Runners don’t lift. We should, but we don’t. There are 3 categories of runners when it comes to strength training. Group 1 never lifts and at best cross trains some (typically because they were hurt and could not run). Group 2 does “some strength work a couple times a week”. That normally includes some lunges, crunches, and maybe some planks or something like that. In my experience the vast majority of runners land in the first 2 groups. Group 3 are the unicorns. These are the people that have an intentional plan for strength training 2-3 days per week and using more than just their body weight for what they do. Unicorns are happy, and we need more unicorns out there.
“But, Zach, won’t that mess up my running?” No. In fact, it can make you faster, improve your endurance, and decrease your injury risk. The physiology of how our muscles work is part of the proof. If you need more than my word for why you should lift weights, look at the workout routines of Mo Farah (most successful male track distance runner in history), Galen Rupp (arguably the fastest American middle and long distance runner of this generation), Mathew Centrowitz (2016 1500m gold medalist), and even Eliude Kipchoge (the greatest marathon runner in history). Lifting weights doesn’t have to be something just the “serious” runners do. It has many great benefits for life regardless of how old or young you are.
I’ve said this before, but our bodies are lazy. They like to use the least amount of effort to accomplish a given task. This is very true in running and in muscle recruitment. When you go to pick up a cup of coffee, your brain only uses some of the muscles in your bicep to bring the mug to your face. If it used all the motor units in your bicep you would smack your face with steaming liquid and that would be a bad day. When we run, the same thing happens. Your brain knows which motor units need to kick on for each step. In distance running, those motor units are highly aerobic (we won’t go into the weeds on fiber types right now) which means they are fatigue resistant. Not fatigue proof, resistant. Eventually even those muscles will fatigue and any time you run further/faster than you thought you could, you probably experienced this. If you run the same speed most days, then you will train the same muscle fibers each day. This is a good thing for running, but you aren’t fully training the muscle and that’s where weight training comes in! It allows you a way to train those motor units that are harder to recruit when you are only running. When you start training your bigger motor units (which are typically composed of less aerobic muscle cells) you increase their aerobic capacity. That is HUGE. Because when you get into late stages of races you need those motor units to kick in to help get you to the finish line.
If you can run longer and at the same speed then you will be running faster because you will be avoiding the crash at the end of long races that so many of us have experienced. It also makes you faster in shorter runs like 5Ks because those faster twitch and more powerful motor units are primed and ready to be used. All of these things decrease the incidence of running-related injury. Some of you may now be thinking “yeah, Zach, I may not be hurt from running, but what about the injury from lifting?” Calm down. We will talk about how to avoid that in a second. For now, think about your running when you are tired. How is your form? How is your stability? Are you still running strong and tall at the end of a race or do you look like a melting snowman? When we get tired our form changes. We trend towards what feels better or what our body perceives as easier. Oftentimes, running at that point is what leads to our injuries. We get our knees collapsing in, our ankles get less stable, we over stride and slam down on our heels, etc. Strengthening our bodies with runner specific strength training programs will help you to hold your form longer and make you a more resilient runner.
Now, that question you asked earlier about hurting yourself when lifting. If you have never lifted weights before and hop right in to max effort lifting, yes, you can hurt yourself. You can also hurt yourself if you’ve never run and then race a marathon as fast as you can. Both are about training and letting your body adapt. If you gradually build into it, lifting weights can be very safe. The other part of this is called the specificity principle of training. Train like you will compete. Most running weight training is done with relatively lighter loads and done with 3-5 sets and 10 or more repetitions per set. We train our muscles for endurance because that is what we want them to do when it comes to race day. Lifting injuries come from either poor form, inappropriate loads, or a combination of the 2. There can, and should, be some variation in the lifting but in general it will be with lighter weights and higher volume.
The other component of lifting safety is form or technique. We all benefit from having someone else watching us as we lift to make sure we are doing the movements correctly. In fact, I would advise everyone to have a coach that watches them workout regularly. Not just your best friend who you like to work out with, but a trained strength and conditioning professional with either years of experience, qualifications, or both. Using a coach will also help you to avoid blind spots in your training. Even when it comes to running workouts, most of us have our “favorite” ways to do things, which is great, but it can lead to undertraining certain areas or muscle groups that need to be addressed.
So how do you put all these pieces together and start regular strength training? The first step is to set aside time in your training plan. With running training, we generally want harder and easier days. The most common way to implement weight training is to put it after your tempo run or speed work on that same day. This keeps the “hard day, hard” and lets the easy day be an active recovery for you. Most runners should aim for 2-3 days of strength training each week, with those running 3-4 days strength training 3 days a week and those who are running 5+ days a week strength training 2 times each week. That is not a hard and fast rule, but it is a good starting point for the vast majority of runners.
As far as specific exercises for your strength training sessions, remember the specificity principle of strength and conditioning. Bicep curls are effective, but not the most practical for runners. I will highlight the most common areas I emphasize with my athletes and try to give 2-3 ideas of exercises that address those areas. When you run, only one foot contacts the ground at a time (otherwise you are walking or falling, neither is the goal here), so you will notice a trend towards single leg exercises. Again, specificity.
Balance: Star balance reaches, “running man”, single leg RDLs (could go next as well)
Posterior chain: deadlift, single leg bridges/bridge variations, bird dogs
Anterior chain: Single leg squats, miniband hip marches (full range), lunge variations
Hips/Core stability: fire hydrants in standing, shoulder taps in plank position, pallof press
If you have no idea what those things mean or how to put that into a workout, come see me.
If you are not doing regular strength training, you are not fully training. You are increasing your chances of a running related injury. Social media would have you believe you need to be doing crazy movements in order to strength train correctly. You don’t, but you do need to be doing something. Find someone to help you out and show you the “what” and the “how”. At CSPT, we have several options from running specific training, digital strength programming, and one-on-one sessions to help meet whatever needs you may have.
Unicorns are happy, and we need more unicorns out there.
Dr. Zach Ginnings