Should Distance Runners Lift Heavy?

Next time you're at the gym, don't be afraid to lift some weights. Your running will improve. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

You’ll be surprised how much strength work you should be doing in the gym.

In addition to aerobic development, one of the key components to running faster is improving your ability to produce a forceful stride quickly and efficiently. Simply speaking, the more power you can generate with each stride while using a minimal amount of energy, the faster you can run.

Moreover, if you can continue to generate powerful strides without hitting an intensity that is so high you cannot sustain it, you’ll be able to maintain this faster pace for a longer distance.

So how do you increase your ability to produce powerful strides as a runner?

Let’s assume that the highest amount of power you could produce at a full sprint was 500 watts (watts is a measurement of power generated during exercise). At your peak fitness, you can run a 10k at 50 percent of your maximal power. This means your submaximal sustainable power is about 250 watts.

When you make yourself stronger, say by lifting heavy weights at near max effort, you might be able to improve your sprint power from 500 to 600 watts. In doing so, you move your submaximal sustainable power during a 10k from 250 to 300 watts. Given you’re now generating more power with the same effort, you’ll be able to run considerably faster.

So, while lifting heavy for a distance runner may not appear to be sport-specific since it is a completely different energy system, it can be beneficial, as it will help you to work at a higher capacity during a distance race without accumulating enough fatigue to stop your efforts.

Why Not Lift Heavy Weights All The Time?

If after reading the first section you’re wondering why more training schedules don’t include serious amounts of heavy lifting, there are three reasons.

First, power is only one factor when it comes to running performance. Of much greater importance is your aerobic system and your ability to clear lactate. Having a strong, powerful stride will only take you so far if you don’t have the aerobic system to support it.

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Second, while I used a fairly dramatic improvement in the previous example, increasing your sustained watts at submaximal effort isn’t quite that easy. Cyclists who are accustomed to measuring watts will tell you that an improvement in 20 to 50 watts is difficult to obtain. As such, even if you only focused on improving your wattage output as a runner, the improvement wouldn’t be dramatic. This type of training is for the advanced runner looking to squeeze out that extra 5 or 10 percent from their training.

Finally, the difficulty in adding heavy weight training to your training schedule is that it’s very tiring. Like a hard track workout, lifting heavy will leave your muscles sore and tired the next day. The more heavy lifting you do, the less effective you’ll be on workout days. As such, you should follow the hard days hard, easy days easy principle when adding heavy lifting to your training.

Won’t Lifting Heavy Weights Bulk Me Up?

Not surprisingly, many runners are worried that lifting heavy weights will bulk them up. The benefits of adding power to your stride would be negated if it also added weight to your frame. Luckily for runners, it is a myth that heavy weights will cause to bulk up.

Muscle “bulk” is dependent on several variables, which include adequate nutrition (excess calories), an optimal stimulus in the form of specific, heavy training 4-5 times per week, and enough rest from catabolic activities (such as running) so that adaptation may occur. If any of these variables are not in place, “bulk” will not occur.

Specifically, you shouldn’t be lifting heavy more than once or twice per week and the vast majority of your training will be in the form of running. Therefore, the time you spend running will vastly outnumber the time spent lifting heavy. This will also prevent any excess bulk.

Why Lifting Heavy Is Better Than Lifting Lighter

It’s often claimed (since distance running is endurance oriented) that the use of high reps should be incorporated into a runner’s weight training program. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The main idea behind doing high repetitions is that you’ll build more endurance in the muscle. Unfortunately, there are two critical flaws in this logic.

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First, recent research has shown that performing repetitions in the 12-20 range does not increase muscular endurance any more than the 6-8 repetition range. Second, you’re already working on your muscular endurance when out on the road and when doing track workouts. Therefore, it would be a waste of time in the gym to continue to work on the same energy system using less specific movements.

Research has shown that the optimal repetition range for strength and power gains is in the 4-6 range. This allows for maximum muscle overload and will recruit the most muscle fibers, leading to increased strength and size. Because rep ranges are shorter, all your mental energy is set on doing just 4-6 repetitions and, therefore, psychological intensity is maximized. This allows you to achieve better muscle overload.

If you’re looking for that final 5 to 10 percent improvement in your running, consider adding one or two sessions per week of heavy, explosive training. My recommended routine includes three sets of single-leg squats, box step-ups, straight leg deadlifts, and hamstring cable pulls. By incorporating this routine, you’ll develop a more powerful stride and improve your efficiency when running at race pace.

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