I switched the gym for EMS training for three months — here's how it changed my running

Could electrical pulses on my muscle fibers really improve my running? I decided to put EMS to the test

Alice Ball during an EMS training session
(Image credit: Future)

As a keen runner with six marathons and a Boston Marathon qualifying time under my belt, I'm always looking for ways to get faster. But to be fast, you need to be strong, so I've been looking for a way to optimize my strength training routine and get back to peak condition.

I first heard about electro-muscular stimulation (EMS) last year when I tried Chrissy Teigen's 20-minute strength workout. After recent battles with injuries over the past year, I was interested to see whether EMS could really be equivalent to four hours of regular strength training.

I was skeptical that electrical pulses placed across your body would make a difference, but I was hooked after trying out my first session at Surge Fitness. So, I replaced my two gym sessions with a single EMS session a week for three months. 

But did it help my run times? Alongside a pair of the best running shoes for women, it's become a staple part of my training routine — but there is a caveat. Here are my main takeaways from three months of EMS training. 

1. I feel stronger and injury-free

Physiotherapists often recommend EMS training for those who are recuperating from injuries. Why? Electrical stimulation is delivered to larger body areas during the workout via a suit, vest, and shorts. 

These electrical impulses bring eight major muscle groups into controlled contractions. The pulses don't hurt but act as resistance — just like a pair of adjustable dumbbells or resistance bands usually would. Essentially, this provides a low-impact workout that's still high-intensity.

I've struggled on and off with iliotibial band (ITB) syndrome for the past year, tending to experience flare-ups when my weekly mileage creeps up. Personally, EMS training has provided an effective way to target and strengthen my glute muscles, which has (so far) kept my ITB niggles away.

2. My run times improved

Here's the important part: I tackled a timed 5K race at my local park after consistently EMS training once a week for three months. My personal best stood at a respectable 21:17, but I managed to race my way home in 20:45 and felt like I had more in the tank.

I also knocked two minutes off my half-marathon time for the longer distances. Of course, several factors can come into play here; recovery, nutrition, and interval training to name just three. But the evidence points toward EMS training playing a role.

According to a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, up to six weeks of regular EMS training can boost an athlete's power and speed. This could be why I managed to get an edge on my previous running records. 

The authors concluded that EMS offers a promising alternative to traditional strength training for enhancing strength parameters and motor abilities, with the clear-cut advantage of being time efficient. 

Alice Ball holding a plank during an EMS training session

(Image credit: Future)

3. My core feels stronger

I admit I could do more to incorporate ab exercises into my strength training routine. As a distance runner, this can be problematic because when the body is fatigued, your form can begin to suffer at the end of a long run.

Strengthening your core muscle has several benefits, like improving your posture, especially over longer distances. But even without dedicating time to specific ab workouts, I've found that my core feels stronger from three months of EMS training.

Researchers are starting to find similar results, like in a 2019 Frontiers in Physiology journal study. The team found that 10 weeks of EMS training improved trunk strength (imagine the body without a head, neck, arms, and legs — that's the trunk!). 

A weak trunk typically contributes to back pain, sciatica, knee concerns, and shoulder or hip issues, so building trunk strength can play a crucial role in keeping the body strong.

4. Regular strength training is still important

Here's the caveat; while EMS can be great for improving muscle function and strength, it's not a miracle worker. Functional strength is something that develops by moving your body and throwing heavy objects around. 

The EMS sessions could help with any mobility issues or poor posture, which are critical for getting the technique of a dumbbell deadlift just right, but you'll still need to lift a dumbbell or kettlebell if you want to build strength and develop your muscles. 

Essentially, EMS is complementary to strength training, but it can't replace it. I'd prioritized running over strength training, so EMS has helped bridge the gap. But it's been worth the time, as the improvements seem to work for me. 

Alice Ball
Health Editor

Alice Ball is the Health Editor for Future Plc. With more than five years of experience working in health journalism, she's covered everything from why we should 'kill' the calorie, to destigmatizing the menopause. Alice also specializes in nutrition and supplements. She's a self-confessed running fanatic, currently in training for her fifth marathon. She enjoys documenting her progress on her Instagram account, @aligoesrunning. Alice works across a number of Future's sites, including LiveScience and Fit&Well.