A Guide to Starting Running for the Strength Athlete

About the Author: Eric Bowman is a Registered Physiotherapist in Ontario, Canada who works in the areas of orthopedic physical therapy and exercise for people with chronic diseases. He’s also intermittently involved with the University of Waterloo Kinesiology program and the Western University Physical Therapy program. He also competes as a powerlifter in the Canadian Powerlifting Union and has completed the CPU Coaching Workshop & Seminar.

Over the last few years the popularity of hybrid strength coaches and athletes (such as Alex Viada and more recently Brandon Lilly) and the release of programs that combine strength and cardiovascular fitness (such as Do What You Want) has led to more strength athletes than ever lacing up their sneakers and starting to run. With the new year upon us, this is bound to increase as people pursue New Year’s Resolutions for weight loss.

Running is arguably the most popular form of exercise around the world. It’s easy and inexpensive to do, and it provides many cardiovascular, respiratory, and psychological benefits when done properly.

That said, running does have a high injury rate – even higher than that of strength sports. Competitive runners are more likely to have knee osteoarthritis than sedentary people. It may seem that this paragraph is contradictory to the previous one – but the key to safe and sustainable running comes down to being prepared for it and programming it correctly.

How do I know if I’m prepared to run?

My criteria to run is a combination of the criteria given by Tom Goom and Christopher Johnson (the two smartest physiotherapists I know in terms of working with runners) as well as my own professional experience in orthopedics, coaching, and cardiopulmonary rehab.

To be prepared from a cardiovascular perspective you should be able to walk for at least 45 minutes at a brisk pace without feeling short of breath and without it feeling like a max effort exercise.

As I wrote about in my article on heart health, I also advise you get a graded exercise test (or stress test) done if you have high blood pressure, high blood sugar, an abnormal heart beat, chest pain, or any other heart related symptoms or conditions. This test will enable you to determine if you are able to safely exercise in a moderate to high-intensity activity such as running. You can never 100% eliminate safety risks during exercise but you can minimize them through proper testing and programming.

To be prepared for an orthopedic perspective you should

  • not be morbidly obese. This should go without saying but, while there are exceptions, I’ve seen too many obese people hurt themselves from taking up a running program. For them – again based on the results of a stress test – lower impact activities such as riding a stationary bike, pulling a sled, and/or cutting down on rest periods during assistance exercises probably present better options to build cardiovascular fitness and assist in weight loss while sparing the joints.
  • be able to tolerate basic leg exercises such as squats, leg extensions, leg presses, leg curls, and hip hinge movements. Make sure you can walk (and squat) before you run.
  • be able to tolerate single leg hops. Running, in a sense, is a plyometric movement as it involves a series of stretch-shortening cycles. You don’t need to be able to do depth jumps off a 20 inch box with a weight vest on, but you should be able to tolerate very simple, low-level plyometrics prior to running.
  • have good frontal and transverse plane control. In simple terms you should be able to run, jump, change direction, and land without your knees or your trunk excessively swaying or caving inward or outward. This is a more controversial opinion as some great runners have dynamic knee valgus, but given the size of the athletes I’m referring to, and the high total load involved between absorbing the shock from running and absorbing the shock of lifting big weights, I’m a fan of moving in a way that causes the least amount of joint stress possible relative to the goal.
  • no pain pills or injections in your system.
  • be able to fully bear weight on both legs.

The last two may seem pretty common-sense but are violated a lot.

How do I program it correctly?

Without a proper assessment of the individual, I can’t arbitrarily prescribe a universal beginner running program for everyone. Some general themes to go by are:

  • When in doubt, start with less running volume.
  • Progress slowly. The 10% rule of not increasing your running volume by more than 10% per week is a good guideline to go by and has some research supporting it. That said, some athletes may tolerate a faster progression and some may need to progress more slowly.
  • Understand there’s going to be some give and take with your weight training. Beginning a running program while doing a Bulgarian squat program may not be the best idea. If the running volume goes up, the leg training volume needs to go down. It is what it is.
  • Keep training your glutes, hamstrings, and core muscles regularly.
  • Make sure you’re getting enough high quality sleep and food, and make sure that you’re maintaining good psychosocial health.

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What about stretching and running shoes?

Two common beliefs about running injury prevention are: you should stretch before each workout and you should wear running shoes specifically tailored to your foot shape to prevent injury. But the research doesn’t support either.

Dozens of studies (with the odd exception here and there) have shown that stretching before running doesn’t really affect injury risk. And there’s some research that shows having a tighter achilles tendon can make you a better and more efficient runner. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t want anyone stiff as a board, but my rules of thumb for warming up (which I plan to elaborate on in a future article) are:

  • Use active movement strategies to warm up (such as brisk walking to light jogging, air squats, walking lunges, etc.), increasing blood flow through actively moving rather than holding static stretches
  • (If you’re a competitive athlete only) Stick within the range of motion needed for your sport(s), work, and activities of daily living. No more no less.

A series of studies done in the armed forces, interestingly funded by Nike, showed that fitting shoes to people’s foot shapes didn’t affect injury risk. What I recommend is for people to try the shoes before buying them, and try running in them if possible, in order to find a shoe that’s comfortable for them.

I hope this provides some useful advice for effectively starting a running program to maximize benefits and minimize injury risk. Have fun pounding the pavement.

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