Weight training will slow me down … and other tall tales
By Herb Kieklak, CSCS, USATF Coach
Every professional athlete—from linebackers to third basemen—is doing it. Even scrawny pro cyclists do it. Runners, however, take off in the other direction at the mere suggestion. Am I talking doping? Steroids? Nope. Something far scarier to runners, especially long distance runners: Weight training!
Why do runners (other than track-and-field athletes) cringe like a vampire to garlic at the suggestion of lifting a barbell? Let’s take a look at some of the tall tales runners tend to believe about weight training.
Tall Tale #1: Running by itself will make me a better runner
It’s a common belief that if you just keep running, you will become a stronger, more efficient runner. While this may work when acquiring some new skills (learning to play guitar on your own comes to mind), it is not the best method. A few runners may actually get stronger initially, but eventually they plateau. As far as running efficiency goes, it gets worse because bad habits become ingrained. Some runners develop an out-of-control style that is downright scary. These people are injuries waiting to happen.
Tall Tale #2: Weight training will make me slower
When advised to begin weight training, many runners cite the excuse that weight training will make them slow. My response is sure it will, if done wrong. When athletes perform slow, heavy exercises like squats or leg presses it makes them stronger, but not faster. But when you use explosive lifts or dynamic plyometrics, you develop the kind of power that helps you run fast. Remember the rule of specificity of training: do exercises designed for your training goals.
Tall Tale #3: Weight training will make me bulk up
A skinny marathon runner once told me that weight training made his thighs too big and it slowed him down. Really?! Any certified strength coach will tell you that it takes a very rigorous schedule to produce muscle hypertrophy (bulk), plus you need to eat a very exact high-protein, high-calorie diet to feed that muscle growth. If it were that easy to bulk up, we would all look like The Arnold.
Tall Tale #4: Weight training eats into my running time
Think you don’t have time to weight train? Yes, you do. Research studies published in the National Strength and Conditioning Association journals show that cyclists were able to improve their performance with just twice-weekly sessions of 20 minutes each. So when you go to the gym, don’t stand and gab. Just do the work.
Tall Tale #5: I run hills so I don’t need weight training
To that I say, “Good job, now get real.” Dr. Michael Yessis’ classic book Explosive Running debunked this concept. Strength training—by definition—requires a systematic and progressive overload. So unless that hill always gets bigger or you carry more weight each time you run, then you are not getting progressive overload. However, hills will help you build muscle endurance.
Tall Tale #6: Lifting weights makes my muscles cramp
Current research shows that cramping is more likely related to muscle fatigue than electrolyte depletion. Stronger muscles are in fact more resistant to fatigue and cramping.
Tall Tale #7: Weight training has no bearing on injury prevention
Olympic-gold medalist Sebastian Coe did extensive strength training to correct muscle imbalances in his body. This later prevented injuries during his most intense training periods. Strength training can improve muscle/tendon tensile strength similar to running higher mileage, but without the pounding. And even Andy Robinson, the current recorder holder of Crooms 50-mile ultramarathon, will admit that a strength-training program may not have made him faster, but it did shorten his recovery time and decreased cramping that used to hamper him at end of marathons.
Benefits of weight training for runners
- Improves muscle and tendon tissue strength without the pounding.
- Allows for correction of muscle imbalances which helps to prevent injuries and improves running economy.
- Decreases recovery time.
- Helps stabilize joints to reduce wear and tear and injury.
- Decreases cramping.
- Controlled setting—independent of weather, daylight, traffic, etc.
- Takes less time than running a couple of miles.