Choose to Get Stronger [Part 2] My Story + How to Get Started with Strength Training

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In our basement home gym. One of my favorite quotes is this one by Jocko Willink

Do you strength train?

In this episode and blog post I share the story of how strength training improved my running. I also answer great questions sent in by listeners.

Plus I’ll give you some tips on how to get started correctly.

Hopefully you were able to listen to Part 1 and were convinced of the importance of strength training.

My Story + How to Get Started with Strength Training

From Zero Strength Training to 3-5 Days Per Week

First Marathon Mistakes

My first marathon-the kids eating my snacks!

While training for my first marathon in 2008 all I did for training was running. I did zero strength training or cross training and struggled with near constant injury which was very frustrating. After the race I had to take three months off from running to heal my IT band.

During that recovery time I discovered yoga and started doing some form of power yoga or Vinyasa yoga two times per week.  Yoga helped me build a lot of strength, balance, and stability through body weight movements and poses.  I also learned to listen to my body more and got a lot of information about where I was tight and where there were muscle imbalances. Yoga was the first step in my progression to getting stronger.

Second Marathon
While I was training for my second marathon a year later I had the goal of breaking 4:00 hours for the first time. I was still doing yoga regularly and also added in a bit of strength training at the gym using weight machines. 

At this point I still didn’t have the confidence to use the free weights and I didn’t have much of a plan.  But there’s still a good amount of strength that can be gained from using machines and it was exciting to keep progressing a bit. I met my marathon time goal and for the next several years continued regular yoga in addition to my running but wasn’t very dedicated to a strength training regimen.

I started going through some health struggles caused by hormonal imbalances in 2015. Because of the fatigue and weight gain I wasn’t seeing any progress in my running which was very frustrating.  In fact I was getting slower. But I started doing more strength training at the gym.  This was exciting because I could see definite progress in my strength.  I’d typically do an upper body/abs day and a lower body/core focused day each week. However my form often suffered and that led to a few niggles in my lower back and knee.

Sessions with a Strength Coach
When we moved in 2017 I fell off the strength training wagon for a few months because I was out of my routine.  Plus I had developed some knee pain from poor lifting form. So I started working with a strength training coach at our local YMCA for a few sessions.  This helped me with accountability to stay consistent and also gave me good feedback on form so that I didn’t injure myself. 

I’ve been able to stay consistent with my strength training for the last three plus years. I was also able to lose 30 pounds of excess fat that I’d gained during my hormonal imbalance with the help of my MetPro coach. With that unneeded weight gone all the strength training that I’d been doing really paid off in terms of my running. With my better body composition and overall strength I was able to improve both my half marathon and marathon times (and my 5k time as well).

What I do Now . . .
Right now I typically do 3-5 days of strength training each week depending on where I’m at in my training schedule. This breaks down into a heavy leg/glutes focused day, 1-2 upper body/abs days, and 1-2 lighter legs/core days.  If that seems overwhelming remember that this is not where I started. This has been a 3+ year progression for me.

The heavy lifts that I currently focus on are barbell hip thrusts (I can do 4 sets of 8-10 reps at 305#, back squats (5-6 reps at 140#), and deadlifts. My main goals are glute, hip, core, and lower body strength because it correlates so closely with running.  A large percentage of runners have weak/inactive glutes, weak hips, and muscle imbalances which can lead to a myriad of injuries. The truth is that if you have stronger glutes you’ll be a better athlete.

I like to lift in front of the mirror to make sure I am maintaining good form.

I personally like to focus on more functional movements in training (rather than isolated movements) because it correlates more closely to better running performance. That’s why I like using free weights better than machines.

If you’re interested in strengthening your glutes and lower body check out Bret Contreras who is known as “The Glute Guy.” He invented and popularized the hip thrust. He says in his book Glute Lab- The Art and Science of Strength and Physique Training,

“Progressive overload simply means doing more over time. This can mean more weight over time, more reps over time, or more sets over time, but if your goal is to gain strength, then more weight over time is your best bet. In a nutshell, the best way to develop strength—and, to a lesser degree, muscle size—is to do more over time to increase your work capacity and improve your form.”

Periodize Your Training
If you’re serious about increasing muscle strength and size it’s important to periodize your training much like you’d do during a running training plan. Instead of doing a bunch of random exercises focus on a few key lifts that you want to get stronger at combined with some accessory exercises. Just like you’d do with a training plan for running it’s important to build for approximately 3 weeks followed by a step-back or de-load week to allow your body to rest and adapt. I generally know it’s time to increase the weight with my heavy lifts when I can do 4 sets of 6-8 reps with good form.

Questions on How to Get Started

Rachel Schopen- I’d really like suggestions for designing a strength training plan that would enhance one’s running. There is a lot of information about this online, but much of it is not specific to runners. I would love guidance on strength training for runners, i.e.… tips on which exercises are most useful and how frequently to do them.

Mallory- What are some good body-weight/at-home exercises you can do for strength training?

Start with 2 Days Per Week
A lot of how you approach strength training depends on your goals. A runner who wants to get a faster 1 mile time might strength train differently than someone who is focusing on the marathon.

But a good general guideline is to start with 2 days per week and strength train for 15-20 minutes. If you’re new to strength training start with body weight exercises and gradually introduce bands or weights and increase workout time as you get stronger.

Because I like to use my training time as efficiently as possible I often go from one exercise to the next without rest breaks in between. For example, I’ll do a set of back squats and then immediately do bicycle crunches. I’ll go back and forth between these two exercises until I do my four sets and then move on to my next big lift of hip thrusts which I’ll alternate with ball crunches. Then I’ll do weighted curtsy lunges with frog pumps in between.

Good beginner strength exercises for runners include core work, lateral (side to side) work, and mobility exercises. Some examples would include: planks, side planks, squats, lunges, balance work, hip raises, bird dog, stability ball hamstring curls, banded lateral walks, banded clamshells, wall sits, bridge holds, squat jumps, and hip thrusts.

Which Days Are Best?

I am an experienced runner but still don’t know what’s best…lifting weights on hard days or easy days? How many days? from Jenn.

When your primary focus is running it can be a bit challenging to know when to lift weights so that you don’t overly fatigue your muscles and become unable to do your training runs. Believe me, there have been times when a poorly timed lower body strength day has crippled my running for the next 2-3 days. Maybe you’ve also had the kind of delayed onset muscle soreness where it hurts to even sit on the toilet.

There are different schools of thought on when to lift in relation to your running days. And much of it depends how many days per week you run.

  • If you run 3-4 days per week then it’s generally easier to fit in two strength workouts on your non-running days.
  • If you run more than 4 days a week and want to strength train more I recommend doing your hard lifting days on hard running days and save easier workouts for your easy run days. That way your hard workout days are truly hard and your easy days are easy for better recovery.

It also helps to space out your lower body work from your speed work and long run days if possible. When you’re just starting out aiming for two strength days per week is perfect.

As you get more experienced you may want to increase it to 3-5 times per week depending on your goals. If you’re doubling up workouts (two per day) then do your primary workout first (ie the run).

Some people like to run early in the morning and then do their strength workout afterward, over lunch or in the evening. If you’re an evening runner still try to do your run first, unless you can space out the workouts by several hours or you’re doing a core or upper body workout which won’t impact your run as much.

Here’s an example of what I do (I typically run 5-6 days per week):

  1. Monday (hard): hilly run + heavy lower body day
  2. Tues (easy): easy run + upper body day
  3. Wed (hard): speed run + lower body/core day
  4. Thurs (easy): easy run + yoga or core
  5. Fri (hard): long run
  6. Sat (easy): easy run + yoga/mobility work
  7. Sun (rest)

Six Tips for Beginners

1. Use good form!
Master the correct form of an exercise before adding weight. This is an area where it can be very helpful to get the help of a strength training coach. If you can’t do an in-person session there are various step by step tutorials in books and online. It can also be very helpful to video yourself doing the exercises so you can check your form (or have someone else check your form). I also find that my form is better if I’ve warmed up a bit first (either through a run or a few minutes of cardio).

2. Start small and work up.
Just like I hope you wouldn’t start training for your first marathon with a 20 mile run you don’t want to throw yourself into an intense weight session that leaves you sore for days afterward. Use a strength training program that starts at your level and progresses. Make sure your training is periodized. That means it builds for a few weeks before having a step-back or deload week. There are a lot of good strength training plans out there.

We recommended Jason Fitzgerald’s High Performance Lifting program over at Strength Running.

High Performance Lifting for Runners

High Performance Lifting by running coach and fellow podcaster Jason Fitzgerald is designed to take you through 4 phases: Basic Strength, Speed Strength, Power and Efficiency, and Peak for Performance.

Another great resource that we have is the Resilient Runner program by physical therapy doctor Ben Shatto. It’s focused on preventing and rehabbing injury through mobility and strength work. This can be perfect for the runner who has a weak area or a frequent source of injury.

Of course if you’re currently injured a physical therapist is a great resource for correcting imbalances and building strength.

3. Schedule it.
Work your strength training into your schedule in such a way that it doesn’t hinder your running. For example, I typically do my heavy leg day on Monday so that any soreness has disappeared by the time my long run rolls around. If you’re doing two workouts in one day try to do the run first. You’ll also want to taper down your strength training just like you would your running in preparation for a key race.

4. Dial in your nutrition to help with recovery and muscle growth.
I find it very helpful to have a snack with a combination of protein and carbs right after finishing a strength training workout. This helps muscles rebuild stronger and also reduces the chance of being starving later in the day.

In my experience strength training makes me hungrier. Dr. Stacy Sim’s research has found that 30 grams of protein in the 30-45 min period post workout is important for muscle growth and optimal recovery, especially for women. Check out the course by Coach Jenn Giles, Registered Dietician, that we offer called Nutrition for Runners.

5. Stay consistent.
Figure out how you’re most motivated to keep up your strength training habit. For some people this will be with a strength coach or small group, a training partner, an online class, or in their home gym. Make it fun by listening to music (or anything else) you enjoy.

6. Build a home gym.
Adding to your home gym can be a great way to make regular strength training part of your lifestyle as well. It’s a great investment in your running and health. This was especially evident during the last year when we saw most gyms close for long periods of time.

What you get for your home gym can be modified to the space you have available. Some great (and low cost) starters include: resistance loops (smaller bands that you can use for lateral movements and clamshells), resistance bands (can be used for a variety of different exercises), an exercise ball (can be used for a variety of ab and lower body exercises), a medicine ball, and a pull up bar.

  • Other items that can be helpful but are often more money include a TRX suspension system, dumbbells, kettle bells, and free weights (like a bench, squat or power rack, Olympic bar and plates).
  • If you purchase free weights be sure to look for quality and get ones that you can add to as your strength grows. The minimum number of plates you’ll need are 2 of each of the following: 45#, 35#, 25#, 10#, 5#, 2.5#.

Bonus Shoe Tip:
Avoid using typical cushioned running shoes when you lift. Flat soled, uncushioned shoes are best and you’ll even see some lifters in socks or barefoot. This allows for better ground contact and balance so that your weight is distributed evenly through lifts. I typically use a minimalist running shoe while lifting– the Topo Athletic ST-3. Some lifters wear old school canvas shoes and of course there are specific weightlifting shoes if you want to really get into it.


Also Mentioned in This Episode

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From Academy Member Alexandra:
I just did my first ever trail race, and my first race in 2 years, my first race post-COVID, and my first race after losing 50 pounds (thanks Metpro). It was a successful day and I’m hooked on trail races now. I ran the 10 mile race which ended up being 10.8 miles in true trail fashion so I didn’t meet my A goal of finishing sub 2:00 but came in at 2:05. But I’m still so happy! This is my first race ever where I have felt strong the entire race and not hanging on for dear life. The final two miles were actually my fastest (the downhills helped). Post race I was able to even go on a 2 mile hike with my husband and the next day I trail ran 6 miles. I think I’m really starting to see the difference that strength training is adding. -Alexandra

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