I am often asked about cross-training and weight training as an adjunct to running or as a method to improve running (i.e. get faster). First let me clarify a point. Many of you are not “just” runners. You desire overall strength, health and perhaps even specific body build. And so, you do weight workouts. In which case, I say, more power to you. I want to be clear however, that it most likely doesn’t “make” you a better or faster runner (and in fact could hinder your running progress). In that vein, my following comments are in the context of being a better runner.
For highly-trained athletes who are already capable of generating high power outputs in their chosen discipline, further improvements in strength are a less important factor in enhanced endurance performance. At the highest level of competition, increases in strength and power are not as critical to successful performance as the development of correct technique. For these athletes, the concept of specificity rules! The bottom line is that modern training studies do not support the use of resistance training programs for improving the performances of highly-trained athletes.
If you race shorter distances, there is more efficacy in doing weight training to augment your running. The longer you go, the less critical it is in most cases (see some explanations below).Want vivid visual evidence? Compare an American sprinter with a Kenyan distance star. It is the nature of the events. Remember, you need to do sport-specific training to get better at your sport. Sprinting requires explosive power. Distance running requires greater aerobic emphasis.
So, who would best benefit from weight training of some kind? Older runners, novice runners and frequently injured runners will most likely specifically benefit. It can improve general health, strength, and muscular balance by augmenting running workouts with weight training. Muscular strength also allows for improved power output in your chosen activity (i.e. running). Injury prevention may also be a side benefit for strength training. And remember, as we age, we lose muscle mass.
Weight training should be a balanced effort. Work your body symmetrically. Be especially attentive to certain muscle imbalances. Often, runners will have overly powerful quadriceps and comparatively weaker hamstrings. This leads to hamstring strains or pulls. Weak calf muscles can lead to cramping when running speed workouts or hill workouts. Of course a key element every runner should be concerned with is core muscles. Plenty has been written about this. Your core muscles encompass your torso and those pesky attachment points for your arms and legs. They are important because they establish a stable upper body during running. Strong core muscles reduce excess motion which lose energy (i.e. inefficiency). When you see excess upper body rolling or movement, or someone bending too far at the waist; these are signs of a weak core.
Here are some basic rules for weight and strength training as a runner:
• Be sure you warm up doing the chosen activity. That means use lighter weights to warm up before moving to heavier weights. Stretching (as you well know by now) is not adequate nor required for warming up.
• Very fatigued muscles are more susceptible to injury so, weight training should take place on your easy running days.
• Your legs don’t need weight training unless you have an imbalance.
• You do not have to do “weights” to do this training. Core exercises combined with intervals is a fabulous circuit training workout.
• Active hill workouts are strength workouts (do repeats, not just passive running on a hilly course).
• There is a lot of debate about lighter weights-higher reps versus heavier weights-fewer reps. It is a fallacy that heavy weights necessarily increase bulk.
• It is important to do your reps quickly to mimic the neuromuscular pattern of your chosen activity (running).
• Explosive (very quick and powerful) weight training has been shown to develop running power better than longer drawn out slower reps.
• Both weight training and running are “tightening” exercises. Be sure to work full ranges of motion or you will invite the potential for injury.
• There is efficacy in using weight vests during select workouts to improve strength while running.
• Avoid ankle weights. The position at the far end of the lever (your leg) encourages trauma and potential injury.
I am often asked if runners should lift weights. My usual response is something like, “Look at the best runners in the world; the Kenyans. How many weights do they look like they have lifted?” Yet, their muscles are strong for their chosen sport. This is of course to make the point that GENERALLY weight lifting itself is not necessary to become a good runner. But, as you can see, there are reasons to lift!