Choose to Get Stronger -The Case for Strength Training

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Strength training is something that has had a positive impact on my development as a runner.

I felt a huge shift in my training and mindset when I decided to focus on being strong instead of trying to be thin.

We lose muscle mass as we age so it’s important that you choose to get stronger. Here are the benefits of strength training for runners . . .

The Case for Strength Training

Benefits of Strength Training for Runners.

1. It strengthens muscles, joints and bones.
High impact activity can take a toll on joints as we age. Having strong muscles will stabilize and strengthen those joints. As an added benefit, strength training strengthens bones against age related degeneration. This is especially important for women.

2. It decreases injuries. Appropriately applied strength training can help protect from running injuries.
Dr. Tim Noakes says, in his book “The Lore of Running”:

“Recent studies have shown that specific running injuries are associated either with imbalances in the relative strengths of the different muscles acting at those sites or with weakness in a specific muscle. There is clear evidence to suggest that acute muscle injuries can be prevented by strengthening muscles and eliminating muscle imbalances between opposing muscles.” (p. 783)

3. It improves running form and economy.
Long training runs, marathons, and ultras take overall muscle strength. If you feel like you’re having trouble keeping good running form or your lower back is aching in the last few miles of your long run it’s probably because you need to build stronger muscles.

“Strength and power training improve communication between the brain and muscles in ways that enable you to run more efficiently and with less chance of injury.” Matt Fitzgerald

4. It increases endurance.
Simply put, stronger muscles will work harder and longer for you. You will need all the extra power you can get during your marathon training.

5. It helps you gain more speed.
You’ll get faster with focused strength training. Improved muscle strength will help you cover the ground more rapidly. “Distance running is not often thought about as a power sport, but it is. As a competitive runner your goal is to increase your speed, and speed comes directly from stride power…Running alone won’t maximize your stride power. You have to supplement your running with specific power training.” Matt Fitzgerald

6. It helps you burn more calories.
More muscle equals a higher metabolism which will burn more calories 24/7. Research has shown that those who followed a strength training program for two months burned, on average, about 200 calories more per workout than those whose exercise regimen did not include strength training. The benefits of strength training even continue when you’re at rest. Your metabolism is elevated for a period of time after you workout, even if you are inactive during that time. Unlike the claims of some diet drugs, strength training may be the only thing that actually helps you lose weight while you sleep.

I recognize that it can be a struggle for many runners to integrate strength training into their routines. Some of this is due to time constraints or not knowing what to do. But there are a few misconceptions about strength training that many runners have:

Misconceptions That Runners Have About Strength Training:

1. It’s too intimidating.
Many people find lifting weights to be very intimidating primarily because they don’t know where to start. I felt the same way in the beginning. There are so many different types of machines, free weights, exercises, and routines that it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. We may also falsely associate strength training with pumped up bodybuilders and find it hard to relate to those types of goals. For example I’d never want to stand on stage in a physique competition. My personal goal with strength training is to have functional strength and get stronger as a runner.

2. I’ll get slower.
Some are afraid that “too much” muscle will prevent them from getting faster.  In the running community there’s a notion that being lighter will automatically make you faster and some people shy away from strength training. But the distance runner looking to improve endurance, increase speed, and reduce the risk of injuries shouldn’t be afraid to lift heavy weights. In my experience strength training has helped me stay healthy and make improvements in my marathon times. If you looked at the training regimes of elite distance runners I’d guess that most of them focus on strength training.

3. I’ll get too bulky.
The fear of adding “too much” muscle mass has often led to the philosophy that endurance runners should only be doing light weights with higher repititions. Of course there’s nothing wrong with light weights and higher reps although there are fewer documented benefits associated with this style of strength training. But women especially shouldn’t be afraid that they’ll bulk up. It takes a lot of effort with training and nutrition for most people to put on significant amounts of muscle, especially for endurance runners who do a lot of cardio. If you contrast the body composition of an elite distance runner and an elite sprinter they look very different based on their training and specialization of muscle fibers. The physique difference will be less pronounced in a non-elite distance runner who may have a more balanced ratio of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers and who do less specialization in training.

Why You Should Lift Heavy

A recent Runner’s World article had a headline that caught my attention, “Hey Runners, You Need to Start Lifting Heavier Weights.” The article went on to say, “Most runners need more muscle mass, or strength and control in the muscle mass they have to boost their performance.”

I think it’s so important to build strength that I include cross training days in the training plans I’ve developed and always included it in my coaching clients plans as well. It’s particularly vital to encourage women runners to develop and maintain a strength training routine for life. The sad fact is that around age thirty women begin to lose muscle density and lean muscle mass decreases at about 3% per decade between the ages of 30 to 80. In the book “Exercised” by Daniel Lieberman he talks about how doing a combination of cardio and strength training is key to pushing back against chronic disease and to maintain mobility with age.

Stacy Simms, PhD is a researcher who has been highly influential in the way I’ve started to think about strength training and nutrition. She says, “As a woman, you have few precious natural resources as important as your muscles. They are what keep you strong, able and independent.” She goes on to say,

  • “Researchers in the landmark Framingham Study drove this strength decline home when they reported that 40% of women between the ages of 55 and 64, 45% of women between 65 and 74, and 65% of women between 75 and 84 could not lift 10 pounds. As women, we start out with less muscle than our male peers, and we lose more with age because our hormones aren’t conducive to muscle making. Estrogen can stall anabolic growth, and progesterone turns up (muscle) catabolism. So it’s harder for us to make muscle. But it’s not impossible. It just means you need to train hard….I mean high-intensity power training- heavy lifting for pure strength. This kind of training stimulates your neuromuscular system, activating the maximum amount of muscle fibers. It also keeps those high energy, powerful type 2 muscle fibers engaged, which is essential because those are needed for speed, and they’re the first to go. Research shows that when endurance athletes slow down with age, a major reason why is because their muscles simply aren’t contracting as quickly and as powerfully as they used to. This slowdown is preventable—and fixable—with strength training. Strong legs lead to a more powerful foot strike and rebound off the ground when you’re running…resistance training also strengthens your connective tissues and can help you avoid injury.”

Dr. Sims gives the following recommendations:
1) Lift heavy. Far too many runners, specifically, women still do not lift weight that is heavy enough to stimulate hypertrophy (muscle growth). For muscle growth to happen, you need to challenge your muscles so they break down and repair bigger and stronger. Lift enough weight so that the maximum you can do is 5-8 reps.
2) Use good form. Focus on good form from the time you start strength training. This is important for maintaining maximum mobility and avoiding injury. You should never strain to get another rep if you can’t maintain good form.
3) Lift often. Try to fit strength training into your schedule 2-3 days a week. These don’t have to be hour long sessions either. When you’re starting out even 15-20 minutes per time can be beneficial.

Those Fast Twitch Fibers

Skeletal muscle is composed of both slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers. Slow twitch fibers (or Type 1) are smaller fibers that are generally used for slower and more sustained movements and fatigue less quickly. They have a better blood supply and their contractions are mostly aerobic (with oxygen). Most long distance running is going to employ more slow twitch fibers.

Fast twitch fibers (or Type 2) are larger and involved in bigger and more powerful movements. They’re generally powered through anaerobic means and fatigue more quickly. This makes them perfect for sprinting, jumping, and power-lifting movements.

The ratio of slow twitch/fast twitch fibers is influenced by your genetics, training, and age. Top sprinters will have approximately 70-75% fast twitch (Type 2) fibers while top marathoners may have upwards of 70-80% slow twitch (Type 1) fibers.

Without strength training there can be a rapid decline in fast twitch fibers. That’s why many people see unwanted body composition changes and decreased mobility with age. One way to build and maintain more fast twitch fibers is through strength training. Interestingly, one purpose of tapering before a key race is to improve the strength and power of both types of muscle fibers.

High Performance Lifting for Runners

For those wanting to go through a structured program I recommend High Performance Lifting by running coach and fellow podcaster Jason Fitzgerald. The programs is designed to take you through 4 phases: Basic Strength, Speed Strength, Power and Efficiency, and Peak for Performance.

Thanks for reading/listneing! Check out part 2 of Choose to Get Stronger where I share my personal journey with strength training.


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4 Responses to Choose to Get Stronger -The Case for Strength Training

  1. Caro March 25, 2021 at 5:16 am #

    Hi how would you adjust in the opposite situation?
    I have been strength training for years doing body weight and lifting.
    I always did some bike and minor running or elliptical.
    Now I am seriously training for a half and despite sleeping plenty and adjusting my nutrition with more crabs I am really struggling to keep up with my routine strength workout +ni so much the running).
    Any tips? Should I just decrease the load on my strength training?

    • Angie Spencer March 25, 2021 at 4:18 pm #

      Hey Caro, Great question! The fact that you have a solid strength base is going to help you out as you ramp up your training for a half marathon. There will be a period of time as your body adapts to doing both the lifting and running so be patient with yourself. And there are a few adjustments that you may need to make to keep up your energy levels. If you’re doing two a day workouts (strength + run) then I’d recommend doing your run first. That way your muscles are fresher and energy levels are higher to get in a quality run. While training for the half marathon you may need to cut back the intensity and duration of your strength training a bit as well. I typically try to schedule my heavier strength workouts earlier in the week so that I’m not feeling wiped out for my weekend long run. Like you mentioned, it’s very important to make sure that you’re getting in a good combo of protein and carbs post workout to account for the extra energy you’re expending. Good luck with your training!

  2. Shaun April 1, 2021 at 10:14 am #

    Hi MTA gurus. I too can attest to the value of strength work for combatting injury. I am 57 and a later in life runner. Last April, I developed plantar fasciitis in my left foot and then wreck my right hip flexors and quads with over compensating. The silver lining was that the pandemic has been a great downtime to stop running and work with a physical therapist to fix my issues. My PT’s assessment was a variety of strength imbalances in my core, hips, and upper legs. He put me on a regime of very light strength and stretching exercises with high reps. I got back to walking and kept up the exercises with enough consistency that by the fall I was back to running short distances very slowly. I improved my run and non-weights core workout over the winter. By February, with an in-person marathon on the horizon (woohoo!) in mid April 2021, I found your podcast and started adding 3 lbs weights to my core strength workouts and saw significant improvement in my staying power for longer runs. The added strength has also allowed me to improve the balance in my running form and lighten the impact on my feet. My question is after a year of slow purposeful rehabilitation using light or no weights with high reps, what trajectory timing-wise do you recommend for getting into the heavier weights with which you have had such great success?

    • Angie Spencer April 1, 2021 at 12:54 pm #

      Hi Shaun, Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s great to hear that you were able to work with a PT to address strength imbalances and get back to running and marathon training. I look at building up strength training in much the same way as you build up a running base. You want to start slowly and consistently and track your progress along the way. Although I wouldn’t advise starting anything new before your marathon this month (yay!), continuing to build strength through the rest of the spring and summer would be a great goal. You could gradually add more weight to the existing core exercises that you’ve been doing. Number 1 priority is good form so don’t sacrifice form for more weight or reps. Pick one day per week to focus on lifting heavy (and keep your lighter or body weight core workouts in place on other days). Over a period of weeks add more weight until the max you can do for a few key exercises is 5-8 reps with good form. Every 3-4 weeks do a de-load week where you lighten up the weight. I also find it very helpful to keep a strength training notebook (or online logs) where you can track the exercises, reps, and weight. That way you can see your progression more clearly over time. Keep up the great work and good luck with your marathon!!

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