Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Thoughts on strength training for middle distance runners

Frank Horwill

From the year 1965, coaches veered away from the title "weight training" for runners, they preferred the description "strength training". This was because weight training facilities then were not freely available, also, because there were other methods of gaining strength.


Runners when given muscular endurance and power strength tests, were quickly divided into two groups by the results:

  1. Those capable of running sub 52secs/400 (male) and 56secs/400 (female).
  2. Those incapable of running this speed.

It was found that those in group 1 possessed better all round physical strength, and greater specific strength (legs), and had run good times for 800m/1,500m. Those in group 2 had run moderate 800/1,500m times and possessed reduced all round strength, often they possessed poor leg strength. They tended to run distances from 5km to 10km and farther. The relationship of strength to speed had been firmly established.

Types of strength

There are three types:

  1. Muscular endurance
  2. Power
  3. General endurance

The first involves repeating a sub-maximal exercise many times (press-ups, squat- thrusts, chins). The second involves the ability to move maximum weight for a very short period. The third is the ability of the heart to pump enough blood around the body to supply sufficient oxygen for the required speed. The heart is a muscle.


Since 1965 it has become increasingly apparent that there is no hiding place in the longer distances for the athlete without good 400m speed. A blatant fact when the last lap of a 10km race is run in sub 53secs. Speed is rate of stride x length of stride. Speed is relative. A runner who can cover 400m, in 52secs, should cover 800m in 1min 52secs (56 + 56), in turn, 1,500m in 3mins 45secs (60/400), 3,000m in 8mins (64/400), 5km in 14:10 (68) and 10km in 31:00 (72). If this cannot be done it usually indicates that (3) above, general endurance needs improvement.

What type of strength?

Power is required to sprint, the greater the leg power the greater the stride length. Muscular endurance is required to run longer distances much of this comes from the act of running. More comes if the act of running is made more difficult, e.g. running up hills, running in sand, running with ankle weights, running in water suspended by a buoyant vest. This also improves the heart muscle.

There is little point in a runner being able to lift huge weights overhead: such work is not required in running. Thus, all strength training should be specific to the task of running. One of the advantages of muscular endurance exercises is that the heart is made to work as if running.


a. Multigym
b. Loose weights
c. Isokinetic
d. Using bodyweight
e. Elastic strength

Method (a) is safer than (b), but (b) gives a more realistic measure. (c) ensures the same stress throughout the lift. (d) is convenient and relevant to running. (e) is exaggerated running or parts of the running action. There is a danger with (a) and (b) of becoming obsessed with the "body beautiful syndrome". In middle distance running great muscular bulk is detrimental to oxygen utilisation after 45 seconds. Few gyms possess (e) and with limited leg work relative to running. Runners are recommended to use (d) and (e), because visits to gyms, which are time consuming, are avoided, and can be done on the track or at home.


There comes a point when a muscular endurance exercise peaks. It is then time to perform the same exercise against greater resistance. For example, when 100 ordinary press-ups are recorded, they are made more difficult by raising the feet off the ground. This applies to every exercise where bodyweight is being moved.

Examples of bodyweight exercises:

Front support with back straight
Arm and shoulder
Extension press-ups
Arms fully extended beyond head
Back and shoulders
Side support leg raising
Supported on right hand and leg, leg raise
Trunk and arms
Sit ups
Feet not anchored, knees bent
Single leg squat
Keep one leg parallel to ground
Thighs and balance
Crab walking
Walking in crab state
All round
One leg 25cm
Thigh and lower leg

These exercises should be done every other day during the winter, once a week in summer.