You Need to Strengthen Your Upper Body as Well To Optimize Your Running Performance, Here’s How

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Hello Runners,

I hope you and your family are staying healthy.

I remember looking for the first time at a photo that my wife took of me several years ago when I was running the Virginia Beach Marathon. The picture was taken at about mile 23 or 24 of the marathon and it was certainly not a flattering picture. My shoulders were hunched up and my head was cocked to one side. Also in the picture was another runner whose running form and body posture was much better than mine. She looked strong and I looked like I was in pain. We ended up finishing the marathon together, but she definitely had a stronger finish than I.

The marathon can really bring out muscle weaknesses, which result in us having to compensate with other muscles, thus causing us to fatigue faster and result in us having to slow our pace. Obviously this results in not optimizing our running performance.

Although many runners engage in strengthening exercises for the core, hips, and legs, which is certainly beneficial, they ignore upper body strengthening. This was certainly the case for me in the Virginia Beach marathon, and although at the time I set a personal record in the marathon, I often wonder how much I might have improved my performance, if I had been stronger in the upper body.

In the last post, I discussed what to if your event is postponed or cancelled. Since it may be several months before there are running events, now may be a great time to address such things as muscle weaknesses, such as in the upper body.

Why Is Upper Body Strength Important

Now when I’m talking about upper body strengthening, I’m not talking about going to the gym and loading up a barbell with a bunch of weight and pumping out a bunch of repetitions doing a chest press. Our purpose is not to build a bunch of muscle mass. However, we want to have strength over an extended period of time to swing our arms and maintain upper body posture.

Arm swing is tied to our leg swing or running cadence (steps per minute), and running cadence is one of the two factors that affect our running speed. The other factor is stride length. Increasing our cadence, compared with increasing our stride length, can often be a better way to increase our speed, because a longer stride length may increase our risk for injury.

Also, if we are not able to maintain proper upper body posture, this can throw our running form out of whack, and result in us having to compensate with other muscles, especially core and lower body muscles. These muscles will be used more and will fatigue faster, thus resulting in us having to slow our pace.

What Upper Body Exercises Should I Do and How Much

Here are some upper body exercises I recommend and how to perform them:

  • Pushups
    • Perform either a standard or knee-assisted pushup
    • Start in a prone position with arms bent and with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart
    • Push away from the floor with a smooth and controlled movement keeping the entire body from head to feet in one plane, with back straight, until the arms are fully extended
    • Exhale while pushing up
    • Slowly lower the body by bending at the elbows until the chest is parallel and touching, or nearly touching the ground
    • Inhale while you lower your body
    • Start with 5-10 repetitions
  • Y, T, I, and W
    • While lying prone on the floor (on your stomach) with arms overhead angled outward to approximately a 45 degree angle, thumbs pointing up raise the arms while exhaling and pause briefly to form a Y, keeping the rest of the body in contact with the ground as much as possible
    • Lower the arms to the ground and position them so they are straight out to the side with the thumbs still pointing up
    • Slowly raise the arms as high as possible while exhaling and keeping the rest of the body in contact with the ground to form a T
    • Pause briefly at the top while squeezing your shoulder blades together
    • Then lower the arms and position them at the side of your body with thumbs still pointing up
    • Slowly raise the arms up as high as possible while exhaling, keeping the rest of the body in contact with the ground to form an I
    • Pause briefly
    • Then slowly lower the arms while inhaling
    • Now position the arm and hands with palms facing down to form a W
    • Then slowly raise the arms and hands while exhaling and keeping the rest of the body in contact with the ground
    • Pause and then slowly lower while inhaling
    • Repeat each of these positions
    • Start with 5-10 repetitions for each position
    • Here is a video for this exercise, although it does not show thumbs pointing up, nor the W position:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjcoVkZv55E

  • Inchworms
    • Stand with both feet on the ground
    • Place the hands flat on the ground as far as forward as you can with the heels remaining flat on the ground.
    • Move the hands forward until the heels start to come off the ground
    • When the heels begin to come off the ground, walk your feet forward so that they are flat on the ground again
    • Then repeat with the hands moving forward
    • Breathe normally during this exercise
    • Start with 5-10 repetitions or until fatigue
    • Picture of inchworm exercises:
    • Inch-Worm_Exercise
    • Here is a video of this exercise:
    • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z19gpqxQBwo

I recommend incorporating these exercises at least 2-3 times per week and work up to performing 1-3 sets of 10-15 repetitions for each exercise. These are best performed after your run, but could be performed as part of your warmup, or at another time during the day.

Please let me know if you have any questions, or if I can be of help in any way.

Stay healthy and positive.

Your friend and coach,

Brian

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