Heavy Lifting For Better Running

Learn to embrace the heavy barbell and reap the rewards of faster, farther and more connected running. Photo: Vance Jacobs Photography

Instead of low weight and more reps, do the opposite — safely.

When it comes to strength and conditioning, most runners and coaches believe that the heavy barbell is risky, unnecessary, and too body building. They believe that they will get hurt, gain too much bulk, or get slower. As runners we believe these things because … well have been taught anything different?

Simultaneously, we have been taught the importance of “core” and that we need to “balance” our muscles, so we train our hamstrings and glutes, for example, to counter our quadriceps dominance. We settle for a middle ground approach: mostly muscle-activating exercises at low to moderate weight and a higher rep count. While this approach gets us pointed in the right direction, it falls woefully short of what our strength and conditioning program should be for optimal running.

Athletes who do not expose themselves to heavy weights miss out on a few important elements. One, lifting heavier teaches us to move with greater skill—because we have to. Athletes must learn how to move with posture, load, and torque, emphasizing the skill behind moving in good positions. If we do not lift heavy, we miss out on this vital biomechanical feedback, we cannot challenge and refine these basic skills, and we perpetuate the movement patterns that are both inefficient and the source of a lot of our injury.

Allow me to repeat: Muscle-balancing exercises and abs classes teach us to engage muscle but not how to move in better positions with posture, load, and torque. Kelly Starrett, owner of San Francisco CrossFit owner and physical therapist, teaches that position is power. “If we lose our good position — and we do it often — we run into trouble,” Starrett said.

When runners lose posture and muscular tension they invite instability. The lion’s share of overuse injuries — IT band problems, runners knee, shin splints, Achilles issues and Plantar Fascitis — can be strongly associated with the loss of a good running position and the resulting instability in the hips, knees, ankles, and feet.

And a question worth asking: Should these classic overuse injuries be treated as individual and isolated events — as they have been — or as different symptoms of the same problem? By teaching runners how to maintain a more stable athletic position for longer periods of time, Dr. Starrett believes we can prevent runners from dealing with these frustrating injuries in the first place.

RELATED: Work Your Core

So how exactly does lifting heavy develop our athletic skills and challenge our basic positions? To answer this question, we need to discuss what our “core” actually is.

To talk about core, we first need to discuss its role with posture. To us, posture means two things: the proper alignment of a good athletic position, and the necessary muscular tension required to maintain that position. In the pushup, maintaining a straight plank position is only half the battle. We need whole body muscular tension — not just a strong stomach — in order to maintain this good position. If we do not lockout our legs and squeeze our butt, then we are missing out on this tension. Furthermore, we do not develop the feel for this muscular tension and cannot translate it to our other lifts or to our running.

Once learned in the pushup, runners further challenge their posture and pressing mechanics with a progressively heavy overhead press. Runners will quickly notice that the overhead press develops this whole body muscular tension in addition to the shoulder position and mechanics because it requires it! In fact, athletes are surprised by how much their legs and trunk have to work to stabilize this weight.

VIDEO: Practice Proper Squatting Technique

And runners who safely handle heavier weights develop an unparalleled feel for the muscular tension required to maintain their posture. Specifically, a heavy overhead press teaches athletes how to develop 100 percent muscular tension and stability. Akin to engineers building a bridge to handle more cars and weight than required, we can train our body to develop more muscular tension than it will ever need to run far or fast.

Brian MacKenzie, founder of CrossFit Endurance argues that if runners can develop a better feel for 100 percent muscular tension, they become more adept at feathering this tension to the appropriate level. For example, a sprint might require 90-plus percent, a 5-kilometer race might require 70 percent, and the slow warm up jog might require only 30 percent muscular tension. While the percentages are approximations, the lesson is this: they all require varying degrees of tension, and runners must know how to create the appropriate tension.

Remember, running at different speeds demands different amounts of postural strength and stability. We want to train our runners to develop the necessary muscular tension so that they can run fast and run far without breaking down. If athletes break down before their finish line, they fall into a bad running position, invite instability, and risk perpetuating overuse injuries.

RELATED: The Best Weightlifting Program For Runners

As coaches, we teach the basics with pushups. We progress our runners with an overhead press. As our runners improve, we continue to challenge their posture and muscular tension by progressively lifting heavier weights. Runners who learn to lift heavy weights safely and effectively learn to develop 100 percent muscular tension. Once established, they can adopt the requisite muscular tension needed to support whatever run speed and distance.

We have previously been taught that lifting heavy is dangerous, unnecessary and counterproductive. However, from our skill-based approach to strength and conditioning, lifting heavy is both vital and necessary to develop our posture and core strength.

While a great start is the overhead press, we can apply these principles to any barbell lift. Remember: lifting heavy is important, but moving with basic athletic skills is more important. Lifting heavier weights should never feel unstable or sketchy. Properly done, lifting heavy is an intuitive athlete-guided process that progresses with the athlete’s skill, strength and comfort level.

So learn to embrace the heavy barbell and reap the rewards of faster, farther, and more connected running!

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About The Author:

Nate Helming coaches strength and mobility for national and international-level road cyclists, mountain bikers, triathletes and ultrarunners at San Francisco CrossFit, as well as elite-level amateur runners and triathletes outside the gym. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter and check out his videos on The Run Experience YouTube channel 

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