WHY RUNNERS SHOULD STRENGTH TRAIN

Once upon a time, I used to just run. A lot. I thought I was in great shape! I mean, I ran a couple marathons, I burned all the calories, and I felt pretty darned good! That’s “in shape,” right?

Except, I couldn’t push a 25# weight above my head.  I mean, I could certainly force it up there if I needed to and I sometimes I did but I know it wasn’t pretty and I’m surprised I didn’t injure myself.

I started adding strength training into my routine about six or seven years ago and it was seriously the best thing that ever happened to me. Which is huge because I’d always thought running was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I can come up with just as many excuses as the next guy to wimp out on strength training but I don’t do that anymore. Strength training is important for everyone, not just for runners! You don’t have to try and look like a body builder (unless you want to and you have that body type) and you don’t have to spend countless hours in the gym lifting weights. That’s not necessary. But, you should spend some time strength training and there are more than a few excellent reasons why.

You’ll run faster

Running is primarily a cardiovascular exercise.  Your body uses a lot of oxygen when you run. I mean, if it didn’t, you wouldn’t get out the door! Think back to when you started running – you probably couldn’t run too far before you started really breathing heavily. I certainly know I didn’t get too far! *falls over after 10 feet* haha

How much oxygen your body needs to consume to get that run done is your running economy. Elite runners have a crazy awesome running economy. They manage to use less oxygen while running than the average person. What the heck, right? I mean, how can a person run 26.2 miles at those blistering speeds and be using LESS oxygen than us normal earthlings?!

Once upon a time, I used to just run. A lot. I thought I was in great shape! I mean, I ran a couple marathons, I burned all the calories, and I felt pretty darned good! That's "in shape," right? Except, I couldn't push a 25# weight above my head.  I mean, I could certainly force it up there if I needed to and I sometimes I did but I know it wasn't pretty and I'm surprised I didn't injure myself.

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Well, because their bodies have been trained to be more efficient. And strength training can do the same for you! Although, I cannot promise that you’ll run as fast as an elite runner just with the addition of strength training into your routine. However, I can promise that it will improve your running economy by improving the way your body uses oxygen.

Working your muscles also requires oxygen, just not in the air sucking way that running does. haha  Seriously, though, without getting too scientific or copying and pasting from one of my papers for school (ha!), your muscles have an increased need for oxygen during strength training. That means your heart has to pump more blood to get the oxygen to those muscles. As the muscles use the oxygen, the blood flows back to the heart to get more, etc. More blood being pumped means your arteries are bigger (to accommodate the increase) and your heart is not pumping as hard. While that might sound bad, it’s not. Think of a squirt bottle with a clogged or small nozzle – you gotta pump that nonsense forEVER just to get how much you need. Frustrating, amiright? Now think of a squirt bottle with a clear, or even bigger, nozzle. Less pumping, my friends!

Why does that mean you’ll run faster? Less sucking of wind! Your heart is pumping more blood and you’re using less oxygen because your muscles are more efficient. You’re using less energy which means you can go faster!

You’ll run faster – for longer

Your muscles are made up of fibers – slow twitch and fast twitch (or, for you scientific peeps, Type I and Type II). Running, specifically distance running, primarily uses those slow twitch fibers. Nothing wrong with that. Those fibers are awesome! They are highly efficient and require less energy to keep going. Those fast twitch fibers, though – those are the ones that help provide explosive muscle power (think sprinting and bursting out of the blocks).

Why does a runner who’s not a sprinter need to engage those fibers, too? To build up that lactate threshold (how long you can go at a certain intensity) so you can run farther. Basically, for an more improved running efficiency and economy. Plus, you need them for that kick at the end of the race when you finally see that finish line and you want to get across it RIGHT NOW, thankyouverymuch. Strength training helps build up those fast twitch muscle fibers.

Once upon a time, I used to just run. A lot. I thought I was in great shape! I mean, I ran a couple marathons, I burned all the calories, and I felt pretty darned good! That's "in shape," right? Except, I couldn't push a 25# weight above my head.  I mean, I could certainly force it up there if I needed to and I sometimes I did but I know it wasn't pretty and I'm surprised I didn't injure myself.

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Another bonus of strength training? Building lower body strength will help when you’re near the end of the race and you’re tired and you just don’t want to pick those legs up anymore. When muscles get fatigued efficiency and speed are compromised. You need your muscles to be strong so you can make it to that finish line!

You’re less likely to get injured

Yes, I got injured. Yes, I was actively strength training at the time. (I was doing CrossFit.)  My injury came from me not paying attention to my body. Ooops. #lessonlearned

When you’re running, you pretty much use the same muscles the whole time. I mean, you’re doing the same thing over and over, right? Right.  Yes, hill training and speed work is beneficial and that training does actually develop muscle and strength. BUT, running is basically running. And if you have running deficiencies, unbeknownst to you (like my fancy jargon? lol), those running deficiencies can ultimately cause injuries.

A prominent reason for running injuries is weak glutes.  Yep. It’s common. I have weak gluten and I cannot lie!

But, I’m a runner and I like to run long distances and I don’t pick up my knees as high as a sprinter and I try to use as little motion as possible to cover those miles. Hence, my glutes don’t get used. Did you know that the glutes are the largest muscle group in the body? I mean, they’re the largest muscle group and they are not frequently used by distance runners. What?!

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve hired a running coach. One of my strength training warm-up exercises that she has me doing includes a gluten activation exercise. Want to know if your glutes are firing or not? Do this exercise.

Yeah. Couldn’t lift my leg the first time I tried it. LOL

Strength training will help you strengthen, ahem, that booty which will help take the strain off your quads and knees (bet you didn’t think about that correlation, did you?) while you’re running and help you stay uninjured and run happier.

I could go on and on about the many other health reasons strength why training should be included in your life (again, you don’t need to be a runner to benefit!) but that’s for a whole different post.

Please note that I am not a certified coach or personal trainer (YET), and I’m still in the process of earning my Master’s in Sports and Health Sciences.  This post is based on personal knowledge regarding my own training combined with what I’ve learned in my classes so far. If you’re considering a strength training program for the very first time, please consult your physician for his/her recommendations first.  If you are a runner looking to up your game with strength training, please consider a running coach or a personal trainer to help you achieve your goals.

Tell me:

  • Do you strength train? If yes, how many days per week?
  • When did you start? And why?

References used:

Johnston, R. E., Quinn, T. J., Kertzer, R., & Vroman, N. B. (1995). Improving running economy through strength training. Strength and Conditioning, August 1995, 7-13.

Powers, S. K. & Howley, E. T. (2015). Exercise physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance. New York, New York: McGraw-Hill Education

2 COMMENTS

  1. kookyrunner | 8th Jan 18

    I’m a HUGE fan of strength training and always incorporate it into my training plans. I usually do some sort of strength training twice a week and cross training (kickboxing, spinning) once a week.

    • Jennifer
      Jennifer | 8th Jan 18

      It’s so important! Plus, it’s nice to feel strong. It’s hard to believe that some runners still skip it!

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