Ask a distance runner what their training includes, and the answer will likely involve vernacular like miles per week, speed, and running frequency. Rarely will the athlete mention how often they spend time in the weight room? Misguided as it may be, many runners spend little, if any, time with resistance training.
Runners should lift weights. Lifting makes the body stronger, more resilient to injury and improves performance.
So, if it’s clear that distance runners should be resistance training, then the question becomes, what should they be doing? Is there any utility to upper body training? Given the volume of training, should they be squatting heavy, or are there alternatives to heavy lifting? In this piece of writing, the last question will be expanded upon.
Should Distance Runners Ever Squat Heavy?
The conventional barbell back squat is not for everyone. Though it has been and continues to be a staple in the strength and conditioning world, there are several reasons to omit it from training.
- The athlete has pain when performing it
- The athlete has poor mechanics with the movement
- The movement has poor carryover to athletic performance.
The first two bullets may apply to athletes of any sport, while the last bullet is relevant for distance runners. Practically speaking, barbell back squats are not akin to sets of greater than 6-8 repetitions. There are always special circumstances that warrant circumventing the norm, but distance runners require sets of higher repetitions by and large.
Further, just because the barbell back squat isn’t the optimal choice for distance runners does not mean they shouldn’t squat. At its core, squatting is simply knee and hip flexion, or bend, happening simultaneously. Several exercises meet these criteria that are quicker to learn, easier on the body, and have better carry-over to distance running.
The 5 Alternatives to Heavy Squats
The goblet squat is useful for distance runners because, in addition to strengthening the quadriceps and glutes, it requires strong abdominals and low back extensors to execute appropriately.
To perform this exercise, hold either a dumbbell or kettlebell in the hands at chest level, with the head facing forward and torso upright, squat to a depth that allows the heels to maintain contact with the floor.
Step-ups are wonderful for distance runners because they train the quadriceps and glutes in a significant tandem stance, much like running. Further, single limb squatting has perhaps the most carryover to running given its requirement for both strength and balance.
To perform this exercise, hold dumbbells or kettlebells by the side. Step up to a plyo box or bench while keeping the lead foot, knee, and hip in a straight line. Push through the heel to allow the lagging leg up to the box.
Getting out of the sagittal (front-to-back) plane of motion is imperative for runners, given the breadth of time they occupy it. Well-rounded athletes should move strongly within multiple planes of motion. Dumbbell side lunges offer significant strengthening of the quadriceps and adductor (groin) muscles.
Hold dumbbells or kettlebells by the side. Step in a sideways fashion with the lead knee moving overtop the lead foot. Step the lead foot away from the body for as long as is comfortable, not as is possible. Lean into a squat and then return the lead foot to the body.
While the barbell back squat may place the shoulders and spine precarious, the trap bar squat does neither. Further, the range of motion is self-limiting in that the weight plates will touch the ground before the athlete reaching a likely unnecessary depth.
Standing within the trap bar, retract the shoulder blades and stand up with the weight until the knees and hips are fully extended. Return to the starting position as if sitting down in a chair.
The split squat is the bane of many athletes’ existence. That’s not because the exercise is invaluable. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This movement trains the squat pattern as a true single-legged stance, requiring strength from both your prime squatting muscles and those stabilizing the hip and ankle, much like running.
Hold dumbbells or kettlebells by the side. Elevate the trailing leg on a bench with the lead leg in front of your body. With the torso upright, squat down while keeping the lead knee overtop the toes.