Ten Reasons Why Runners Should Include Weight Training
If you like to run and have been struggling to increase your mile pace or need a boost in short sprint speed for the final kick, strength training is the answer. Athletes in endurance sports such as swimming, cycling, rowing, or skiing cross-country will also benefit from strength training.
If you’re already strength training and not seeing results, it may be because you’re not doing the right kind of training—that is, you might be able to change your routine slightly in order to trigger superior adaptations. Luckily, the research tells us what you need to do whether you run 5Ks, marathons, triathlons, or just run for fun.
Take note of a few things:
If you’re running to lose body fat, strength training is a must. You’ll see results much faster. Strength training will boost your metabolism and support hormones involved in fat burning.
Recreational runners probably won’t increase body weight from training either, assuming you do a decent volume of running. With the right weight lifting program, you will lose fat. If you want to gain muscle mass, and “get big,” endurance running is probably not a good choice.
Older individuals benefit just as much as young runners from strength training. Lifting weights has been shown to lessen the gap between young and old in terms of strength and speed endurance.
This article is for runners but will apply to most endurance athletes. In some cases the research presented uses athletes from sports other than running such as rowers and cyclists. These are general conclusions that can be drawn from these studies and applied to most endurance sports because they are based on physiology.
Top Ten Reasons Runners Should Strength Train
1) Get Faster
Strength training will make you faster. Whether you are a short distance runner (800 meters to a mile) or a longer distance runner (mile on up), you’ll find your pace increasing when you start strength training. Strength training will increase leg strength and improve your body’s efficiency to use energy and oxygen.
Increasing the body’s ability to use oxygen efficiently is a primary goal of endurance training, and it is measured by VO 2 max, or maximal oxygen uptake. Simply, if you can decrease the amount of oxygen needed to run at a certain speed, you’ll be able to sustain a fast pace for a longer time and likely be able to run faster overall.
A study that tested the effect of a maximal lower body strength training program on elite runners found that they improved running economy by 5 percent. Even more impressive, they increased the amount of time they could run at their maximal aerobic speed by 21.3 percent.
Similar studies of elite cyclists show similar performance results. In a study using Danish national team cyclists, half of the team performed a strength training program and half the team served as a control group. The strength training group improved performance, going 5 percent further in a short 5-minute time trial and 8 percent further in a 45-minute trial than the control group.
Researchers suggest increased coordination, neural drive, and strength gains all play a role in making these endurance athletes faster since there’s no evidence of hypertrophy, or an increase in muscle size or body weight.
Take away: Strength training will improve your pace and make you faster overall. A maximal (heavy) strength program for the lower body will produce best results.
2) Have A Better Final Kick
A heavy lower body strength training program will make you faster because you’ll be able to generate more force when you kick off the ground. Combined with better running economy and the ability to use energy more efficiently, you’ll have a better final kick.
One reason strength training will increase your speed is that you’ll increase your proportion of type IIA muscle fibers that fatigue slowly and are able to produce speed and power. The type II fibers are the “fast-twitch” fibers and sprinters have a large concentration of them because their training triggers the development of these fibers.
In the study of Danish national team cyclists, researchers found that the athletes who strength trained increased the proportion of type IIA muscle fibers in the quadriceps from 26 to 35 percent and decreased type IIX fibers from 5 to 0.6 percent, a favorable shift for endurance performance.
There’s limited research into muscle fiber shifts in recreational athletes, but studies suggest that strength training will produce more favourable fiber types for speed endurance in non-elite runners as well. There is some evidence of a small increase in muscle size, particularly type II fibers in recreational runners, but this occurs with a decrease in body fat and has not produced a substantial increase in overall body mass.
Take away: Strength training will increase your speed. You’ll have a better final kick with more fast, fatigue-resistant muscle fibers.
3) Decrease Body Fat
Strength training will help you lose fat. The bulk of energy that is burned in the body comes from your resting metabolic rate, which is a function of the proportion of lean muscle to body fat.
Experienced and elite runners will know that it is hard to lose fat unless you do large amounts of high-intensity training. People often point out that elite runners are “thin” and have a low body fat percentage. This is true, and they tend to do a very large volume of running at a high intensity. For those of you who are interested in getting lean without increasing your distance or intensity, strength training can help.
For instance, in the study of Danish national team cyclists, the strength training group decreased body fat by 2 nearly two percent and had no change in body mass after the 16-week training program. The group that only did their regular endurance training decreased body fat by 0.5 percent.
Take away: Strength training will burn fat and decrease your body fat percentage making you lighter and faster.
4) Have Better Body Composition
Strength training will enhance your overall body composition. Research shows that if you program properly, you don’t have to gain muscle mass. It’s possible to develop a protocol to get you in shape for endurance exercise and gain muscle with the right nutrition and supplementation, but that is another article for another day.
A common concern for competitive endurance athletes is gaining body mass with strength training. Even lean muscle gains have been a concern because elevated muscle mass is thought to be detrimental for optimal endurance sports where muscle forces are generated to support the body mass against gravity.
This is due to the increased proportion of type IIA muscle fibers, but also to an increase in different gene signaling pathways involved in muscle growth and loss, which appear to cancel each other out. Despite no growth in the cross sectional area of muscle, concurrent strength and endurance training increases the ratio of capillaries to muscle fiber area, which improves oxygen delivery and free fatty acid uptake.
Take away: Strength training is safe for athletes who don’t want to gain muscle mass. The catabolic/anabolic processes “cancel” each other out. Strength training increase fiber type proportion, neuromuscular function, and fuel utilization for better performance.
5) Prevent Injury
Strength training will help you get rid of nagging injuries or chronic pain and help prevent future injuries. It will also help you correct structural imbalances that increase injury risk and lead to improper motor patterns. For example, the non-dominant side of the body is often weaker, which will throw your stride off, as will problems with your feet such plantar fasciitis or bunions.
Muscle imbalances within each limb can cause problems for runners. For instance, the vastus medialis obliquus is a common weak link in the quad, and weak calves are thought to contribute to shin pain. Include both unilateral and bilateral leg exercises to avoid imbalances and prevent injury. Single-side training has also been shown to improve sprinters’ speed, and endurance athletes can benefit too
A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed how single-leg “pitcher” squat, also called rear-foot elevated squats, produced significant strength gains that rival those made from regular back squats. Including a training cycle of “pitcher” squats placed extra stabilization demands on the neuromuscular system since the athletes’ weight distribution was biased to one side of the body.
Additionally, forward lunges and step-ups are excellent lower body exercises that will help equalize strength and power between the legs and are excellent for runners. Strength training can also decrease chronic pain and minimize aches and joint discomfort from continually pounding the pavement. Heavy strength training triggers protein synthesis in the connective tissues and will also increase bone strength.
Take away: Strength training improves structural balance and can help prevent injury and chronic pain. Feel better when you run!
6) Strengthen Your Core With Traditional Lifts
Strength training with traditional lifts such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, and chin-ups will increase your core strength. Better core strength will help you avoid back pain and make you faster.
Researchers suggest that because the plank exercise (and side planks) is performed in a non-functional static position that is rarely replicated when running or in daily life, it is not very useful as a primary component of training. Equally, unless abdominal or “core” endurance is required for your sport or daily life, it’s undesirable to devote valuable training time to endurance exercises such as sit-ups.
Take away: The best way to build core strength for runners is to perform traditional lifts.
7) Increase Antioxidant Levels and Decrease Oxidative Stress
Endurance training has been shown to produce a high level of oxidative stress that can lead to chronic inflammation. Strength training will counter both acute oxidative stress, and help you avoid the long-term debilitating impact of this stress.
Scientists and athletic coaches have become concerned about the negative health effects of endurance training because of the daily physical stress that it causes.
A moderate to heavy strength training program has been shown to increase antioxidant status and counter oxidative stress. It will counter the muscle degrading effect of endurance training, and it can minimize the inflammatory response of intense, repeated physical stress.
Take away: Strength training protects runners from the repeated damage of oxidative stress by raising antioxidant levels.
8) Better Reproductive Health
There is evidence that reproductive health suffers for both men and women from endurance training. Strength training is one strategy to prevent this. A recent study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that intense endurance exercise provokes low testosterone and diminished sex hormone levels in men, which translates into poor reproductive health and low fertility.
Strength training can help because it will improve hormone levels and counter the oxidative stress from cortisol and related catabolic hormones that cause inflammation and damage to the reproductive organs. Researchers suggest there is a happy medium to reproductive health such that individuals who like to run can improve their endocrine profiles and support fertility and health with strength training.
Take away: Strength training will improve reproductive health and fertility in men and women who run.
9) Better Insulin Health
Insulin health refers to how sensitive your cell receptors are to the hormone insulin, which is secreted by the pancreas in response to glucose in the blood stream. Glucose comes from carbohydrates, a large portion of many runners’ diet, making the maintenance of insulin health a high priority for runners.
You want to improve your insulin sensitivity because doing so will support a faster metabolism and better energy levels. Insulin health is a component of performance because it is involved with helping your body process energy along with speeding recovery from intense endurance training by aiding in the replenishment of glycogen stores.
If your cells are insulin resistant, you will have a slower metabolism, have poor performance, and be at risk of developing diabetes. You will also have greater amounts of oxidative stress, which damages cells, cause inflammation and accelerates aging.
Strength training is a well known strategy for diabetes prevention and for improving insulin. A recent study in the journal Nature showed how during exercise—any time you perform muscle contractions—the body produces a hormone called irisin that will improve insulin health. With strength training, you intensely and repeatedly contract the muscles producing extreme force, thereby producing even more irisin, which in turn greatly promotes insulin sensitivity.
Take away: Strength training improves insulin health and helps you recover from running by aiding in replenishment of energy stores.
10) Best Results With Heavy Lifts and Varied Tempo
Perform a strength training program that includes heavy lower body lifts for best results. Runners often make the mistake of performing resistance training programs that are geared toward increasing muscular endurance instead of strength. This will not make you faster.
Naturally, if you are new to strength training, you will need to develop base levels of strength, and a muscular endurance program may be appropriate. It’s necessary to achieve basic strength and flexibility in the hips and ankles so that you can properly do squats and deadlifts with good technique.
Once you’ve got the basics down, you will get the most out of your strength workouts by lifting heavy—above 80 percent of the maximal amount you can lift. The only research studies that haven’t produced gains in running pace and speed are those that used too light of a load or were for too short of a time period—less than eight weeks.
To get the most out of your strength program, perform multi-joint, ground-based lifts such as squats and deadlifts. Step-ups and lunges are also essential.
Take away: Runners new to lifting should develop base levels of strength and flexibility. Then, it’s time to lift heavy and vary tempo to turn weaknesses into strengths.