It's been almost a decade since I was consistently crushing half marathons at elite level times of 1:10:00. With that type of natural talent and success I of course took the logical next step to quit because I was tired of looking like a typical marathon runner! (sarcasm level 11) Below is a photo from high school and mind you I had been "lifting" for about 8-9 months. I think my wrists were the same size as my arms.
- Competed in a physique competition
- Deadlift 3x bodyweight
- Bench press 2x bodyweight
- Squat 2x bodyweight
And while none of those numbers are going to win me a powerlifting competition, I'm very proud of the weight I've been able to move at 150 lbs. That seems to be where my body likes to maintain homeostasis. Alas I'm a very competitive person and the one thing that I continue to ask myself:
What if I had continued running instead of lifting weights?
In less than a month I will be 30 years old. And I remember vividly saying the day I quit running that I could always go back to running when I turned 30. The rationale was that I should take advantage of my prime years building muscles and getting stronger.*
As 30 approaches, I've decided to seek out a new challenge in a familiar activity. Now armed with a decade of lifting and years of experience with a wide range of clients, I now want to know this:
Can I maintain strength and what relative size I've accrued and get back to running elite long distance times?
Strength is the basis for all athletic endeavors so it should include long distance running too. While there are diminishing returns on carrying more muscle as it makes you heavier, there is a healthy middle ground. Strength training is the missing component for keeping most recreational runners healthy.
A basic strength program has many benefits such as:
- Building bone density, something many runners lack due to poor dietary practices leaving them at a high risk for stress fractures.
- Maintaining muscle mass which is lost during endurance training.
- Improve functional strength and capacity which declines as you age.
- Enhances endocrine and immune function which are compromised by endurance training.
- Ability to rapidly correct muscle imbalances. Strength is a corrective exercise. The running joke with runners seems to revolve around what injury they're dealing with and how long before they can go back to running and ward off that same injury.
What sort of strength training?
Free weights mostly and no machines DON'T count. Part of what makes strength training useful is the fact that you have to stabilize in multiple planes of motion as opposed to only working on a fixed track. A machine workout is practically pointless (from a functional standpoint) because running doesn't occur in a seated fixed motion either.
When you do for example, a weighted step up, your body has to generate force in a single leg position. In order to perform the movement properly you'll need to force muscles like the adductors (inner thigh) and your abductors (outer thigh/butt muscles) to work together to stabilize your leg so you don't fall over. By training in this manner, you improve muscular balance and thus improve running efficiency and prevent problems such as lateral knee pain, hip pain, and lower back pain.
I should add that many runners like to perform machine work in a slow controlled manner because it's somehow similar to running? Put simply, if you train slow, you'll be slow in competition. If you want to run a marathon, specificity of training is more important than mimicking what you think is hitting those "slow twitch" muscle fibers. When you run, focus on running. When you're lifting, focus on progressive overload and getting more athletic.
Practical advice: Set tempo runs on days you lift and separate your longer runs at least a day apart from your strength days.
Weight Training will make me heavy
Endurance training naturally is not conducive to growing muscles, especially in a female population with lower testosterone levels. Getting in enough calories is tough given the amount of volume performed. Any calories you take in will be used to improve overall efficiency rather than actual increases in muscle size. Add in the fact that in order to gain muscle, you need a surplus of calories, that's pretty hard if you're lifting AND running as well.
Practical advice: A stronger muscle will get a little bigger, but make no mistake, you won't look like the hulk running 26.2 miles. Or JJ Watt.
Wrapping it up
Does every runner need to be able to squat and deadlift 2-3x their bodyweight? No, but you should focus on strengthening the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) to help balance out all the quad dominant work that goes on with running. Getting stronger in unilateral movements like lunges, step ups and single leg RDL's will help get the hips more balanced and thus making you a more efficient runner. And more core work like paloff presses, dead bugs and planks will help transfer energy to run faster and absorb the forces of the pavement.
If you found anything I've mentioned helpful, insightful or funny I would request of you one thing, to hit that share button on the bottom and share this piece with another friends who runs or might be needed some guidance. Much appreciated!
*I've been running for about 45 days at 8:00 minute mile pace, with my best one mile at 6:50. I feel REALLY heavy, but I'm sure I'll continue to improve as I get in more miles. On a positive note, I've maintained strength and my physique fairly well while allowing myself to really up my carb intake to around 400-500g/ day which is pretty awesome.