The debate around strength training for runners continues to rage on, with some experts calling it essential, and others considering it a waste of time. Why bothering lifting weights when you could just spend more time running? This debate may never be settled, but one thing is for sure: spending 30-60 minutes in a gym twice a week is not going to make you “bulk up” and get heavy. But if you have the time, the inclination, and a commitment to doing the movements correctly, there are many benefits you can expect in your running. Here are a few.
1. Get stronger
Obvious, right? But often overlooked. Running is a weight-bearing activity, and the stronger your muscles are, the more weight they can bear, hence the faster and longer you can run.
Athletes who are new to strength training may be well-served with a simple body-weight routine that includes different planes of motion: planks (especially with variations), bird dogs, supermans, squats, deadlifts (including single-leg), calf raises, etc. You can’t go wrong with classic push-ups and pull-ups, either.
Athletes with some experience and motivation shouldn’t be afraid to hit the gym. Just keep it simple. Basic power lifting movements (deadlift, squat, bench press) will strengthen the muscles for hinging, pushing and pulling. CrossFit is going to be tough to recover from in time to get the most out of your running workouts, so maybe save that for the off-season, if ever. You could get fancy and try the Olympic lifts, but it’s probably overkill and the movements don’t translate as directly to (distance) running. It takes more focus on technique to get the movements right.
2. Avoid injury
Let’s face it, for a non-contact sport, running can be dangerous. The percentage of injured runners out there is mind-boggling. If you’re in the sport long enough, you start to learn human anatomy just from the list of your and your friends’ injuries.
One major reason is that cardiovascular capacity usually develops faster than our musculoskeletal system. We gain stamina and endurance within a few weeks of training, but our muscles might not be prepared for the load that our lungs and heart think we can handle. In other words, runners can be fit enough to get themselves into trouble. Strength training is a good way to “pump the brakes”.
3. Get faster
A logical extension of benefit number two is that by staying healthy, you’ll be able to train with more consistency, which will lead to improvements. The more resilient you are, the more quality workouts you can complete, the fitter and faster you shall become.
One of the most addictive things about running can be watching your times improve. This will happen over the course of months, years, maybe even decades if you play your cards right. It won’t continue forever, but that’s a topic for a different day.
4. Be an athlete, not just a runner
Let’s face it, running can be monotonous. You’re essentially moving in one plane of motion. In trail running we at least have to practice shifting our weight from side to side around natural features in the trail, like roots, rocks, and trees. We also use different muscles for climbing, descending, and flat running. Road running can be incredibly repetitive.
What about trying an obstacle course? What does it feel like to run all out for a mile, then scale over a wall, army crawl under barbed wire, jump into a mud puddle, pull yourself out, and then try to run fast again? I can tell you, it feels animalistic, and exhilarating. Spartan Races and Tough Mudders are household names now, and for good reason. It’s a blast, and it’s an unpredictable challenge.
I believe we run in part to feel connected to our ancient human ancestors, who honed this skill as an integral part of their survival. But we didn’t only run. We had to be all-around athletes capable of running, throwing, climbing and carrying. Not to mention the hunting skills: problem-solving, forecasting, recognizing patterns, communicating.
Strength training reminds us runners that ours isn’t the only noble sport out there. We have an entire body to take care of. Running from point A to point B in a fast time should be the result of being a fit human being, not the end goal in itself. Strength training keeps us ready for challenges beyond a flat and fast 5k.
5. Have fun!
Strength training doesn’t need to be boring. I know I gain a lot of strength from going to the indoor climbing gym, and this is a major part of my winter routine. I have yet to find any academic studies of how rock climbing impacts running performance. I would love to see one, but I have no idea how you’d control for the infinite variables. I have a hunch that climbing develops the stabilizing muscles, improves balance and proprioception, which translates well to running, but that’s just my opinion.
What I know for sure is that climbing is really fun and social, which makes it easy for me to do regularly. I look forward to my weekly climbing session because I know I’m going to catch up with friends, maybe chat with some new people, work on new problems, hopefully have some breakthroughs. And in the meantime I’m getting stronger. I don’t have quite the same eager anticipation for lonely gym visits.
Find your tribe, wherever they may be. There are tons of different opportunities for cross training that will make you a stronger athlete. Just look for the one that’s most fun.
To sum up
Whichever discipline you choose, find a simple plan, something you can commit to doing a couple times a week, get really good at the movements, start easy, and try to progress. Literature suggests that timing a strength workout on the same day as a hard run or a long run will maximize the results for both. Run first, strength second. But don’t forget the strength.