m absolutely convinced the benefits outweigh the extra energy expenditure—especially when done correctly.

What are those benefits? Well, to start, getting in the weight room has made me a more efficient runner. I’m now able to expend less energy while running at the same speed. Muscles also hold glycogen, so the more muscle I have, the more glycogen I’m able to store and the longer I can run before hitting the wall. Having a strong midsection helps keep your body from collapsing like an accordion. I’ve noticed that when I spend time strengthening my core and gluteal muscles, I actually feel like I can engage them as I run, taking some of the load off my lower legs. And lastly, I’ve found that strength training is hugely important for injury prevention.

Sold? Follow the rules below to start strengthening your stride.

1. Lift For Your Goal
When lifting, make an effort to prioritize exercises that have a direct impact on your performance. When I’m in the weight room, I’m not doing bicep curls or hopping into a fitness class just to get a good burn. Everything I do has a specific intent. I’m focused on making my running form more powerful and efficient. I’m thinking about the drive I need to sprint uphill and the strength my quads require to weather all the downhills of my goal race, the Boston Marathon.  

Since I know I’ll be dealing with many eccentric muscle contractions, which involve the controlled lengthening of muscle under tension, I give a big eccentric load to my squatting. I’ve been using an exercise device that helps give my workouts a quad-heavy focus. I also tweak other strength exercises to force more load on my quads while alleviating the pressure on my heels. 

2. Train Your Weaknesses
Back in 2012, I had surgery to repair a tendon in my knee that was sliced through by a rock. I was in a brace for three weeks and, during that time, my leg atrophied. It took years to get my left quad as strong as my right. I now work with a chiropractor/massage therapist to address my trouble spots and work on becoming more symmetrical. It takes a conscious effort to decrease that imbalance little by little in the weight room. When it came to lifting, I did extra exercises on my left leg. Generally, I continue to work on the weakness of my quads with eccentric movements: back squats, back squats with heels elevated, and single-leg squats. I also integrate hex-bar deadlifts, front squats, and the occasional spin class.

Where do you have room for improvement? Tailor your weight training to strengthen those weaknesses.

3. Go in a New Direction
You’d think that since running is a forward-moving sport, you should only do things in that plane, but the opposite is true. Movement patterns fall into three groups: sagittal (forward or backward), frontal (side-to-side), and transverse (rotational). To build a balanced body and help prevent injury, you need to perform a variety of different exercises.

I do lateral shuffles and band walks to develop my quads and glutes, which helps make my stride more stable, and use a rotating platform to work deep intrinsic muscle fibers that also help with stability. Why is this important? Well, the more stable our stride, the more efficiently we move and the less we’re prone to injury.

By strengthening the intrinsic muscle fibers deep in my glutes, I’ve noticed a big difference in the power of my stride and I’m coming off workouts feeling less beat-up than usual. My last running-related injury was the dreaded IT band syndrome, so I have been focusing on the main way to prevent it by strengthening and stabilizing my hips.

Reminding myself of these benefits helps motivate me to peel myself off the couch after a hard 24-mile run and head into the gym to keep making gains. Evolving into a stronger, more efficient, more balanced runner is the goal, but staying injury-free and getting to do what I love is enough to make the time spent well worth it.

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • So helpful! Just had hip surgery. Now I have to work on leg symmetry. Great advice here! Thanks Sara! Good luck in Boston!

  • This article is so empowering and motivating. I have come off a year of a sore left knee and a piriformis issue but did as you say, focused on the weaknesses through building the glutes with exercises that strengthen those areas. I’m now injury free and doing my best to use plyometric drills and core work to give me core stability for injury prevention and running economy. It feels so good to stride out and know you’re not going to bang something up. One thing you realize when you can’t run well is how much you love the sport. Investing in strength conditioning is well worth the effort.
    Blessings for a funtastic Boston!

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