If you are like most running athletes, you have a single training focus- running! And while it is true that in order to be a better runner, you need to practice running, there’s more to a successful training program than just running. Top elite runners and endurance athletes spend their off season, as well as part of their regular training season, in the gym lifting weights. By building a stronger musculoskeletal system, they are building a more resilient, powerful, and efficient body come race time.
Lifting weights, specifically HEAVY weights, is anabolic in nature- it builds muscle mass. It also strengthen tendons, ligaments, collagen, and increase bone density (hello resiliency!) Seeing as running is a catabolic event (muscle breaks down), this is what makes the body resilient to high stress levels and increases in training volume/intensity.
Applying heavy loads to these soft tissues causes them to break down momentarily; during your rest and recovery time the tissues repair and come back stronger than when you started. Overtime muscles are able to withstand greater forces applied to them (SAID principle) and thus allow you to lift even heavier and train harder. You also significantly reduce your risk of developing an injury often caused by overuse or a “too much to soon” issue. Lets apply this to running: any time you complete a hard workout, such as track intervals, hill repeats, or long runs, you are imposing significant physical stress to your muscles and connective tissue. By having a strong base built by strength training, you will be able to not only complete these workouts but complete them faster and recover more quickly.
Heavy weight lifting also teaches your body to develop more force generation, and thus power and speed. And this is what most runners want, yes? To be faster! Teach your body to exert more force in a shorter amount of time, and you become faster. By lifting heavy weights, and performing some explosive-type or olympic lifts, this is what you will achieve.
It’s important to note that the type of lifting I’m referring to is HEAVY lifts, involving weights found in most gyms. Body-weight rehab routines are a different (although important!) discussion altogether. You want to be lifting weights that are heavy enough for you to complete 4-8 reps per set and no more. If after the 8th rep of a lift you feel like you can keep going, it’s too light! Aim for 3-4 sets of a low number of repetitions. Make sure you allow for at least 2 mins of recovery between sets. This allows enough time for you body to regenerate enough ATP (energy) to complete the next set of reps at a high intensity. The heavier the exertion, the longer the rest needed!
This type of strength training is best done during your base training or off- season time. Typically during this time you training volume is lower. There is also less stress overall to the body allowing for more recovery between sessions. The emphasis, too, is on strength, power, and anaerobic systems. As your running training volume increases during your race season, training will shift focus to developing your aerobic base and endurance. Thus having a strong, resilient musculoskeletal system going into season will set you up for success and reduce your risk of injury- what every athlete wants right?
So what type of lifts, or moves, should you be doing? It’s very easy to get confused, overwhelmed, and just plain scared walking into a gym. Take advantage of any personal trainers available to you if you are unfamiliar or nervous about completing these lifts. Having good form is essential, so if you are not sure you are doing something right- ask! Most trainers are happy to help out if only to keep you safe and not necessarily work with them directly. Outlined below are 6 key lifts that every runner should be doing at least 2-3 x week in the off-season, and gradually tapering down to 2- 1- x week as training volume increases.
Squats: Done in a squat rack with a heavy bar across the back of your shoulders. Feel the back of your neck- find that bony thing that sticks out? That’s your C7 vertebrae. The bar should sit just below it as it rests across your shoulders. Assume a wide stance with your feet, toes pointing forward or slightly outward- whatever feels comfortable and natural. Squat down, bending your hips and knees and keep your back flat and straight. Go as far down as you comfortably can, ideally until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Squeeze your glutes as you push back up to standing.
DeadLifts: Begin by standing with feet shoulder-width apart and holding a bar down in front of you, palms facing backwards. Hinge at your hips, keeping back flat, as you bend down and allow a slight bend in the knees. Stop when the bar reaches mid-shin. Squeeze your glutes on the way back up to start. Keep your back flat throughout and look to feel tension in your hamstrings and glutes.
Hip Thrusts: Begin by sitting down with back up against a bench, barbell across lap and knees bent as shown. Use your glutes to squeeze and lift your hips up toward the ceiling. Pause at the top and slowly lower back down.
Split Squat/Lunge: Begin with barbell on the back of you shoulders as shown. Assume a split stance with one foot in front of the other. Keeping your torso vertical (don’t let yourself tip forward), lower straight down and allow the front leg come into a 90/90 position. Pause, then slowly push back up to start.
Single-Leg DeadLifts: Best done with kettle bells or heavy dumbbells. Hold kettlebell in one hand (opposite of the leg you will be working). Bend forward at the hip, keeping back flat, and allow slight bend in the knee as you lower down. Opposite leg will extend out behind you; make sure the toes stay pointed down to the ground. Your torso will become parallel to the ground. Pause, then slowly return to starting position.
This is just a sample of how to get started with some basic strength moves. As you get comfortable, and stronger, you will want to branch out into some more advanced or challenging exercises. It’s also a good idea to include some simple core strengthening exercise as part of a well-rounded strength program! Feel free to reach out with specific questions or for more exercise recommendations!