Foam rolling, regular massage, stretching, mobility work, pilates, yoga, core strength, lifting, form drills, plyometrics … the list of extra stuff a runner “should” be doing is endless. How should an athlete allocate his or her limited training time? If you only have 1 hour per day to train, does it make sense to take 10-15 minutes of that hour to do some strength or mobility work, then only have 45 or 50 minutes to actually run? This is the million dollar question.
Many athletes and coaches seem to think that to become a better runner, all you have to do is run more. While this statement is often true; increasing run volume will certainly improve most runners’ performances, it is not always feasible or possible. For some individuals, the ability to run more is hampered by time constraints. If you only have 1 hour to run 6 days per week you can not run 100 mi/wk. Even if the body were willing, the time is not there.
A willing body is another matter for discussion. Much of the extra stuff a runner ought to be doing will help them to prepare the body for training volume. Foam rolling and massage can help the body to recover faster from workouts, enabling it to tolerate more training stress before breaking down. Form drills and mobility work can lead to more “fluid” running; running that causes less mechanical stress on the body. Core strength and Pilates can help you to maintain a proper running posture and form, again reducing the mechanical stress on the body. Strength training and plyometrics have been shown to improve performance significantly by reducing the energy expenditure to maintain a certain pace after training. All of this non-running training can help to improve the tolerance of your tissues to training, raising your threshold for injury. This can enable you to train more or train better, which will lead to improvements.
We all know someone who seems to do everything wrong- no stretching or massage or core strength; but is never injured. And we all know someone who stretches, and foam rolls, and does strength work, and seems to do everything right; but is constantly injured. This speaks to the individuality that is training. No two runners respond identically to the same stimulus. There is a balance between running and “other stuff” that is different for each runner.
If you only have 6 hours per week to train, doing Pilates for 6 hours per week and not running a step will not make you a better runner. But for some, running 6 hours per week and not doing Pilates will lead to injury; being injured is a great way to not become a better runner! Where is the balance point, 5 hours of running and 1 hour of Pilates? Should you then do 1 hour of Pilates on Monday followed by a 1 hour run Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday? Or is it better to do 10 min of Pilates 6 times per week and 6 50 minute runs?
I believe that shorter, more frequent sessions are better. Consistent work will lead to improvements faster than longer, less frequent sessions. I know that I benefit greatly from incorporating small doses of “the little things” regularly. In working with my XC ski team we focus on them at each session. Every practice begins with some strength and mobility and technique. Every endurance session includes some speed/power component- strides or hill sprints or plyometrics. And every session ends with a quick strength/flexibility/mobility session. Simple stuff, nothing revolutionary, just targeted and consistent.
Our practice sessions are generally around 75 minutes this time of year and include 20-30 minutes of work that is not running and 45-50 minutes of running! I get to do much of this work alongside my athletes and I notice a distinct improvement in my own performance when this “extra” work is included. I find that I am faster and feel better during long runs and intervals, and that my body tolerates higher volumes of running than it does when I’m not doing this work.
Should you substitute some of your limited and precious running time to doing some non-running training? That answer varies, but I would say for most athletes- Yes, the time you spend on strength and form and mobility will reward you with stronger performances in the long run EVEN with less total running.
Adam St.Pierre is an Exercise Physiologist, Running Biomechanist, and Coach at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine by day and the Head Coach of the Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team by night. In his free time he trains for trail running ultradistance events.