Should Runners Lift Weights?

It’s no secret that runners don’t lift. That statement is about as broad as the Rio Grande, but you catch my drift: many high-school and collegiate distance athletes (and coaches too, for that matter) steer clear of the weight room on their way to the track

“Strength training will make me too bulky to run,” they say. 

“The best way to get better at running is to just run.” 

“Lifting slow will make me slow.”

“This is the way runners have always trained, so it must work.”

I realize I might be getting myself in a bit of hot water with some runners and coaches, but I’ll turn up the heat: runners who don’t lift aren’t as good as runners who do.

There’s a reason today’s marathoners and cyclists and triathletes are faster than they were 75 years ago: exercise science has evolved. As our ability to study the human body has expanded, so has our knowledge of the effects both aerobic and resistance training have on athletic performance, right down to the cellular level. In fact, the research that supports strength training for distance sports has been around for a really long time. So why are we still skittish about letting our distance athletes lift? 

There are some old myths still floating around out there about training for distance sports. My goal is to debunk them—and help encourage a new generation of strong, powerful, injury-free distance athletes.

MYTH 1: “Too Much Muscle Will Bulk Me Up and Slow Me Down.”

While it’s true that muscle fiber size increases with resistance training, if you are a serious distance athlete training on an aerobic training program your body will not support “too much” of anything. You may experience some minimal increase in muscle size (we’re talking just 3% to 10%), but that will only contribute positively to your speed and power in competition. 

The high volume of aerobic training work (and thus high caloric cost of training) will not support very large and powerful muscles—this is why the physique of marathoners looks so different than that of sprinters.

MYTH 2: “The Best Way to Train For Running is To Run.”

Or, “the best way to train for cycling is to cycle,” etc. While the rule of specificity in strength and conditioning states that the training mode must be specific to the mode of exercise (e.g. you won’t get better at jumping if you only do biceps curls), there are limitations to this rule. Is running a lot the best way to get better at running a lot? Yes—to an extent. If you run five miles at the same pace every day, you will become proficient at running five miles at that pace. But to run farther and faster requires more variation in training stimulus. Because resistance training produces improvements in muscle size and strength, adding it to an aerobic training program will improve an athlete’s maximum speed, submaximal output (a mid-race surge, for example), and resistance to fatigue.

In addition, resistance training has been shown to improve your neuromuscular coordination—that is, the ability of your nervous system to recruit a muscle or muscle group for a specific task. Neuromuscular coordination is one of the earliest adaptations the body undergoes in response to a resistance training program, and its importance in distance sports cannot be overstated. If you’ve got poor control over your muscles to begin with, chances are you’re going to use other muscles to compensate when fatigue sets in. For runners who are quad-dominant (which, unfortunately, is most runners), this means that at mile 10 of your half-marathon, your weak and undertrained hamstrings will have given up and your quads will work to pick up the slack, putting you at risk for injury. Improving your body’s ability to recruit all the muscle fibers of a muscle group makes you more efficient at tasks that require those muscles. For distance athletes, this means your resistance program should focus on weaker muscle groups: the core, the hips, the hamstrings, etc. 

So even though resistance training does not train the body in the same way running does, it will make you a better—and more efficient—runner.



MYTH 3: “Resistance Training Won't Affect My Running Economy.”

This one is just plain wrong. Running economy (RE) is the amount of energy and oxygen you use at a given pace. Different from both your VO2max (maximal oxygen consumption, and common measure of aerobic fitness) and lactate threshold (% of VO2max that you can sustain comfortably for a long time), RE is the human body equivalent to your car’s MPG rating: the better your RE, the more efficient your body is at utilizing fuel to propel itself forward.

Google the terms “running economy” and “resistance training” in the same search, and you’ll be dizzy from the amount of studies that pop up supporting their correlation. Adopting a resistance training regimen, in addition to an athlete’s normal aerobic training regimen, has been shown to “significantly” increase an athlete’s motor unit recruitment (the number of muscle fibers activated by one motor nerve cell)—another way of saying neuromuscular coordination—and can also increase an athlete’s mechanical efficiency, due to increased overall strength in muscle fibers and connective tissues. 

Resistance training makes muscles stronger, and makes your body better at recruiting the maximum number of muscle fibers from each muscle—so, yeah, it makes your body more economical at running. This one, to me, seems a no-brainer.

MYTH 4: “I Don’t Need Strength for Distance Sports, Just Endurance.”

A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that, in elite and recreational female runners, ABSOLUTE quadriceps strength was not as important a performance factor as the RATIO of quad-to-hamstrings strength. While the elite runners did not necessarily have the strongest quad muscles, their quad:hamstrings ratios were more equal, correlating to better performance. So, in a sense, distance athletes don’t necessarily need absolute strength to excel at their sport—but they do need balanced strength. Training the hamstrings group, especially for female athletes, will make your body all the more better adapted to your endurance activities, with the added bonus of injury prevention. Which brings me to my final point…

TRUTH: “Resistance Training Helps Distance Athletes Prevent Injuries.”

This one's not a myth, but rather a truth! As a coach, injury prevention is the most important benefit strength training can provide distance athletes. There are a myriad of studies out there substantiating the connection between strength training and fewer injuries. Part of this benefit is derived from developing absolute strength: stronger muscles mean stronger tendons, which are less likely to tear or snap during exertion. Stronger muscles also create stronger bones, which are less likely to break. But another benefit of resistance training is that it improves an athlete’s balance, coordination, and proprioception—making that athlete less likely to put their body in poor mechanical positions during exertion.

THE TAKEAWAY

And there you have it! Distance athletes should lift weights. But let me be even more specific: distance athletes should lift weights IN ADDITION to their aerobic training program. And even further: distance athletes should adopt the PROPER resistance training program IN ADDITION to their aerobic training program. 

 

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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye