Traditionally, weight lifting is not a high priority for long-distance runners.
If they even step foot in the weight room, those workouts typically consist of low-weight, high-rep exercises—much different than how you’d see, say, a football player working out. That makes sense, right? Running is a repetitive motion over a long period of time, so if a runner is going to weight train, shouldn’t their routine reflect that?
I’ve worked with several Ironman and marathon runners. They frequently ask me, “What can I do to get an edge over my competition? What can I do that everyone else isn’t doing?”
My reply is simple: “Hit the weight room. Hard.”
“OK, so I should do a ton of reps with light weight and get toned?”
“Nope. You’re going lift some very heavy weight.”
Why Distance Runners Should Lift Heavy
With running, which is metabolically stressful, relative maximal strength becomes a limiting factor. With increased maximal strength, the runner has to produce less relative force per repetition of the skill, which then creates a decreased energy demand.
It may not seem like being stronger would make a significant impact on a long-distance runner’s performance, but these little advantages, compounded over thousands and thousands of strides, add up.
In addition, increased strength enhances muscle fiber recruitment, making the whole system more resilient. Therefore you will have less demand on your muscular system for the same amount of work, allowing you to perform the level of work longer and indirectly improving muscular endurance.
I like to use the following metaphor: Imagine the most you can pick up off the ground is 100 pounds. How many times could you pick up a 10-pound weight before you are tired? Probably a lot, but there would be a point where picking it up would become a lot harder/slower.
Now, imagine the most you can lift is 300 pounds. All of a sudden, you can pick up that 10-pound weight exponentially more times before fatigue becomes a serious factor.
Another underrated benefit is that increased muscular strength can increase the efficiency of elastic and energy-sparing tendon complex, which decreases the metabolically costly work of the muscle and decreases overall energy output.
Not to mention the incredible improvements in physical resiliency that often come with heavy weight training. Lifting heavy strengthens the body’s bones, tendons, ligaments and collagen in a way that’s extremely beneficial for endurance runners. This strengthening helps protect against the high volumes of non-stop pounding inherent to the sport and can combat dreaded overuse injuries.
I am not saying endurance runners should shift their primary focus to doing heavy Squats all the time. However, if lifting heavy isn’t playing some role in their training, I believe they’re missing out on some benefits that could be a real difference-maker for them.
How Should Runners Lift Heavy?
First, it is important to establish a base of weight training fitness. If you’ve never lifted weights before, please don’t go in a weight room and see what your max Squat or Deadlift is on the first day. Seek out a competent trainer who knows what they are doing and can help bring you along.
I recommend at least eight weeks of training in the 8-12 rep range before testing any sort of heavy lifting.
If you do have experience with weight training, I’d recommend:
- 1 or 2 weight training sessions per week
- 3 sets of 3-5 repetitions per set. Use heavy compound movements like Squats and Trap Bar Deadlifts, but especially single-leg exercises like Lunges. Single-leg exercises are more specific to running and will give you more direct carryover.
- Take a full 3-5 minutes of rest between sets. Heavy strength work naturally requires longer rest since it is more fatiguing on your overall system.
Always seek to do more than you did the training session before, whether that is another rep, another couple pounds, or another set! However, don’t lift more than you know you’re capable of. A good rule of thumb is that there should always be one high-quality repetition left in reserve.
Distance runners need to run to get good at running. We know that much, but that fact doesn’t mean lifting heavy is a waste of time for them. In fact, it can be the difference-maker that keeps them stronger, faster and healthier than their competition.
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