Strength & Conditioning for Runners (Part 1) with David McHenry, DPT

McHenry and Shannon Rowbury. Credit: Oregon Live

In an effort to answer common questions related to strength and conditioning for runners, and perhaps to debunk myths about the topic, Kristina Pattison recently caught up with experts in the field for perspective. In this interview, strength coach and physical therapist David McHenry, DPT shares insight from working with elite athletes and Olympic Runners.

About Dave

David McHenry is a physical therapist, strength coach and elite performance specialist. He graduated from Penn State University in 1999 with his B.S. in Kinesiology while also playing for the perennial powerhouse football team under coach Joe Paterno. He then graduated with his doctorate degree in physical therapy from Slippery Rock University in 2002 and over the past 14 years of practice has earned additional credentials and professional designations from his continued commitment to lifelong learning. 

David has been the strength and conditioning coach and lead therapist for the Nike Oregon Project since 2011 and has assisted in developing numerous Olympic and World Championship medalists and world record holders. His responsibilities for the team span from injury prevention to strength development, helping to keep the athletes healthy during their rigorous training schedules. 

He helps to provide the critical roles of developing athleticism, strength, power, and plyometric capacity while aiding in maximizing running efficiency and efficacy through strategic biomechanical form optimization. He also serves as an elite performance specialist to numerous professional teams, University teams, sports federations and professional athletes throughout the US and Europe and speaks regularly at national and international conferences for physical therapy and sports performance.

McHenry working with Mo Farah and Galen Rupp. Credit: Oregon Live 

Strength and Conditioning Q&A:

As the strength and conditioning coach for some of the best runners in the world, what do you see benefits runners most from participating in a regular conditioning program? For example, can conditioning make a runner faster or more efficient? 

Absolutely! Strength and Conditioning does the following:

1) Improves durability. More durable the tissue and your system, the higher training loads you can tolerate and adapt from, which improves your race potential.

2) Prevents injury. Duh, get injured less and you have more linear progressive adaptation over a training cycle.

3) Speed is basically power. The more force you can put into the ground in an efficient way with high rates of force production, the faster you can carry yourself overground. You can build power with sprints and hill work, but you do a much better job doing that in the weight room….and it’s safer as it creates a different training stimulus which gives more robust adaptations.

What kind of mental preparedness do runners gain from non-running conditioning activities? 

Mental toughness is huge! If a runner goes to the line and they already know they’re the best person on the line, that confidence will take them really far. I actually see the confidence of my runners build as they get stronger in the weight room. They carry themselves differently into a race and have a tougher swagger. Mo and Galen both love boxing….yeah, it is probably the best functional core work you can do, and it makes them feel tough as rusty nails! You feel tough and you’ll run tough.
McHenry and Galen Rupp. Credit: Doug Pensinger

How does developing strength and power differ from performing conditioning and what place do each have in a runners routine? 
Well, there are a lot of components to a good strength program. The actual strength/power component might only be 10-15% of total [strength and conditioning] volume. There’s a lot of core and specific hip work, proprioceptive postural work, dynamic flexibility, etc. The strength/power part needs to be periodized well so that it does not interfere with the running part of training, and we know certain flavors of strength and power work translate better to peak performance as key races are nearing. The general stuff (core, hips, flexibility, etc) pretty much stays in the program all the time.
Can you describe functional training and how that differs from just weight lifting? 
Functional training is a fancy pants term that people use in different ways at different times to describe different things to different people. I don’t like it because it’s too general. I think they key is this….runners are lifting to be better runners and not weight-lifters. Therefore, what a runner is doing in the weight room needs to translate back to running or they’re just wasting time and energy. “Functional” for a runner in the weight room is different than “functional” for a soccer player. Everything done needs to have an intent for your sport and, personally, I like to include a lot of postural/stability/single leg balance elements throughout the lifting programs because I need to translate all the strength and flexibility gains and [neuromuscular] coordination into drills that are only a few standard deviations away from running. You’ve seen my lifting with the gang….I think most people would be able to come in and watch a lifting session with one of my runners and see pretty quickly that a lot of the things have been adapted to running specific postures and know I’m working with a runner without having to ask.
McHenry and Rupp. Credit: Doug Pensinger
How do you explain why runners like Mo Farah and Galen Rupp don’t “bulk up” despite a rigorous strength and conditioning routine? 
The Interference Effect. Funny how this was discovered….crossfitters wanted to make sure they weren’t doing too much cardio work that might interfere with their bulking up from lifting. What the research found is that there is actually a proportionality where if you’re doing enough distance running you interfere with the protein synthesis that promotes hypertrophy. So, you get the strength and power gains from the neural adaptation without getting the physiological adaptation of hypertrophy. That’s some cool [stuff]! So, our guys are running north of 100 miles a week, so the interference effect is pretty strong in them.
Does being a physical therapist influence your perspective on strength & conditioning, and if so, in what ways? 
Hmmmm, not sure….maybe. I’d say as a PT I have a lot more skills to look very deeply in to subtleties during my initial assessment of an athlete which then might give more more insight on how to create the subtle changes that then underline developing a more solid foundation to then build the more macro things (strength and power).
McHenry and Shannon Rowbury. Credit: Oregon Live

Trail runners generally run slower over rough terrain, and in some cases over extremely long periods. In what ways do biomechanics break down over endurance efforts? And what, if any, kinds of exercises are the most likely to benefit a trail runner over the long haul? 

How fast can you drive a racecar with a bent axel? How well will a house with a [bad] foundation sustain the beating from a hurricane? Mechaincs are imperative for efficiency and as the body fatigues, its inherent weaknesses and vulnerabilities will magnify, robbing the runner of more power and efficiency, slowing them down and increasing likelihood of injury. The exercises that really seem to be most efficacious (yeah, I used that word) for improving mechanics are really the boring exercises that isolate hip/core/foot intrinsic strength and then obviously the integrative exercises (hot salsas, runners touch, etc.) that tie those all together in good contraction sequencing and stability strategies. The power lifting stuff makes you fast, but the other boring stuff makes you mechanical stable and sustainable over the duration of a long run.
As the main racing season for runners is the summer, when should runners focus on a conditioning program and should it change during racing season? 
Normally the hard lifting stuff and total lifting volume counter-undulates in opposition to running volume and intensity. We can hit lifting pretty hard and long during low periods of running volume and intensity and then we ramp down lifting volume and periodize the strength and power stuff as running volume and intensity increases (normally as we ramp up for key races). So, for you, I’d say you can get some really quality lifting in during the winter and then during summer race season you need to keep some of that stuff in, but more as a maintenance phase and not a building phase.

McHenry working with Mo Farah, Treniere Moser, Cam Levins, and Shannon Rowbury. Credit: Oregon Live
Assuming a runner is doing two quality speed days during the week, and at least one long run on the weekend, when is the best time to perform conditioning exercises during the week? 
Depends on the runner. We prefer to do lifting after workouts so that the hard days are hard and the easy days are easy. If the track workout is super nasty and long then we might lift the following day to ensure we’re not overcooking the goose and to get a better quality lift. Some athletes just do better lifting the day after the workout, so if that’s the case then that’s what we do.
How much time should an athlete dedicate to running specific conditioning? 
You can get a lot done if you allocate 90 minutes a week, two 45-min sessions of lifting, but then you need to be doing your stretching and foam rolling throughout the week as well.

David McHenry working on plyometric power with Shannon. Credit: Oregon Live
What is the most striking example you have seen of a runner improving through a specific strength and conditioning program? 
There are a lot of examples. The general trend we see when we bring a new runner in to the OP is that as they start adapting to the strength program we see decreased contact times, increased flight times and drop in race times (PR’s). This happens to about every runner we’ve worked with and we measure this stuff with equipment that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and measure these things down to the thousandths of a second. Specific example…..Mo Farah. Mo Farah has always been Mo Farah with the same genetic make-up and potential but it was only after we started introducing lifting in to his program that he because the Mo Farah of today. You can google ‘Mo’ and ‘Lifting’ and ‘Salazar’ and there are quite a few articles where Mo and Salazar attribute the bulk of his success to our lifting program.

Galen Rupp just made the jump from the 10 km to the marathon, winning the Olympic Trials in his debut race. In what ways, if any, did his conditioning program change to accommodate the longer distance? 
More foundational work to ensure he wouldn’t break down over the 26.2 miles, less super heavy stuff since we didn’t need to burn his legs on power stuff since his power is already off the charts and the marathon is more about strength then power.

Rupp working on Turkish get-ups. Credit: Oregon Live. 
The Oregon Project is often under scrutiny for their training practices. In what ways have you seen the strength and conditioning program change results for NOP runners in positive or negative ways? 
When you’re the best in the world you’re an obvious target. We know that, and shrug it off most of the times. We are the most highly drug-tested running program in the world and would like to think that never having a positive test speaks volumes….and we’re talking probably over 100 collective tests per year. I’d like to think the [strength and conditioning] program has been a huge advantage for the OP gang, but we also have one of the best sports psychologists in the world as a full-time coach, and Salazar and Pete Julian are both two of the best coaches in the world. We have great funding from Nike [which] can provide great resources: altitude tents, fancy treadmills, etc. If you surround an athlete that already has incredible potential with all those elements then you can do incredible things.

For more examples of common exercises used by McHenry at Portland Athletic Center of Excellence, click here
Kristina Pattison is an ultra-distance mountain and trail runner from Missoula, Montana. She works as a doctor of physical therapy and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and was incredibly lucky to spend a spring working with the brilliant Dave McHenry for her final clinical internship at the Portland Athletic Center of Excellence.