Middle and long distance runners have a long history of neglecting proper strength training, partly because they don’t enjoy it as much as running and partly because of the myths surrounding the concept. Those myths need to be broken.
Myth #1: Strength training will make my muscles bigger and then I'll be heavier.
You will not automatically gain weight and become huge because you start strength training. In the strength training world this increase of muscle size is referred to as “hypertrophy.” Many runners don’t want to gain size because that’s extra weight to carry in every step. The reality is your body will best adapt to the stresses you place on it most often. If you run once per week but lift weights on 3-4 days then yes, you might bulk up. But if you run 3-4 days each week and strength train during just one day then you aren’t going to add muscle mass. Age, sex, and genetics each play a role in gaining muscle size as well. And the type of strengthening stimulus matters. Larger muscle size tends to come from an emphasis on multiple sets of an exercise using a weight that is 50-75% of your one repetition maximum.
Myth #2: Strength training requires weight equipment.
Fortunately, resistance training does not always require equipment. It is possible to use your bodyweight to provide a decent stimulus for many of your muscle groups. For instance, it is critical to emphasize hip strength and core stability in any runner’s program. This type of strengthening requires nothing more than challenging positions that start with a basic plank. Advancements of difficulty can be made by isolating the muscles you are trying to work, working only one side of the body at a time, or adding stability challenges (i.e. balance).
Myth #3: Strength training requires special machines.
It definitely does not require special machines. In fact, I am a huge proponent of avoiding machines altogether. Machines are inferior to free weights in so many ways. They do not challenge the parts of your nervous system that monitor your body’s stability and positional awareness. Machines also restrict your range of movements. Freeweights can moved through any available range. And for those that like to workout at home, free weights can be cheaper and take up less space than machines.
Myth #4: Strength training means I have to workout inside a gym.
Strength work doesn’t always have to involve an indoor gym. For running, steep hill repeats with an intentionally slow, bounding cadence can engage a large number of fast-twitch muscle fibers in the hips and legs. It’s those fast-twitch muscle fibers that can improve your sprint speed, surge speed, and overall pace in races like a 5K. The scenario is the same with plyometric training as you don’t need equipment or a special location to bust out a few quick jumps or hops.
Myth #5: Strength training will slow me down.
If done correctly, strength work will not slow you down and actually has the potential to make you faster. In one recent study, even when very heavy amounts of weight were used (3-4 sets of 4-10 repetitions to failure), female runners maintained their race speeds after 11 weeks of training. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4783109/) In application, I would never expect a competitive or recreational runner to train with that heavy of a resistance for such a tremendous amount of time. However, it is good to know that even after several weeks of heavy weight training these women sustained their speed. I would expect runners of any ability level to spend their time performing supplemental work to gain hip and core stability and fatigue resistance of their primary movers (hamstrings, quadriceps, calf group).
Myth #6: I won’t gain anything from strength training only one or two days a week.
As little as one day per week is sufficient to have a positive impact on strength and strength endurance. Some athletes think that strength training has to occur at a high frequency to result in a change. That’s simply not true. Working hard on your weakest areas just one to two days each week can have a tremendous impact. If those muscles were minimally challenged beforehand, then any stimulus greater than their normal level of activity is going to cause a positive change. Even if you prevented just one injury, it would be worth the extra effort of as little as 30 minutes each week.
Next week I’ll dive into the benefits of adding strength training to your running program. In the meantime, if you have any questions, email me at email@example.com.