Runners and coaches have long known the importance of tapering speed workouts and volume before a big race. But what about strength training?
The case against too much of a strength-training taper is simple. Exercise physiologists know that the explosive power and neuromuscular recruitment from this type of training falls off rapidly when you quit doing it. “A trained individual very quickly reduces performance at that specific skill,” says Matt Walsh, a physical therapist and strength coach in Portland, Oregon. Among other things, he says, “tendons quickly lose elastic recoil capacity.”
But a study in the December 22, 2020, issue of Sports casts doubt on whether that’s as much of a death sentence for runners’ fitness as we might think—at least for distance runners not needing to explode out of the starting blocks. Instead, the researchers found, distance runners can retain the endurance-running benefits of strength training for at least four weeks, even after cutting off their strength work, cold-turkey.
That was “a bit of a surprise,” says lead author Nicholas Berryman, an applied exercise physiology researcher at the University of Quebec, Montreal. “We were expecting these gains to go back to their initial state [i.e., be eliminated].”
What’s interesting (and potentially important), he says, is that for the entire four weeks, the runners held onto their strength-training-induced gains in running economy (the ability to run faster at any given level of oxygen consumption). In another surprise, most of them even managed to speed up their performances in 3000-meter time trials.
Caveats and Context
The study has major shortcomings, which Berryman is quick to acknowledge. To start with, it had only eight participants, and no control group.
That, he says, is because it was a belated outgrowth of a 2010 paper in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research that compared traditional strength training with plyometrics.
For that study, Berryman’s team recruited 35 experienced runners in their 20s, 30s, and 40s and had them do an 8-week program that included four key elements: interval training at maximum aerobic speed, tempo repeats, a long run, and once-a-week strength training either in the form of plyometrics or more traditional strength training. (There was also a control group that didn’t do the strength training.)
For experienced runners, this sounds pretty standard, and indeed it was for the runners in the study. Other than the strength training, says Berryman’s coauthor, Laurent Bosquet of the University of Poitiers, France, “their training was almost the same [as before].”
When the 8 weeks were over and the strength-training regimens were compared (bottom line, plyometrics fared slightly better) the runners were asked to continue for four more weeks, but to lay off the strength training, to see how their bodies reacted its cessation. That’s when the study hit a glitch, because more than 75 percent bailed out, including the entire control group. “It was a long study,” Berryman says in their defense.
The result was that the strength-training layoff data didn’t make it into the 2010 paper. Instead, it languished in Berryman’s files, too incomplete to use. Over the years, Berryman says, “I basically forgot about [it].”
When COVID-19 hit, and Berryman found himself being asked how changes in strength work (given that gyms were closed) would affect overall training. His initial response was akin to heaven knows. “I said there are almost no papers,” he says.
Then he remembered his long-ago study. “And I said, ‘Jeez, I have some numbers,’” he says.
That said, he is cautious about over-interpreting them, even to the extent of publishing his work as a “case report,” not a full study.
It’s possible, he says, that the reason these runners retained the benefits of their strength work was because they didn’t also lay off their speed work. “Maybe that was enough,” he says.
The key thing, adds Bosquet, is that you won’t crash and lose fitness, even if you taper your strength work well before a crucial race. “You can stop strength training a couple of days or weeks before your peak competition, without adverse effect,” he says.
The next step, Berryman says, is to examine more realistic taper protocols. “Hopefully we are going to get some funding as soon as next fall,” he says.
Meanwhile, it’s up to runners and coaches to figure out how to apply this. What I personally know is that I am not the only coach to grumble about runners trashing their legs with massive strength workouts too close to a race.
I also know that as I was writing this, I had a runner gearing up for a 10K time trial. She did her last major strength workout 11 days beforehand. Seven days before the time trial, she did a strength workout she described as a “little lighter.” Two days after that, she did “light strength,” followed, three days later, with something she called “super-light,” which she compared to an easy physical therapy workout for injury rehab.
Two days after that, she ran the race of her life, blowing 42 seconds off of her 10K PR, reducing it from 37:50 to 37:08.
Perfect taper? Who knows? All I know is that during the final days, she could feel her energy surging. And that whatever she had gained from months of strength work she had most emphatically not lost, despite a fairly deep reduction in strength training.