Myths and Truths: Strength Training for Runners

The way to get better at running is to run.

This is a sentiment that many runners subscribe to.  While there is truth to the need to run to become a better runner, cross training and strength training can improve your running without the high impact.  Let’s be real for a moment, running is extremely hard on the body, so anything you can do to keep your body injury free WHILE improving your running without further impact on the body is a win-win.

A well-designed strength program will supplement your run training by adding strength and durability.  This means you will get faster, stronger, and less likely to incur an injury.

Here are a few common myths and truths about strength training as part of a runners training program:

 

Myth: You only need to do strength exercises when you’re injured to fix the injury.

Truth: As a general rule, runners exist in a vicious cycle of chronic injury. The cycle begins with an injury. The runner might then see a physiotherapist or other professional, do their prescribed rehab exercises, then jump right back into the program that injured them while letting the exercises fall to the wayside because the injury is “fixed.”

Injury occurs when the external load exceeds the load bearing capacity of the tissues. Put simply, if your joints, tissues and muscles are not strong enough to perform the tasks you’re asking of them, an injury is inevitable. When an injury occurs, it is because the tissues can’t handle the training load. When an injury is rehabbed fully and properly, it means that the tissues have been restored back to their normal functioning capacity – equal to pre-injury capacity, or ideally even higher. If you do not rehab fully, and jump back into the same running program with tissues that have lower load bearing capacity than they did before, it is no wonder that the injury reoccurs.

Strength training will increase the load bearing capacity of your muscles and tissues in a way that running can’t. This translates to being able to handle a higher training load, with a reduced chance of injury. Strength training will allow you to run more!

 

Myth:  Strength training will make you big and bulky.

Truth: Strength training will add lean muscle mass. Trust me, as someone who actively tries to gain visible muscle, I would love to be able to run everyday and also have the physique of Hugh Jackman in Wolverine. The reality is that this isn’t what happens when you lift weights unless you train very hard and very specifically.

In distance running, the goal is to get from the start to the finish as fast as possible. For many, weights equal muscles, which equal more mass to carry, and this translates to slower times. There is some truth to the idea that the heavier you are, the slower you will be; however, a gain in lean muscle mass is not the same as a gain in adipose or fatty tissue. Adipose tissue is useless weight that you have to carry, while muscle tissue can help do the work. Think of strength training as adding hands to help do the work.

 

Myth: Strength training takes away from your run training.

Truth: A proper strength routine should add to your run training, not take away from it. Your program should be designed to prepare you for your sport. Running is about efficiency, so a training program designed to strengthen hip extension, arm drive, and rotational core, will make you more efficient in your sport. If you find yourself doing a program that includes biceps curls, ditch it. Favour a program that includes functional movement (i.e., exercises that will carry over into your running ability) over isolated exercises.

You don’t have to spend hours in the gym to get strength benefits. It can mean as little as 30-40 mins 2-3 times per week. Your time in the gym should also shift as your running program shifts, meaning less time doing strength work during the high volume weeks and as you get closer to competition. Strength training is your side dish, while running is your entrée. Neither is complete on its own!

 

Kristen Hansen, BA, CSEP-CPT, PFT-NAIT, NASM-CES, FRCms