Running into Strength Training
Why should or should I not add strength training to my running plan?
Runners sometimes say; why should we go to the gym? We are not body builders. Our training happens outside. Well, that is a point, but adding gym (specifically lifting weights) to your program CAN make you a better runner. When you have only time for 3 sessions a week, skip this blog and just run! But when time is not a limiting factor, you can think about doing one gym session, next to your runs.
Why should runners lift weights? Simply said: to get stronger so you can make bigger strides and maintain good running form until the end of the race, to get stronger so you can handle more training without getting injured and because it can help you increase your range of motion (flexibility).
Is doing weights enough for that? No, probably not, but it’s part of the puzzle.
When we lift weights in the proper way, we recruit more muscle fibres than when we run. We call this neuromuscular stimulation: we teach the body (brain, spinal cord) to send signals to other parts of our muscles. Parts that we normally don’t use when we run. We think that stimulating these other muscle parts, will lead to us being able to ALSO recruit these muscles when we run, not only when lifting weights. And of course we do other stuff, like hill running, to teach our body to continue stimulating these muscles.
By putting a high load on our body, we make all structures, including tendons and joints, stronger. From my experience, runners who do regular weight training are able to handle a higher training load, in terms of mileage. They can simply train harder without getting injured, which is a very, very important factor for those who want to reach the top.
Research shows that only stretching probably does not help in making us more flexible, or in giving us a bigger range of motion when we run. However, stretching in combination with a weight, does seem to help. So for instance, if you make a lunge, which means you basically make a large stride/step while you carry a weight, that can help you get a bigger range of motion (and thus give you a bigger stride).
First of all, a warning: lifting weights can be tricky, so when you start with it, caution is important. Make sure you have someone supervising you, start with a low weight (or only the bar), until you feel like you have the right technique. Only then can you start to add some weight.
If I would have to pick one single exercise to give to my runners, I would pick the squat.
It is a great way to improve strength in your gluteus, your hamstrings and your quadriceps. At the same time, it is a great core exercise. Plus it also works on the knees and ankles.
Squats: keep the back in extension, so that you don’t cause a back problem. Keep the head up, look up. Let the bar rest on your shoulder muscles, not in your neck. When putting the hands on the bar, make sure the distance on both sides is equal. Put pressure on the heels, not on the forefoot. Keep the feet shoulder wide apart. Go down slowly and back up slowly. How deep you should go; not extremely deep. I normally advise imagining that you are going to sit on a chair.
First do one set as warm-up with a weight that is easy to handle. That way you prime your body for what is coming.
When you control the technique, use a lose bar (instead of a cage, where the bar is fixed). This will challenge your body to balance itself and in that way it’s a better workout for the muscles and tendons around the knee and ankle. When you’re still struggling with the technique, it’s okay to use a cage, but the goal should be to use a lose bar.
For runners, since we are doing this first and foremost to increase our strength and to recruit a maximum amount of muscle fibers, we go for high weight, less repetitions. I tell my runners to make 8 reps. The last 2-3 reps should be pretty tough, but they should never lose form. When they finish, they should feel like they can do another 2 or 3 reps, but not another 10. We do between 1 to 3 sets of 8 reps (that is without the warm-up set).
Low reps, high weight does NOT mean that we immediately start with a very high weight. As I said, when you start this exercise, focus on technique and take a low weight. But once you got the hang of it, you can start increasing weight. Most of my runners add about 5 kg every 2-4 weeks, until the can handle approx. 150% of their body weight.
Those who are experienced with this, can do single leg squats, which is even better for runners, since you avoid that you get one leg doing 60% of the work. Of course, once you shift from double leg to single leg squats, remember to reduce the weight.
When do we do these squats? Normally once a week, for 60-80% of the year, depending on the athlete. Before a race, we reduce the weight and the reps a bit (we make it lighter), but we normally still do it, although before the most important races, they may stop for some weeks.