“Where does the power come from to see the race to its end?“
“From within.” - Chariots of Fire
Running teaches us that all things are possible. As awesome as running is for both our bodies and minds, there are some unfortunate pitfalls that even the best running program won’t prevent.
Nagging injuries, exhaustion, and the terrible realities of getting older, like fat gain and reduced speed can all be prevented with one simple tool: Strength training.
This article will tell you how lifting weights can improve your running (and your life!) with specific tips for making it happen.
#1: Lose Body Fat
A lot of people think running is a great way to lose body fat. But the truth is that although most elite runners are pretty lean, running is not all that useful for losing weight.
For example, a 2006 study of 12,568 runners found that those who maintained or slightly increased weekly mileage over the course of the 9-year study gained body fat and had larger waistlines by the end. Only runners who significantly increased their weekly distance or mile time didn’t gain body fat.
It’s counterintuitive that running won’t keep you slim since it burns calories, but the reason is that the purpose of distance running is to train the body to be as efficient as possible. The body adapts quickly to this type of exercise, with the goal of using the least amount of oxygen and energy to perform the greatest amount of work.
You become a highly efficient machine, but this does not promote fat loss. In addition, over long periods of time (we’re talking years here, not months), runners actually lose muscle mass, which means fewer calories are burned over the course of the day. If you’re nutrition isn’t dialed in, the pounds will creep up on you.
Why Strength Training Works
Lifting is the solution because it builds lean tissue and boosts your metabolic rate. It can also balance hormones that influence energy use and fat burning, such as insulin, cortisol, and growth hormone.
How To Do It: For physique goals like fat loss and muscle building, you need to train both upper and lower body lifts in the same workout because this will work the whole body, producing the greatest “afterburn” so that you burn energy at an accelerated rate in the recovery period.
You will produce a lot of lactic acid for greater release of the fat burning hormone, growth hormone, and improve insulin sensitivity in muscles throughout the body.
What It Looks Like
Use short rest periods (30 seconds between sets), moderate volume (8-12 reps for 3 sets is a good place for runners to start), and multi-joint exercises that use the biggest muscle groups (squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, bench press, chin-ups or pull-downs, and rows).
Be sure to train twice a week, separating your weight workouts from running. Don’t do the activities one right after another because recovery is one of the most influential factors in fat loss.
This means you can lift on days you don’t run, or you can lift at a separate time of day (lift in the morning or at lunch, run in the evening or vice versa).
Save time by training supersets in which you pair two exercises, alternating them:
- Do squats and chest press, resting 30 seconds between each for 3 sets.
- Then, rest 2:30 while you set up your second superset.
- Next, do deadlifts and pull-downs, same rest and set scheme.
- Last, do step-ups and overhead press, same rest and set scheme.
- Your weights should be challenging. For example, if you are shooting for 10 reps, but can do 11 without any struggle, you need to up your weights.
#2: Get Stronger
Strength training builds leg strength, power, and coordination, all of which will make you significantly faster at short (800 to a mile) and long distances (a mile on up).
Research done on both elite and recreational runners shows that weight training with the purpose of increasing maximal lower body strength can improve all aspects of running performance:
- Running economy can increase by 5 to 10 percent
- Time spent at maximal aerobic speed may increase by 20 percent
- Peak speed and time trial performance can both increase by 5 to 8 percent.
Why Strength Training Works
Building strength is so effective for runners because lifting heavy loads causes adaptations that lead to a greater proportion of the fast-twitch powerful muscle fibers that we all covet.
You also get increased coordination and greater neural drive (a more efficient message is being relayed from the brain to contracting muscles).
Runners rarely experience measureable muscle growth (called hypertrophy) or gain lean body weight from lifting, so don’t worry that you’ll end up heavier. There’s a well-documented “interference” phenomenon such that you won’t gain any significant lean mass from lifting as long as you continue with your regular endurance workouts.
Muscle growth is a result of gene signaling, which is “turned off” or at least significantly blunted when you do endurance exercise.
How To Do It
Getting faster requires two components. First, you need to develop a high degree of strength throughout your body. You’ll do this with heavy lifting.
Second, you need to train the body to use that strength in an explosive manner by doing power exercises like plyometric jumps or Olympic lifts (we’ll talk more about this in #3).
What It Looks Like
To build maximal strength, you’re going to use long rest periods (2-3 minutes between sets) and low volume (3-5 reps for 4-6 sets).
The set/rep range you use may be higher (5-7 reps, 4 sets) or lower (1-3 reps, 6 sets), depending on the type of program you’re using. Heavy lifting is very punishing for the central nervous system, so it’s important that you keep volume low.
Use multi-joint lifts like squats, deadlifts, lunges, step-ups, and a few select single-joint exercises such as hamstring curls, back extension, and calf raises.
You may wonder where the upper body and ab exercises are. Multi-joint exercises like squats, step-ups, deadlifts will optimally train your abs for stabilization, and because they require a high degree of coordination, they will improve force transfer throughout the body.
An argument could be made for training the upper body along with the legs, but since training time and recovery are at a premium for most runners, lower body training is really all you need.
Start with 4 exercises per workout, progressing to 6 after a few weeks:
- Alternate squats and back extensions for your first superset, but rest 30 seconds between exercises and 2 minutes between sets.
- The 30 seconds between lifts may seem short but research shows that muscle activity is enhanced with very brief rest when trainees alternate exercises that use opposite muscle groups as you do in these supersets.
- Then do deadlifts and step-ups with the same set-rep scheme. If you have time for a third set of exercises, do lunges and hamstring curls.
- For workout 1, each week, do 3-5 reps, 5 sets. For workout 2, do 5-7 reps, 4 sets.
- Be sure to control the speed or “tempo” with which you perform the exercises. Don’t let the weight fall with gravity. Instead, count a 4-second tempo on the down motion and come up explosively.
#3: Get Faster and Improve Your Final Kick
Once you have a high level of basic strength, you need to train your body to be able to use it explosively. This is extremely important for distance runners because power is the variable that is most compromised by endurance training.
Have you tried jumping on a box lately?
If you’ve been spending your time racking up the miles on the road but neglecting your power training, you’ll find that you can only make it onto a small box, whereas sprinters will be able to jump about ¾ of their height.
Power training will solve this and it will translate into three benefits for your running performance: greater raw speed, a faster submaximal pace that you can sustain, and a faster, longer final kick.
Why Power Training Works
It targets adaptations in the stretch shortening cycle, which is the elastic component of the muscle that makes you springy.
How To Do It
Olympic lifts like the power clean, snatch, and push press are excellent power exercises for runners, but they are very technically challenging. You may have learned to do them if you were (or are) a competitive runner in high school or college, in which case including them in your program is ideal.
For everyone else, you’ll get more out of your precious training time adding a few plyometric sessions to your workout.
What It Looks Like
- If you’re just starting out, try bounding exercises for 20 meters, or do short hill or stadium repeats at a hard effort.
- If you have achieved basic strength and can squat at least your body weight, try box jumps and weighted squat jumps.
- Include unilateral plyometrics for faster results. Compared to double-leg plyometrics, unilateral training produces superior results in tests that measure single-leg vertical jump, which has applications for running.
- If you have a strong lower body and can squat 1.5 times your body weight, try drop jumps in which you jump off a box and then perform a rebound jump as high as possible. Start with 20 jumps and work up to 40 over a few sessions.
Remember, power training should come after you’ve done a few months of heavy strength training because research consistently shows that stronger athletes improve much more with explosive training than weaker athletes.
Also, only do plyos twice a week and do them in a separate session from your run. Recovery is extremely important with plyos because you need to give the central nervous system time to recuperate, which takes longer than the metabolic system.
#4: Build Bone & Improve Your Health
If you’re up on running news, you’ve probably heard that endurance training produces a high level of oxidative stress that can elevate the stress hormone cortisol and cause chronic inflammation.
Less well known is that reproductive health can suffer from intense running, and although running is a weight bearing exercise, it does little to reduce bone loss that occurs with aging.
Strength training has been shown to counter all of these negative effects:
- A moderate to heavy strength training program has been shown to increase antioxidant status and help reduce the long-term debilitating impact of physical stress.
- Lifting leads to the release of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone that counter the negative impact of cortisol for a better endocrine profile that may improve reproductive health.
- Heavy strength training that loads the spine (squats, deadlifts, overhead press) is by far the best exercise you can do to build bone strength. For instance, women who powerlift, doing near maximal squats and deadlifts have bone density that is comparable to that of a man, and far greater than that recorded for women in the past.
Why It Works
Strength training triggers bone rebuilding and improves hormone balance.
In addition, it forces the cells to become more sensitive to insulin because they must have energy to sustain the work your asking them to do. This is important for runners who tend to eat high-carb diets and require optimal energy use.
How To Do It
Stress reduction, bone building, and insulin sensitivity can all be improved with the programs already described above, or you can just do a traditional total body strength program that uses moderate to heavy weights.
What It Looks Like
If your main focus is bone building, try the strength building program described in #2 but substitute overhead press for the back extensions because they load the spine.
If your main focus is stress reduction and insulin health, try the total fat loss workouts mentioned in #1. If the short rest periods make the workout too challenging, lengthen them because you don’t want to be too stressed out if your goal is to lower cortisol! Try 1- or 2-minute rest periods.