IC researchers look to change the way runners train

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Distance running is a test of mental and physical endurance. Whether someone is taking a casual jog or competing in a race, endurance is key when pushing the body to travel long distances. While endurance is a fundamental base of running sports, scientific research shows that strength training is a benefit that improves running quality. At Ithaca College, researches are hoping to discover why adding a strength routine has altered the way runners prepare.


At Ithaca College’s School of Health Sciences and Human Performance, Dave Diggin, an assistant professor with the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences, in cooperation with Frank Micale and students Madeleine McElfresh and Mark Rotondi, and Professor Rumit Singh from the Department of Physical Therapy. The team constructed a program that looks to discover why strength training improves a runner’s efficiency when traveling long distances. A former cross-country runner himself, Diggin was intrigued by studies that proved strength training benefited runners. “As I studied research papers on the topic, I began to see clear evidence that strength training improves performance in distance runners, but we don’t know why these performance improvements occur,” he said. “We know their running economy (the concept of using less energy at a given speed) improves, but we don’t know why this happens.”
The idea to investigate the subject all originated from his participation in cross-country during his high school days. “A lot of my cross-country training partners used to say that runners shouldn’t lift weights because it made them bigger and would slow them down,” said Diggin. “That seemed strange to me because strength training was having such a positive impact on my performance at the time.”


From this perplexing idea, Diggin researched the benefits and set his own experiment to take a further in-depth look into the processes that occur with a runners’ bodies. The initial experimentation in why weight lifting has positive effects on runners began with the first round of tests back in September. A team of 15 runners, between the ages of 18 and 50, were put through initial tests before being separated into two groups, a controlled group of runners continuing to train as usual, and a variable group of runners who are put through a training regiment led by students in the exercise science program. For the group that undergoes a strength training regiment, the program is directed toward increased strength of the lower body.


To provide enough time to see what changes occur to the runners, Diggin set the program to 10 weeks and said that runners have already noticed changes within their running routine. “We are looking at the spring-like properties of athletes’ legs as they run, as well as how they activate the muscles in their legs,” he said. “We’re thinking that perhaps strength training might change some of these characteristics and allow runners to use less energy as they run.”


When his research is complete, Diggin has hopes that the finding will be advantageous for student-athletes and coaches at the collegiate level. “We hope to be able to provide coaches with some ideas on possible programming strategies, such as exercises and weights that they could use with their athletes to improve their performance,” he said. “We are hoping that our research will show distance runners and their coaches that strength training is an important part of their physical preparation.”


As with other sports that use strength training as a staple of preparation, Diggin hopes to help convey the idea that strength training can prevent injury during distance running.


While his research is aimed at understanding and potentially improving the ways that strength training effects distance runners, Diggin understands the importance of his research on the high school running scene. He explained that the importance of strength training can benefit a team as a bonding experience and can have the same positive physical effects on high school runners as it does for collegiate, professional, and recreational runners. Diggin also understands that strength training can reach far outside of a high school weight room. “At the high school level, we would always encourage athletes and coaches to have fun with their sport,” he said. “Strength training can be a key part of that enjoyment.” Diggin also notes that strength training for the student-athletes promotes a healthy way to relieve stress and improve one’s self-image, promoting good mental health.


While the data from the first group is collected, the final conclusions of the research will have to wait until next year, as Diggin hopes to conduct another set of tests during the spring.

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