A new Finnish study says heavy weightlifting is best, but is it?
Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
There are three basic types of resistance training a runner can do. One is muscular endurance training, which entails performing fairly large numbers of repetitions with moderate resistance. Think 15 lunges with each leg while holding light dumbbells. A second type of resistance training that some runners do is heavy weightlifting. Think 6 repetitions of barbell half squats with a load too heavy to lift 8 times. A third type is explosive strength training. Think box jumps.
Which of these three types of resistance training is best for runners? A new study published in the Journal of Sports Science attempted to answer this question. Scientists at the Research Institute of Olympic Sport in Finland recruited 27 male recreational runners to participate in the study. All of the subjects underwent six weeks of identical preparatory training and were then separated into three groups. For the next eight weeks one group supplemented its running with muscle endurance training, a second did heavy weightlifting, and the third group trained for explosive strength.
All of the runners were subjected to a variety of tests before and after the eight-week intervention. Maximum strength in the quadriceps, maximum quadriceps muscle activation (i.e., EMG activity in the quadriceps), maximum jump height, maximum speed in an anaerobic running test, time to exhaustion in an endurance running test, VO2max, and running economy were measured.
Members of the heavy weightlifting and explosive strength training groups saw improvements in their maximum strength and maximum muscle activation, while members of the muscle endurance training group did not. The highest speed attained in the anaerobic running test and the maximum jump height increased only in the heavy weightlifting group. But improvements were about equal in all of the tests that really matter to runners: endurance, VO2max, and running economy.
The authors of this study concluded that heavy weightlifting is the best form of resistance training for distance runners on the grounds that it improved these last three variables as much as the other types while also improving anaerobic running performance, which the others failed to do.
My own belief is that runners should do a mix of all three types of resistance training, because different types of training are most appropriate for different muscles groups and because the benefits of the three types are complementary to a certain degree.
When I was a youth runner in the 1980s, most experts advocated muscle endurance training for runners. Heavier forms of resistance training were deemed inappropriate for runners, who do not need a ton of raw strength. What they need is muscular endurance, so why not train specifically to increase that capacity in the gym? This reasoning has been validated by research. A very recent study conducted at England’s Northumbria University found an inverse relationship been muscle endurance as tested in the gym and the loss of running economy that occurred with increasing fatigue during a running test. All runners lose efficiency as their form falls apart when they run to the point of fatigue, but runners with better muscle endurance maintain their economy better. So it’s a good idea to train for muscle endurance in the gym.
However, both heavy strength training and explosive strength training have been shown to increase running economy generally, before fatigue even sets in. The mechanism is completely different from that by which muscle endurance training works. Heavy and explosive strength increase the stiffness of the legs during running, so that less energy is lost to the ground during the ground contact phase of the stride. Explosive strength training is also proven to increase maximum sprint speed, and a distance runner can never have too much of that.
Besides yielding complementary benefits, the three types of resistance training are more or less appropriate to different muscle groups. Muscle endurance training is generally best for muscles whose primary role is providing stability. These muscles include the hip abductors, the hip external rotators, and the abdominal muscles. Heavy strength training is best for muscles that act mainly as prime movers and as shock absorbers during running: the quadriceps, the hamstrings, and the glutes. Explosive strength training, or jumping, on the other hand, conditions movements more than it does individual muscles.
So while this new study out of Finland suggests that, if you could only do one type of resistance training, it should probably be heavy strength training, fortunately you don’t have to make that choice, and you’re better off doing all three.