Thirsty (for knowledge) Thursday: Strength Training for Endurance Athletes

>> Thursday, October 15, 2015

Runner's World shared an article earlier this year about some misconceptions regarding strength training for runners. It's written by a local guy named Luke Carlson who is an exercise physiologist and marathoner who focuses on strength training for long-distance runners. Some of his "myths" are a little insulting to our intelligence, but he makes some note-worthy points throughout this article.

MYTH 1: Runners don't need to lift weights. To get stronger, run more.

Running--and the optimal balance of volume, intensity and pace-specific work--will always be the primary focus of a distance runner's training program. And rightly so. Strength training, however, presents a different physiological stimulus, one that includes a host of distinct benefits that running doesn't provide, but which are crucial to health and optimal performance.

Strength training works two ways: It prevents injuries, and it enhances performance. Properly performed, strength training provides the foundation for injury-free running and the ability to adhere to the regimen of mileage, speed and tempo work. Numerous studies have proven that strength training will enhance running performance. A 2013 review of research in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports showed that resistance training improves running economy and endurance muscle fibers. Other studies have linked weight training to better body composition and resting metabolic rates. As we age, strength training is particularly important, as recent studies have proven that running does not protect against the gradual loss of lean muscle tissue and, as we lose muscle, we also lose a larger percentage of our fast-twitch muscle fibers.

MYTH 2: Lift on your off or easy days to balance your hard-run efforts.

It is optimal to piggyback strength-training workouts with quality runs. For example, do a tempo run in the morning, followed by a 20- to 30-minute strength workout at noon or evening. This work complements the training effect of the running, then you fully recover from both on easy days.

MYTH 3: You need to strength train several times a week to see benefits.

A very small amount of strength training can stimulate tremendous benefit. Strength train only once or twice per week. More is not better. The total weekly strength-training time commitment should be 30–60 minutes.

MYTH 4: The key area to work on is the core; running works all other areas.

Research indicates that upper-body, lower-body and midsection strength training all contribute to improved running performance. You should do exercises that involve all of the major muscle groups. Rather than specifically strengthening an area that you assume is weak, you are better off developing strength in all muscle groups, which will create balance and synergy.

MYTH 5: Body-weight exercises are more basic and appropriate for runners than going to the weight room.

A strength-training exercise is simply a biomechanical or anatomical movement with resistance. The resistance may come from a band, a machine, body weight or a free weight--our muscles can't decipher where the resistance originates. So a lunge, a squat and a leg press are essentially the same exercise; they involve knee extension and hip extension caused by the glutes and quadriceps. Over the years, we have come to look at certain exercises as more elementary, but there is really no scientific or theoretical basis for this. For example, some say beginners shouldn't bench-press; they should do pushups instead. But a pushup represents far too much resistance for some people. A bench press (or any variation of machine that involves a press) allows for many different resistance increments, from light to heavy; therefore, it can be more appropriate for beginners.

MYTH 6: Lift with quick movements to work power and improve speed.

It's more effective to lift and lower the weight slowly. Take two to three seconds to lift the weight and at least four seconds to lower the weight. A mantra for the distance runner is, "To become fast, lift slowly." If you move quickly, you incorporate momentum, unload your muscles and minimize muscle fiber involvement. Additionally, the faster you move, the greater the forces imposed on your joints and connective tissue and the greater the risk for injury. To create the explosive effort without the risks of fast movement, have the intent to lift the weight as fast as you possibly can near the end of each set of exercises, when you are fatigued. Fast movement will be impossible at this point, but from a muscle fiber recruitment standpoint, it is fast-twitch training. This type of strength training is safer than plyometric exercises.

MYTH 7: You need to do lots of reps to build endurance strength for distance running.

The number of repetitions is not critically important. Runners have been told to perform a high number of reps to specifically enhance muscle endurance. Research has revealed that doing five reps or 20 reps will produce the same benefit in terms of muscle strength and endurance.

MYTH 8: Use light weights and don't exhaust yourself when lifting for distance running.

Many runners assume that lifting heavy weights can predispose to injury, when in fact, fast movements that create high external forces on joints predispose to injury. Lift a weight heavy enough to exhaust you in eight to 20 reps. Train to the point of momentary muscle fatigue. Focus on continuing each set of exercises until it is utterly impossible to complete another perfect rep. This ensures optimal muscle fiber involvement.

Related to this is a "Thirsty Thursday" post from a few months ago that talks about if we should be lifting HEAVY or LIGHT weights.

For more "Thirsty Thursday" posts that highlight workouts, body science, and all kinds of interesting information, CLICK HERE.


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