Why Runners Need Strength Too

A friend recently sent me this Men’s Health article referencing a study done about running and weight training.  I’ve heard it said that what goes on in the top training facilities is usually a few years ahead of the research.  Well surprise, surprise, according to this article, I must be a genius (Or capable of figuring out who is smarter than me and listening to what they have to say).  As I have heard coach Vern Gambetta say when it comes to longer distance running events/triathalons etc., it’s still a race.  The person who is the fastest wins.  Duh.  That means speed is a good thing.  Improving your capacity to run 20, 25, or even 50 miles is impressive but the carryover to a race of only 3.1, 6.2 or 13 miles, I believe is limited.  Being “strong” is important in running too.  I put strong in quotes because as I will discuss later, that is different for each person.  Certainly strength will help to move/push your body forward faster as well as absorb the force and impact that comes with all of those reps when your foot strikes the ground.

Swing it, Deadlift it, Squat it….. Run faster

So let’s assume that someone reads the article and decides to embark on a strength training program to improve their ability to run.  Well, distance running is an endurance event so one might surmise that training with lighter weights and higher reps is the way to go.  After all, the strength endurance is important, right?  Wrong.  Consider what renowned strength coach Charles Staley has said, “to have strength endurance, you must first have strength to endure”.  Now one could debate all day on what strong really is and how much strength is needed in a given sport but let’s keep this simple.  First, learn to move your body under control through a full range of motion.  Then start to progressively add load. If you lift a given weight for X reps and you very well could have done twice as many, it’s too light!  That will not give you the stimulus to get stronger.  It’s fine to take your time and make small increases but it’s important to understand that some progression is necessary.  If you don’t progress in some manner whether it’s with more weight, better technique or by somehow making the exercise more difficult, you aren’t going to get better.

Another important factor to consider is the volume at which you are training your running or biking, etc.  Whether you are logging a lot of miles or just running frequently, recovery is important.  It doesn’t make any sense to crush your legs in the gym and take away from the running part. After all, being a better runner is the goal.  How does one accomplish the strength part then?  Well it is possible to get stronger with a low amount of volume.  Volume refers to the total number of reps in a given set, training session, week, you get the idea.  The example I frequently use is in reference to doing chin-ups.  I know it’s an upper body exercise but bear with me.  If I have female a client/athlete that is able to do 1 or 2 chin ups and I ask her to do let’s say 4 or 5 sets of 1 or 2 reps on Monday and then do some bodyweight rows on Thursday, she will have only done maybe 8 reps of chin ups for the week plus maybe 20 rows.  That can be a decent way to get stronger, more fit and still recover, but it is certainly not a great way to get jacked, massive, swole, or buff.

Strong, athletic, fit and yet not freakish

That brings me to my last point.  I was recently reading a forum post on strengthcoach.com about a coach who had some triathletes that were resistant to lifting weights for fear of gaining muscle and affecting their ability to what they love.  Coach Mike Boyle responded by saying “It’s like not reading because you think that you’ll get to smart”.  Genius.  First off, it’s difficult to put on a lot of muscle.  The people you see in the magazines have put many years of dedication into their bodies not to mention the fact that they are being photographed by a professional, so the chances you might turn into one of those freakish people without any warning is unlikely.  The other point to consider is, how serious are you about your sport, or in this case running?  Do you train more for aesthetics and feeling good or to compete at a high level?  For those select few looking to compete at a higher level sacrifices might have to be made.  You might not always have the body you want but that might mean you can perform at a higher level.  How serious are you?  It’s your choice.  In my humble opinion all athletes and really all humans should be doing some sort of weight training or just moving their body through a full range for that matter.  It might be as simple as catching and throwing, getting in and out of a chair repeatedly or doing some chin ups but the benefits are many.

– Mike Baltren

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