Everything you know about strength training is wrong


I know what you’re thinking: I’m a runner, why should I read this article? I don’t need to strength train. Or, maybe you’re the runner who can ask his/her friend “Jim”, the bodybuilder, for his advice. He’s a week away from becoming “Mr. Musclemania;” he can help you out. Or, you go to the local gym and use the strength training machines- I can go there and do my two sets of twenty reps and be done instead of reading this article, you think.

If I guessed correctly than YOU should definitely read this article!

Mistake 1 – “I am a runner and runners don’t lift weights”

Many runners are apprehensive about including strength training in their quest to becoming a better athlete due to fears of becoming too muscular or “bulky.” I have worked with many clients who “warned” me that they get muscular very fast by strength training. I always ask them what their “secret” is for such quick results; I could make a million dollars be exposing their “secret” to all the guys who spend hours in the gym trying to bulk up with little or no success. Becoming muscular is one of the hardest things to accomplish in fitness and runners should not worry about this issue. This outdated way of thinking was promoted because the most common method of strength training was the bodybuilder type of training, where increasing the muscle size is the primary goal. What many runners don’t seem to realize is that this “vanity” style of strength training is not the only type of strength training; we’re a different kind of animal and we should strength train differently.

By introducing the APPROPRIATE type of strength training you’ll be able to run, faster, longer and stronger.
Still not convinced? Don’t take my word for it….

The University of Illinois, Chicago conducted a study in 1988 using runners and cyclists to test the benefits of resistance-training program for endurance athletes. The study ran for 10 weeks with athletes training three times per week. At the conclusion of the study the runners improved their running time by 13% and the cyclists were able to ride 14 minutes longer.
Another study released in 2005 showed that runners who included strength training along with their endurance training improved on average 8.6% in a 4K time trial and increased their VO2 max by an average of 10.4%. They also increased their run to exhaustion time by 13.7% versus athletes who only did strength training alone or endurance training alone.
As you can see, research has shown that endurance athletes who regularly (2-3 times per week) engage in APPROPRIATE strength training benefit by improving their endurance, speed, running economy and power production. Some other by-products of strength training include injury prevention and an increase in lean body tissue.

Now that being said, you should NOT just do any type of strength training. Let’s look at two other common mistakes runners make.

Mistake 2 – “Jim’s Friend aka The Bodybuilder”

It’s the end of another racing season and you’re evaluating your performance. You wonder how you can improve for the next season during the off-season. In your quest to find an answer, you come across an article, in your favorite running magazine, saying that strength training can improve your speed and endurance. Eureka!!!! The Light comes on; that was the missing component! But, how do I go about including strength training, and what do I do, you ask?
The light comes on again. Jim’s your work buddy, who regularly pumps iron and looks like a superhero. After a 5 min phone conversation with Jim, you schedule your first session for the following Monday.
Monday after work you nervously pace in front of the gym waiting for Jim. He finally arrives and informs you that Monday is a “chest n’ tris” day at the gym. For the next hour and half you lie on your back and press 7 foot barbells over your chest and extend your elbows in a way that more resembles break dancing than anything that looks like running. You want to scratch your head, wondering how lying down on the bench and “break dancing” can help you with running, but your arms are so beat that you pass. After the session is over, Jim informs you that tomorrow is “legs” day. Aha, you think, now we’re talking.
Tuesday you come back and you find yourself pressing this giant gliding platform up and down while lying on your back, extending your lower leg while you are sitting, curling your legs while lying on your stomach and raising and lowering your heel while sitting down. One hour later you’re barely able to walk to your car and on your way out Jim yells, “Good job man! Back and bis tomorrow”.
Wednesday you get up and find out that getting from the bedroom to the bathroom is harder than running any half marathon and it seems to be taking just as long. After this epic journey, you discover that someone has replaced your toothbrush with a one ton brush which you can’t bring up to your mouth. You skip brushing, and send a text message to Jim (could not bring the phone up to your ear to call) that you “have” to stay late at work tonight and you are going to miss the workout. Work gets to be “veeeery” busy the next few days.
If any of this sounds familiar, you may want to read the next sentence very carefully. The bodybuilding type of training does NOT, and it will NOT help your running performance. If anything it may hinder it. The goal of the bodybuilding type of training is to increase muscle mass and not to increase running performance. If you still don’t believe me then ask your friend Jim how many days per week he runs. Ask him about his Fartlek’s and his speed/track sessions. Ask him about his hill repeats. You will know that the above statement is true if he looks confused by the questions.
Bodybuilders do not run to increase muscle size and therefore runners should not perform bodybuilding types of strength training to increase their running performance. There are other types of strength training that are more appropriate for runners than a “vanity” type of training. Don’t get me wrong; if your goal is to look good in a bikini or a Speedo, than by all means, Jim is your guy. However, if you want to improve your running performance, prevent injuries and stay healthy, you may look elsewhere for the help.

Mistake 3 – “The Machine Queen”

The innovation and mass introduction of the Nautilus machines in the 1970’s inspired a fitness revolution and also created a monster. Enter “The Machine Queen”!!!
We all know her. She comes in the gym with the purpose, ready to kick some ass. She walks to the first available strength training machine and “pumps” out 15 – 20 reps, wipes it down with a towel and moves on the next. And on and on we go. Thirty minutes later she is on her way out; another “strength training” session in the bag.
What’s wrong with this you may ask? I read that if I strengthen my quadriceps and hamstrings, I will be a better runner. Aren’t the leg extension and leg curl machines designed for that? Aren’t the machines safer to use than free weights? Why would the health clubs invest their money in purchasing those machines?
Let me try to answer these questions (with the few questions of my own).
What’s wrong if I am using machines? Well …in two words… almost everything.
Let’s say your goal is to maybe lose some weight and you decide to add some strength training to your daily diet of exercise. Don’t you think that there may be a better way to accomplish this than exercising while SITTING down? Isn’t too much of sitting down one of the reasons most of us need to lose weight in the first place? So you tell me why would you go to the gym and continue to sit and hope that it will help you lose weight?
Maybe you are an athlete who is looking to gain some strength for a specific event? Guess how many athletic events are done while sitting down with one muscle group being isolated? Wait for it, wait for it … NONE! Most weight machines train muscles in isolation, while the rest of you is completely stationary. This may work for physical therapy and injury rehab, and it’s acceptable for bodybuilding, but every serious strength and conditioning coach in the world will tell you that muscle-isolation machines don’t create real-world strength for life and sport, and do very little for weight loss.

Aren’t the leg extensions and leg curl machines designed to increase strength in my quadriceps and hamstrings and therefore make me a better runner?
Ask yourself this – how often do you find yourself randomly extending your leg during the day, without moving any other part of your body? Only once …when you’re on a leg extension machine. Now ask yourself this – how often do you find yourself curling your leg while sitting down? Hint – look at the answer to a previous question. Single joint exercises performed with machines have nothing to with any aspect of any endurance event and therefore will NOT make you a better runner.
Aren’t the machines safer to use than free weights?
I like short and right to the point answers so I will try to answer this one in that fashion. NO! What potentially make any equipment unsafe is the user and not the equipment. Do you know how many times I have seen a confused person trying to figure out how to use some fancy looking piece of equipment, and if it was not for a gym employee being available to help, the person would have hurt him/her self by using this “safe” piece of equipment? If I only had a nickel… So that being said, let’s stop blaming the equipment for our injuries and start paying some attention to what and how we do it.
Why would the health clubs invest all their money in purchasing those machines if they have no value?
First of all, I have never said that the machines don’t have a value (physical therapy, injury rehab and possibly bodybuilders could benefit from using them) I just said that they don’t have a great (if any) value for the runners. In my opinion – eye candy. Would you want to sign up for a gym membership if on your tour of the facility you only saw some barbells, dumbbells and benches lying around?

So I know I should strength train and I understand that I should not follow a bodybuilding protocol and not strictly use the machines… what do I do?

Strength training for runners should address issues such as ankle mobility, knee, hip and core stability, posterior chain strength, power, tissue quality, range of motion, to name some. Not every athlete is going to need work on exact same things therefore; every strength training plan needs to be individualized, meaning that it should address the needs of that athlete. One athlete may lack ankle mobility where as another may need core or the knee stability. Some more competitive athletes may need to work on increasing their power production or leg turnover where as another may need to work on flexibility and tissue quality. Even if two athletes may need to improve flexibility it may not be in the same area therefore their flexibility program should be different from each others. Some individuals may need to work on two or more issues at the same time.

Strength training for runners should be also age appropriate, training age that is. Someone with no experience should not be doing same exact drills as someone who strength trained in past. Just because exercise looks cool and if you read that it can help you with your issue does not mean you should be doing it in the same manner as someone else. Every exercise can be progressed and regressed to the level appropriate for that individual.

Training frequency (how often) is another thing to consider. That can depend on many different factors such as your running frequency and total mileage. Runners with higher mileage (50 miles per week or more) may not have as many strength training sessions as runners with lower mileage (under 30 miles per week).

Another factor to consider is the volume (how many exercises, sets and reps) of training. Many runners believe more is better, but that may not be the case when talking about strength training. When it comes to strength training, better is better.

We all understand that if we want to be faster runners we need to pay attention to the intensity (how hard/heavy) of our workouts. The same applies for the strength training. In order to get stronger, the load (weight) lifted should be appropriate.

If after reading this article you realize that EFFECTIVE strength training is more complicated then it seems, then you are on the right track. To ensure you are not wasting your time and potentially harming yourself in the long run, you should contact a professional who can identify your needs and put you on appropriate plan. Invest in your well being a little and you can get a lot in return.