Ask The Experts: What’s The Best Weightlifting Program For Runners?

Q.

Dear Experts,

Runners are, too often I think, considered to be merely that. By which I mean, those who participate in other sports are viewed as “athletes”, whereas runners are typecast as one-trick ponies. As much as I think this stereotype misses the variety in a proper running routine, I have to agree that it applies in some cases. To this point, I was wondering what an optimal weight training routine might be, which would, in theory, increase practical strength and flexibility, as well as (because we all have egos) help put on a little aesthetic muscle. I am particularly interested in the role squats and deadlifts might play, given their noted benefits for general athleticism.

Thanks, Alex

A.

Alex,

It’s an interesting question: Do runners need to be well-rounded athletes? On the surface it may seem that they do not. After all, the sport consists in simply running in a straight line at submaximal speed for long periods of time. That’s about as one-dimensional as a sporting challenge can be. Thus it is sensible to assume that runners can attain maximum race performance by doing nothing else besides prolonged, submaximal running in training. And there are indeed many runners who attain very high levels of performance through such one-dimensional training.

But if you look below the surface you will see that the capacity to sustain relatively high speeds for long periods of time interpenetrates with other fitness attributes, including raw endurance, movement efficiency, flexibility, balance, mobility, strength, and power. It is obvious that, while running itself does a fine job of enhancing running capacity as a composite of all of these fitness attributes, it does not maximize any of these individual attributes, or come anywhere close in most cases. So the next question is this: Do runners get all the mobility, strength, etc. they need from running alone, or does their running performance stand to benefit if they work to increase these capacities beyond the degree to which running itself can increase them through cross-training activities such as weightlifting?

The best evidence suggests that runners do indeed race best (and get injured less) if they cross-train. Your question was specific to weightlifting, and was basically this: What is the best way for runners to lift weights?

You might expect me to say that there is no single best way for runners to lift weights, and yes, that’s exactly what I believe. If you look at the real-world examples of runners who do lift weights you will see various approaches yielding more or less equal success. But here are some general principles that apply universally:

Take a minimalistic approach to strength training. Most runners do not particularly enjoy lifting weights and they don’t have a lot of time to lift weights. Therefore it’s best for runners to design strength-training programs for themselves that yield results in the most time-efficient manner possible. I believe that runners can get meaningful benefit from as little as two, 20-minute strength-training sessions per week. They’ll get a little more benefit from three, 30-minute sessions (which is what I do), but there is no need to do any more than 90 minutes per week.

Keep it simple. Strength training can quickly become intimidating and overwhelming if you feel obligated to make it complex, with constant variation in workout design and all kinds of unfamiliar exercises to learn. There is no need for this. A very simple and repetitive strength training program can be quite effective, and may be more beneficial to your running than a more complex program by helping you maintain a positive attitude toward cross-training. Leave the fancy periodization to your running. I do pretty much the same strength workout every time, and I know I’m getting a ton out of it.

Divide your strength training into three phases. While it is important to keep your strength-training program simple, a modicum of variation is necessary. When you first start strength training, you should do so with an “adaptation phase” that consists of simple, isolated exercises, most of which involve only bodyweight resistance, to gently inure your muscles and joints to the challenge of resistance training. I’m talking about walking lunges, side-lying legs lifts, push-ups, etc. Then you can transition into a functional strengthening phase that incorporates more challenging exercises that deliver the big gains in strength and power you seek. The third phase is an off-season phase. During the winter, when you are not actively training for any races, you should increase your commitment to strength training to develop a reserve of strength to carry you through the racing season, when you have less time and energy to pump iron. If you normally do two, 20-minute sessions per week during the racing season, the off-season is the time to go to three, 30-minute sessions.

Chooses the right exercises. Your strength-training regimen should include three types of exercises: “corrective” exercises that strengthen muscles in isolation that are typically weak in runners; functional strength exercises that build strength in ways that translate directly into running performance; and power exercises.

The most important muscles to target with corrective exercises are the feet and ankle muscles, the hip abductors and hip external rotators, the vastus medialis, the abdominals, and the low back muscles. The best functional strength exercises are those that simulate components of the run stride, those that entail transfer of forces between the lower and upper body, and those that entail controlling rotational forces. The best power exercises are single-leg jumping exercises.

Squats and deadlifts are great. But there are some variations on these old standby’s that make them especially beneficial for runners. Instead of doing traditional full squats, do half squats with very heavy weight (enough weight that you can complete only 4-8 repetitions per set). Half-squats more closely simulate the running stride than full squats, and they allow you to build more strength because you can lift more weight.

And instead of doing traditional deadlifts, do split-stance dumbbell deadlifts. With the latter you work one leg at a time, just as you run with alternating single-leg movements. Split-stance dumbbell deadlifts do a fantastic job of strengthening the gluteus maximus, which is the most important “prime mover” in running, and the gluteus medius and hip abductors, which are critical hip stabilizers during the stance phase of the stride.

Matt

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Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.

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