Strength training for distance runners

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

I recently reposted something I wrote on strength training for distance runners some time ago while noting that my views have evolved quite a bit since that time. This is how life works in the world of running. Science finds new things, we try new things, our body of knowledge and experience continues to grow daily and our views evolve. I wanted to repost that because I wanted to retain my evolution of views, not hide from it. I believe that evolution of views is very important. Not only does it show that we never stop learning but it also sheds light on a possible path forward.

In this post, though, I’d like to start from scratch. I’d like to go back to the beginning, forget about that article for the time being, and review my current position on strength training. Needless to say, my position will likely continue to evolve. If it does significantly enough, I’ll post another follow-up in the future.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a distance runner who, to some extent, is focused on performance. Whether you’re looking to qualify for the Olympic Trials, shooting for your Boston Qualifier, trying to improve upon a 90 minute 10K PR or anywhere else on the spectrum of performance, you are looking for ways to get faster. Or possibly, like me, your fastest times are behind you and you’re looking to maintain your performance level as much as possible. Regardless of the situation, you’re probably performance focused.

The best way to become a faster distance runner is to run more. So why should we be using time and energy we could be using to run for something else? This is an argument I used to make frequently. Earlier in my running life, I was an indestructible runner. Pretty much no matter what I did, I didn’t get hurt. More recently, form flaws and strength/mobility imbalances probably developed from years sitting at a desk with my hands at a keyboard leave me more vulnerable. I have been fortunate to not suffer injuries but I have had aches and pains that have affected my running. Why does this matter? Well, how many of us have desk jobs as part of our non-running lives? How many of us are the indestructible runner that I was a decade ago? In order, my best guess is that the answer to those two questions are the majority and a small minority. Most of us, if we simply run more, will eventually break down and suffer an injury.

So what do we do to prevent these injuries? We correct form flaws and strength imbalances by strength training, combined with other mobility-type exercises, form drills and all the other tools available to us.

I believe all performance-minded runners should follow a few basic guidelines for strength training:

  • First, do no harm
  • Focus on what you specifically need for your running
  • Don’t use more resistance than you’re ready for
  • Don’t go to the weight room before you’re ready

First, do no harm

This is actually a guideline that generally encompasses all other guidelines. You’re trying to prevent injury and improve your ability to perform here. If an exercise is causing problems, figure out why and correct the problem. Maybe you’re not doing the exercise right. If this is the case, get some instruction and correct the problem. Another common problem is that you’re not yet strong enough to do the exercise. If this is the case, find another exercise or modify the one you’re doing until you are ready to handle the original exercise in its original form. For example, if step-ups to a knee high bench aggravate your knees, try step-ups to a six inch high step. Then build from there as your strength improves. If lunges are your problem, don’t lunge as deeply until you build your strength.

Focus on what you specifically need for your running

There are certain exercises that are good for virtually all runners. Lunges and step-ups for the legs and planks for the core instantly come to mind but there are, of course, others. Other exercises might be necessary for specific individuals to correct strength or mobility imbalances or otherwise fight off individual injury concerns. For example, a runner who has weak hips causing ITB problems might need to do clam shells and/or lateral leg raises to strengthen the hips. On the other hand, will doing a bench press or shoulder press, unless you have some kind of shoulder problem that these will resolve, make you a better runner? These exercises are more likely just wasted time and energy that could go into more running if your focus is running as fast as possible.

Don’t use more resistance than you’re ready for

This is a problem that is widespread in strength training, whether it is a runner or a non-runner doing the training. We think if 10 pounds is good, 15 pounds must be better and 20 pounds better yet. That is not the case. It is better to lift less weight with good form than to lift more weight with bad form. When you go beyond your ability, you develop bad form which could lead to counterproductive work. You could learn bad habits and teach your body movements that will be counterproductive or you could end up not working the muscles and movements you’re targeting in the first place.

Corollary: Don’t do more reps than you’re ready for

Just as with resistance, more reps are not always better. 5 reps done with proper form is better than 10 reps with poor form.

Don’t go to the weight room before you’re ready

Two things happen when one enters the weight room. First, other people are there and it takes an incredibly strong will to pick up the 10 pound dumbbell you know you can handle well when others in there are picking up the 20 pound dumbbells. Second, even without that "peer pressure", you see all those weights and it’s tempting to see how much you can lift.

Even more important, though, related to the "Don’t use more resistance than you’re ready for" guideline. If you can’t handle your own body weight, you’re not ready for added resistance. Most runners can’t handle their own weight well when doing strength training and the last thing they should be doing is adding resistance on top of that.

I would go one step further here. The story may be different for professional runners, for whom every second counts and time and energy available to train exceeds the body’s capability to run. However, for most of us who are not professionals, going to a weight room is probably not necessary. If you can build yourself up to the point where you can handle your body weight well, you can invest in a few dumbbells and a few ankle weights of 5-10 pounds and give yourself a pretty comprehensive strength routine without leaving your living room. A runner’s specific circumstances may dictate otherwise but I believe that, for most non-elite runners, taking the time to travel to a weight room and train there is probably not as productive as doing what you can at home and using the saved time to run more.

In the end, most runners can benefit from strength training. It doesn’t have to be very strenuous or complex, it definitely doesn’t have to be very time consuming or require all kinds of special equipment. Most of us can do a few exercises with our body weight as resistance and will find ourselves fitter and more injury resistant if we do so. Proper strength training can allow us to run more while remaining healthy, which of course is the most important factor in becoming faster runners.

In the future, I’ll share some of the strength exercises I do. All of my strength training is done in my home. No special equipment is required and I can get through my whole routine in about 15-20 minutes if I get down to business and don’t waste time.

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