Many runners really underestimate the benefits that a well-designed strength training program can bring to their running. As well as increasing performance, building strength also increases your body’s resilience and helps minimise running-related injuries. Often the reason that runners don’t include strength exercises in their program is due to believing in some common myths about how strength training will affect their body and their running, so lets review the top 5 myths of strength training for runners.
Myth 1: Strength Training Will Make Me Put On Muscle
Yes, it is true that some types of strength training will enlarge your muscles, known as hypertrophy. But this is dictated by how you strength train, how you eat and how much aerobic exercise you are doing outside of your strength work, as well as your genetics of course.
The chances of increasing weight while following a runner’s training plan are extremely low. Most people are limited by their genetics and body type and probably couldn’t put much muscle mass on even if they wanted to.
Strength training for runners should focus on training the nervous system to produce high levels of force over short periods of time. This is done by training movement patterns in small doses rather than training individual muscles to failure.
When strength training is combined with endurance training a phenomenon known as the “interference effect” occurs. This is where any hypertrophy is dampened by high levels of endurance training. The signalling pathways that encourage muscle growth are blocked by an enzyme that is released with repeated muscular contractions, as seen in running.
If you are one of those rare people who tend to put on muscle very easily, you can further reduce the hypertrophy effect by completing an easy run immediately after your strength session.
Myth 2: Runners Don’t Need To Lift Weights To Get Faster, We Just Need To Run More
The truth: There is no arguing that in order to get better at running you need to run, in fact you probably need to run a lot and at some point you will probably need to run more. The problem is, running a lot, and in isolation, often leads to overuse injuries. Among many benefits, strength training improves our tissues tolerance to training and helps prevent overuse injuries. This results in more consistent and uninterrupted blocks of training and ultimately to improved performance.
Resistance training improves running economy and builds muscle fibres. This is particularly important as we age, as it can off set the gradual loss of lean muscle tissue and strength. This age-related loss of muscle also means we lose a large percentage of our fast-twitch muscle fibres.
Training with weights will also provide the body with an anabolic (i.e. tissue building) response which is highly beneficial for hormonal health, recovery and growth, as opposed to endurance training which is highly catabolic, meaning it breaks our bodies down.
Myth 3: Strength Training Will Cause Injury
The perception of many runners and coaches is that lifting heavy loads is a high risk activity. If progression is hurried or exercises are performed with poor technique then of course injury becomes a valid concern. However, the risk of injury is greatly reduced when runners learn the correct technique and progress their program under the guidance of an experienced coach.
Runners are far more likely to get injured from running than they are from strength work. Compared to all other activities, weight training carries an extremely low level of risk. For example one study reported 2-4 injuries for every 10,000 hours of gym-based strength & conditioning exercise. In fact, you might be surprised to learn the forces that a runner’s body experiences during running and foot strike far outweighs the loads that a runner will experience in a gym setting.
Myth 4: Strength Training Will Result In Unwanted Muscle Soreness
Most runners are fearful that weight training will cause muscle soreness and interfere with their running sessions.
DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is often the result of eccentric muscle contractions and movements that may be new to a person. The soreness is due to microscopic damage to areas of a muscle. However, despite the soreness from DOMS it has not been shown to negatively affect endurance performance and is generally only short lived.
Once you have completed an exercise for the first time the muscle(s) are quick to adapt and cope better with the same subsequent loads so DOMS is unlikely to occur again and certainly not at the same intensity. If you are experiencing DOMs after every session then you are probably training incorrectly. This could mean you are lifting too much weight or are pushing your exercises to failure, which is not advised.
It is advised to avoid heavy bouts of strength training before speed/tempo sessions and races and also avoid starting new routines or exercises too close to important sessions and races.
Myth 5: Strength Training Should Not Be Performed By Younger Runners
There is a common belief that young or adolescent athletes shouldn’t be doing strength and conditioning training and that it is dangerous for them. The fact is, of all the people who should be including strength training into their routine it is the youth athlete.
The truth is excessive amounts of endurance and anaerobic training is far more harmful to the developing body and mind than a well designed and appropriately monitored strength routine ever could be.
One of the myths around children undertaking strength training is that it will ‘stunt growth’ through injury to growth plates. This concern has been dispelled time and time again by research which actually shows positive effects on the developing skeleton for the young athlete undertaking strength training. In fact it has been found that mechanical stress placed on the growth plates may actually be beneficial for bone formation, density, and growth. With the rate of bone stress injuries involved in endurance running, this can only be seen as a positive thing.
During adolescence children have a rare window of time where their potential and capacity to develop new movement skills is enormous. Post puberty this begins to slow. By introducing strength training at an early age they will maximize their potential and minimize their chances of injury down the track.
Not only is strength training healthy for the youth athlete, it also helps to maintain a balance in their training and avoid monotony. This may reduce the high levels of dropout that often occurs around these years in an intense, pain-inducing sport like distance running.
While resistance training should be included in the programs of all young runners, sessions should obviously be supervised by a qualified coach and the priority should be technique and quality of movement. This will set them up with the foundations for later in their careers/lives. Young athletes should start by learning technique with their own bodyweight before moving onto things such as broomsticks, resistance bands, medicine balls and dumbbells.
Dave Costello – Running Strength And Conditioning Coach
Dave is our specialist strength and conditioning coach for runners. He helps runners of all abilities, from recreational to elite, to achieve their running goals by maximising their performance and minimising their risk of injury. He is a dedicated runner himself so he really understands the physical and mental demands of running, and how to integrate an effective strength program into your running routine.
If you have a question about strength training for runners please feel free to email Dave on Dave@centralperformance.com.au or contact him for some helpful advice.