The Importance of Strength Training for Runners- My Personal Test Results

If you think this will be just another post about someone telling you that you should do strength training, think again.

When I was in my 20’s I barely did any strength training (or stretching, cross-training, or pretty much anything else other than just running). When I ran my first half marathon, it wasn’t my legs that were the most sore after the race, although they were also sore. However, my arms and shoulders were so sore and tired I could barely lift them over my head for days after the race. That’s when I knew I needed to start some strength training.

I’ve been hitting the gym regularly for the past 20-something years. I feel like strength training has become even more important now that I’m in my 40’s. Depending on what source you believe, you can lose from 3-8% of your muscle mass per decade beginning in your 30’s. Obviously, that can quickly add up to a significant loss of muscle mass if you do nothing about it.

So many runners I’ve known over the years have told me they don’t do strength training because they feel like running is enough to maintain their muscles. The sad truth is, running by itself is not enough to stop muscle loss. In fact, when you’re in your 40’s it’s even more important to not only lift weights but to lift heavy weights. In order to stimulate muscle growth, you need to challenge and stimulate your muscles so they break down and repair bigger and stronger. If you can lift a certain weight with a specific body part more than 10 times easily, it’s not heavy enough. Try to aim for a weight you can lift 8-10 times at the most, and that’s a struggle.

person holding barbell
Photo by Victor Freitas on Pexels.com

A good rule of thumb is to perform two or three sets of about 10 repetitions or less, and remember to make sure you have good form. When in doubt, ask a knowledgeable friend to show you or just watch yourself in a mirror. Try to fit strength training into your schedule once or twice a week. You also don’t need to spend hours at a time lifting weights and in fact shouldn’t spend that long on strength training if your primary interest is running. I can cover my full body in thirty minutes, sometimes a bit less than that depending on how busy the gym is and if I have to wait for a set of weights or a machine.

There are many, many opinions on what exercises are “best” for runners, but they’re just that- opinions. No one has undeniable proof that doing x, y, and z when it comes to strength training will help you improve as a runner. Exercises that tend to pop up more than others when you read articles about strength training for runners specifically are squats, lunges, and core-related exercises.

That’s not to say you should necessarily focus on these exercises or even do them at all, to be honest. Everyone is different in what their bodies can handle and for some people it would be too much strain on their legs to do lunges and squats two or three days a week on top of running, especially if you’re training for a long-distance event like a marathon and even more so if it’s your first. In fact, I would say if you’re training for your first marathon or looking to get a Boston-qualifying time, I wouldn’t recommend starting a strength training routine because it will likely be too much for your body. Save the weights for after your big goal race or even better in the months before you start training for your goal race.

My theory when it comes to strength training is try to mix things up. Like I mentioned earlier, I like to do exercises that work my full body by the time I’m done. One day you could do some row-type exercises for your lower and mid-back and chest fly exercises, some planks, and maybe some shoulder presses, bicep curls, and tricep extensions with some leg work like squats. The next time do some lat or upper back exercises, some chest presses, superman (for core), bridge pose, lunges, and push-ups.

Another important point is to make sure you run first before you do strength training if running is your priority. Ideally, it’s recommended to allow 2-3 hours between running and strength training, but I don’t think that’s feasible for most people so just do whatever you can. Make sure you’re not doing strength training on harder running days like speed workouts. I always go to the gym on days when I have an easy, shorter run. I’ll run easy for anywhere from 30-40 minutes depending on where I am in my half marathon training plan then drive to the gym, which may take 30 minutes. I also never start out with leg exercises right after I’ve run, but save them for later in my workout to allow them as much of a break as possible.

If all of this seems way too complicated to you and you don’t even know where to get started, I suggest joining a gym that offers one-on-one sessions with personal trainers if you can afford it or are able to given the current situation. You might be surprised at how affordable this can be, if you shop around. If that’s just not an option for you (especially now during the pandemic), there are some great resources online. Ones that offer videos are the best, so you can actually see the exercise being performed properly. Some of the ones I like are:

Runner’s Blueprint

Women’s Health

Outside

There are of course many others, but these offer a pretty nice array of exercises that you can easily do at home. You just need to pick up some free weights, kettle bells if possible, and resistance bands and you’re all set! If you’re truly a brand-new beginner to all of this, you can just use body weight to start and work your way up from there once the exercises feel easy to you. There are also apps for strength training but I’ve never used any of them nor do I know anyone who has, so I really can’t speak about those.

One of the biggest factors in strength training is actually doing it. Just like you set a schedule for running, put it in your calendar when you’ll be working out and you’ll be more likely to do it. You may find you actually look forward to your time doing strength training; I know I do!

Now to get to the part about my personal results. My gym was closed for six months due to the pandemic. While I have some weights, an exercise ball, and some resistance bands at home, I’ll be the first to admit I slacked off, especially as time wore on. You might think it would be the opposite and after months of not working out I would be craving more of it, but no; I did less. The one thing I didn’t slack off is core work, which I feel is huge for runners.

Finally after my gym re-opened, I was at first a bit hesitant about going back, but my fears were quickly put to ease when I saw how empty the gym was and how everyone was wearing masks and wiping down the equipment after use. Also the bathrooms were closed and there was hand sanitizer everywhere. Still, I didn’t want to over-do it and not be able to move so I was relatively conservative with the weights.

Do you want to know what I found out? The only part of me that was even a little sore was my chest. Even after not hitting the weights pretty hard like I used to for six months I was just slightly sore. That along with the fact that my running hadn’t suffered any while I wasn’t doing strength training changed my opinion a bit about the “importance” of strength training for runners. It doesn’t change my mind about the importance of strength training for everyone to help prevent muscle loss due to aging, however.

Looking back at my running stats those six months when I wasn’t going to the gym for strength training, my times weren’t any slower, even when the heat of summer hit. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised by my findings because I always firmly believed strength training was helping me be a faster, stronger runner. Now I question that. Not that I’m going to stop going to the gym now that it’s open again because again, the whole muscle loss thing.

And before you begin to lecture me, I realize this is a study of one and for a relatively short period. Also, I was starting with a firmly established base, as far as strength training goes, before my break from it. I have no doubt if I would have taken even longer, say a year, from strength training, I would have seen the effects not just in my running but in daily life as well.

What about you- do you regularly do strength training? Do you cycle strength training months with marathon or half marathon season(s)? Or do you hate strength training and avoid it at all costs? Did you stop going to the gym for strength training because of the pandemic and if so have you been back lately?

Happy running!

Donna

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