On March 31, Linsey Corbin toed the line for her first major race of 2014, the Ironman Los Cabos, in Los Cabos, Mexico. It was a hot day on a challenging course, but after 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and the first 13 miles of the marathon, Corbin took command of the race and held on for the win. It was the fifth Ironman series victory of the 33-year-old’s career.
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Corbin’s triumph was a dramatic change from a year prior, when lower leg injuries had sidelined the American triathlete. An attempt to return to racing during the summer of 2013 only made things worse. Corbin limped away from 2013’s Vineman 70.3 with a disappointing fifth-place finish and a tibia injury she knew she’d worsened.
“I full on broke it [during the race],” Corbin says.
In September 2013, Corbin sought the help of Jay Dicharry, a physical therapist in Bend, Ore., and author of the book, Anatomy for Runners. Although Corbin was losing hope, Dicharry exuded optimism. “We’re totally going to fix you,” he told Corbin. “You’ll be ready to run a sub-3 marathon.”
With only seven weeks to prepare for the Ironman World Championship, Dicharry conducted a rigorous study of Corbin, examining her mechanics and footwear in search of weaknesses. He assigned her a training program many endurance sport coaches might find controversial, as it featured a significant amount of functional strength-building with weights.
Concerns about weight training for runners tend to center on the injury risk of using weights and worries about building too much muscle bulk, which can slow an athlete down. During the original running boom of the 1970s, you would have been hard pressed to find a distance runner in the weight room. But more recently, functional strength training has become part of some of the leading programs developing top American runners, including the Nike-sponsored Oregon project and the Mammoth Track Club.
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Whatever Corbin’s objections might have been in the past, she put them aside and went all in on Dicharry’s program. She even hit the gym during the week of last year’s Hawaii Ironman, performing Push Presses with heavy weight as the race approached.
Corbin isn’t the first elite triathlete to lift weights to improve performance. Some of the greatest names in multisport—Paula Newby-Fraser, Dave Scott and Mark Allen among them—have attributed training with weights as fundamental to their success and longevity.
For the aspiring runner and triathlete, using weight training to prepare the body for the rigors of long distances can be invaluable, says Valerie Hunt, a Master Pose Running coach and CrossFit Endurance coach based in Austin, Texas.
“The benefit of strength training for endurance athletes is to help them hold proper position for the duration of their event,” Hunt says. “Having to stay in one position for a long time will be much easier on the athlete if they have a strong core.”
Hunt emphasizes that by “core,” she doesn’t mean just the abs, but the primary muscles that support the lower spine. “This includes the hips and back,” she says.
In addition to running drills to tweak and ideally optimize running form, Hunt advocates functional weight training movements for runners similar to what Corbin performed as she made her final preparations for Kona. “Movements like Squats and Push Presses strengthen the entire body,” Hunt says. “Having to hold your shoulders over your hips in a marathon is much easier to do if you have been training with heavier ‘loads’ overhead. People lose the ability to maintain good body position when they fatigue. Being strong prevents this breakdown.”
Although many weight training exercises can benefit runners and triathletes, Hunt says a time-stressed competitor could condense his or her workout into just a few moves. “These are the top three exercises I give to triathletes and runners,” she says.
- Front Squat. In addition to the benefits of a Back Squat—like strengthening the glutes and hamstrings—the Front Squat activates the quadriceps and abductor muscles, both invaluable to a runner’s stabilization and power needs. RELATED: A How-To Guide for Front Squats, with Photos and Video.
- Hang Clean. This Olympic movement recruits muscles throughout the body, empowering your core muscles and providing stamina to help you maintain good form throughout long races. RELATED: Master the Hang Clean in 4 Steps.
- Push Press. Another functional strength movement with great core benefits, the Push Press helps a runner channel power from the core to the extremities. RELATED: Video Demonstration of the Push Press.