Updated: Dec 31, 2020
A couple decades ago the thought of distance runners doing strength training to improve performance was foolish. The fear of gaining muscle mass would cause many runners and coaches to keep strength training a last priority in their training. Eventually this idea shifted to the currently popular approach of high reps and low weight for improving muscular endurance and not gaining any unnecessary muscle for the long distance runners. The truth is, it isn’t that easy for us to get big, especially with the genes of a distance runner. With most runners spending several hours per week running, it’s silly to assume we would gain muscle mass by including 45 minutes of strength training to our weekly routine. So instead of only lifting light weights once a month, let's throw in some heavy lifting and look at some of the benefits of a more consistent strength training and weight training routine.
The goal of strength training for runners should be to improve resistance to injury, improve muscle fiber recruitment, and develop higher rates of force. These all help to improve your efficiency, speed, and your endurance at faster paces. There have been many studies showing that runners who incorporate strength training into their weekly routine are less likely to be sidelined due to injury. Remember, prevention is better than a cure. Not being forced to take those extra days off because of a nagging injury is a huge performance enhancer. In addition, one main reason fatigue sets in during a run is because your brain begins to shut off the availability of muscle fibers, which causes you to slow down. Imagine 20 people (your muscle fibers) all working together to pick up a car (the runner). The further they carry the car, the more people will begin to get tired and stop, leaving the job to fewer and fewer people as time goes on until the car is dropped. Now imagine there being another 10 people standing to the side watching the others lift the car. Wouldn’t lifting the car be so much easier if the other 10 people jumped in and helped? Heavy weight training allows your body to recruit these muscle fibers that are just standing around watching the others lift the car. This goes against the traditional high reps low weight method most runners and coaches still cling to because of their fear of becoming too bulky, but remember, limiting this to only 1-2 times per week is very little compared to all the endurance training you already do. Along with aiding in injury prevention and increasing the amount of muscle fibers available, proper weight training will help increase the amount of force you can generate when you become fatigued. This increase in force will allow you to utilize your elastic energy more freely, which will decrease the amount of time your foot is in contact with the ground, ultimately keeping you at a faster speed. Everyone knows testosterone drugs are performance enhancers, but a lot of people don’t realize you get a boost in the release of testosterone and human growth hormone during and after these heavy lifting sessions. These hormonal responses can’t be reached as well with light weight lifting, but only through heavier lifting. All this seems pretty easy, but to get the most bang for your buck, strength training should be done in a periodized manner, much like your running.
The idea of periodization in running became extremely popular from the famous coach Arthur Lydiard. Having a Base Phase, Tempo Phase, Interval Phase and then Peaking Phase is the most common training cycle to follow among many runners. To get the best results out of your strength training routine, it should follow a similar form of periodization: General strength, strength, and finally specific strength. If you’re new to strength training, starting with building general strength for the first 3-6 weeks is key. This should consist of general body weight exercises with the main focus on proper form for 2-3 days per week. Things like push ups, sit ups, lunges, reverse lunges, air squats and lateral lunges are a couple great exercises, along with taking this time to focus on your weak areas, like your hips! Remember, this doesn’t have to be too structured, and should just focus on the basics because it sets the table for the important adaptations later. Doing this for even just 10 minutes a couple times per week will have huge payoffs later! After building a foundation to work from, the focus will shift to heavier weight lifting and building strength, which will lead to more muscle fibers becoming active. So now it's time to pick up some weights and get ripped (kinda). It’s important to keep this phase simple and stick to lifts like: weighted squats, hang cleans, deadlifts, bent over rows, and reverse fly’s just to name a few!
When I say heavy, I mean moderately heavy, and remember not to lift to failure. Research shows you’re much less likely to gain muscle mass if you don’t lift to failure. Keep this to 3-4 exercises with only 1-2 sets for 6-8 reps. Doing this at about 70% of your 1 rep maximum is ideal for another 4-8 weeks, and limiting this to only once per week with your other strength training day focusing on body weight or injury prevention exercises. Lastly, if you have a goal race approaching, shifting to a specific strength phase will allow you to directly translate that strength training to your race! Doing more movements similar to running such as plyometrics, and explosive movements like box jumps, hops, and jump squats with the main focus on power and keeping the velocity high should be your main goal here. You can use no weight or light weights during this final phase. Doing these plyometric exercises for just 10-20 minutes is ideal as long as you’re giving yourself sufficient recovery. Still focus on 1-2 days per week of general strength and body weight exercises during this phase, but its important not to over do it close to your race. The point in your training when you focus on these weight training exercises is also important. Alan Webb, the men’s American record holder for the mile (3:46) who also ran 27:34 for the 10k finished all his hard tempo and interval sessions with similar strength training routines. Once your body is already pre fatigued and tired from a hard run, following it up with weight training forces your body to recruit additional fast twitch muscle fibers that weren’t active from the run, so they will be readily available next time.
In conclusion, distance runners should incorporate strength training into their weekly routine, but don’t limit it to the old school model of high reps and low weight. Introducing a new stimulus of heavier weight lifting has been shown to increase muscle fiber recruitment, resistance to injury, and ability to generate more force, which will help keep foot ground contact time to a minimum. Starting with your focus on general strength then progressing to strength, and specific strength is a great progression to follow leading up to a goal race. Mo Farah and Galen Rupp (pictured above) have both been reported to focus on moderately heavy squats, which is one reason they were able to finish their last lap of a 10k in under 55 seconds at the 2012 Olympic Games in the 10k, placing them first and second. Remember, it is highly individualized and different people will need to focus on different areas to get the best result for them. Strength training is a secondary activity and shouldn’t take away from your main goal, which is to run faster. Although it may feel harder to run for the first couple weeks due to tired legs, allow your body to adapt to the new stimulus so you can continue to build your anaerobic profile and become a stronger runner. Connect with us at True Potential Running for an individualized strength training plan that will enhance your running.