Running + Strength Training = Better Running

As a strength coach, I like to think that 80% of my job is helping people get stronger and reach their goals.

The other 20% of my time is usually devoted to dispelling myths that currently persist in our culture:  

  • No, carbs aren't the devil.

  • Yes, intermittent fasting is probably a terrible idea for you.

  • No, squats aren't bad for your knees....what YOU'RE doing is bad for your knees (hat tip to Dan John).

  • Yes, "Do They Know It's Christmas" by Band Aid is ladened with naïveté and ironic racism.  And, do I hate myself for still thinking it's catchy as hell?  Oh yeah!

As such, it really grinds my gears whenever I stumble upon a blog/podcast/plastic head with a mouth (a la Tracy Anderson) that spreads bogus fitness notions that have been disproved with science and experience. As Lindsay can attest, these pieces usually send me into a rant as long as the outro from "Layla" (sidenote: I tend to have the same reaction whenever I see politically themed posts on Facebook..)

One article that had the pleasure of grinding said figurative gears is from Active.com: Can Strength Training (Really) Make You A Faster Runner?  As can be inferred by the tone of the title, it's very against strength training for runners, and my initial reaction was a lot like this:

But then, as I broke down the arguments in this article, I realized that while I disagreed with all of their points, everything the author was writing could be "technically" correct under the right circumstances.  And, in fact, this article illustrates how there is no one-size-fits-all case and that everything comes with shades of gray.   Below, I try to present the authors arguments as unbiased as I can, while giving my rebuttals after.

  • Argument #1: Besides the occasional 5K runner, most runners are better suited to run instead of strength training.  Doing so will improve the cardiovascular and metabolic traits of running, and one's ability to use oxygen.  Therefore, instead of wasting the 4.5 hours you'd spend in the gym strength training three times a week, you're body will be better suited to use that time running.

The beginning of this argument is actually on point - if you want to get better at running....you have to run! Thinking that you can waltz into a 10K, half marathon, full marathon, etc. without proper training is completely silly. It's a lot like saying, "Hey, I ran my own blog out of my parents basement....so I'm, like, totally qualified to become your next director of marketing!"  (<-----BTW, that was totally me when I graduated from college)

But, where this argument fails is how strength training improves running economy.  That's a fancy way of saying that you'll have more "spring" in your step if you're legs are stronger than if you were significantly weaker.  Don't believe that's actually a thing?  Here's a study that identified how tests like the horizontal broad jump can strongly determine how someone will fair in long distance running events.  It turns out, there's a lot more strength and fast-twitch muscle activity in a long distance run than many of us tend to realize.  And how do you increase your broad jump?  That's right, by getting stronger....and not necessarily the plyometric exercises suggested in the back half of the article.

(For the like-minded nerds that are interested, here's a more comprehensive review of the study I mentioned above.)

I'd also argue that since many people don't get in enough speed work - because, let's be honest, it sucks - strength training can help round out the development of all your energy systems.  Short, intense bursts are needed throughout a race, as they simulate hills along the route or that sprint at the end.  Suddenly, those heavy goblet squats don't look so useless after all.

Before stating that all runners would be better suited to spend more time running (and less time in the gym), what's needed is a more thorough assessment of someone's strengths, imbalances, goals and overall training program before making the argument above.  More is not always better, and it's a mistake to confuse the appearance of work with actual progress.

  • Argument #2: Strength training will not prevent running related injuries, because most running related injuries are not due to a lack of strength.

Once again, I agree on the surface.  For most sports, we'd usually hire a coach to teach us the ropes.  Yet, many of us think that there's this innate ability for us to run, without ever having guidance on a proper running stride.  Having walked through Boston Common on a warm, sunny July day, I'd say it's an investment most runners should make if they want to avoid the >50% injury rate.

So yes, most injuries are stride and gait related.  But digging a little deeper, most stride problems can also be caused by mobility or stability issues.  No, that doesn't mean you should blindly stretch your hamstrings and hip flexors....instead, you probably need to strengthen your hamstrings and your "core," and work on your ankle mobility.  Teaching someone how to squat properly will do wonders for developing all of the above, and for their joint alignment when they're running (see Core Pendulum Theory).

  • Argument #3: Strength training can hurt running performance as increased muscle size stimulates physical adaptations that are counter to long distance running.

I'm always amazed at how the notion of simply sniffing a weight will turn someone into a juiced Jose Canseco.  And, I like to think that I can somewhat put that "heavy weights will make you bulky" notion to rest, as I can pick up 500 pounds from the ground and I weigh less than I did in college.

 If you prick a bodybuilder, does he not bleed all the way back to the squat rack?

If you prick a bodybuilder, does he not bleed all the way back to the squat rack?

Strength training and distance running are not as mutually exclusive as the author would lead you to believe.  While there are some elements of strength and running that run counter to each other, most trainees (especially runners) are not at the level where these would really interfere.  The gains that most runners would see are actually neural, and not muscle related, as your body is figuring out how to squat/deadlift/etc. and how to produce more force.  It takes weeks, months and even years to put on muscle and change your body.  The image of yourself turning into a muscle-bound bodybuilder is just not going to happen.  And those that actually are bodybuilders?  They put in insane amounts of effort in order to look like that.

Strength is the bottom line for runners, and simply learning how to squat, deadlift, pullup and pushup will do wonders for anyone training to run.  Heavy weights don't make you bulky....instead, what you're eating will make you bulky.