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How to Implement Heavy Strength Training for Runners

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By Jason Koop,
Head Coach of CTS Ultrarunning

Before getting to today’s post, I would like to extend my heartfelt condolences to the family friends and colleagues of Andrea Huser, who passed away recently in a training accident. As a fixture in US and international races for many years, Andrea was a fierce competitor and one of the nicest people you could imagine. The trail running world will miss her dearly. 


Last week I wrote about how heavy strength training is superior compared to light weight/high repetition strength training for runners. I invoked a recent study published in the European Journal of Sports Science that compared three different types of strength training interventions for 6 weeks in recreational runners: low rep/heavy weights (i.e. 3 sets of 5 reps), high rep/light weights (i.e. 3 sets of 20-30 reps), and complex training which is a combination of low rep/heavy weights and plyometric movements. For anyone following strength training and running for the past several years, the results should really come as no surprise. The heavy weight/low rep and complex interventions produced superior improvements compared to the light weight/high repetition protocol. The light weight/high repetition version ironically produced no distinguishable improvements despite being load matched to the other two interventions. The reason the results should come as little surprise is that this adds to the vast body of literature that continually demonstrates that heavier weights with lower repetitions will produce bigger improvements compared to their lighter weight counterparts.

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I’ve received numerous questions about how, why, and when to implement a strength training program. I’ve also received a number of inquiries as to how to transition from a high rep/low weight or bodyweight based program to a more efficacious one. So, here goes; you asked and I will answer.

Big picture first

To start out with, do you even want to strength train? It’s a legitimate question, particularly for runners who are time crunched or have an allergic reaction to rubber plates and iron. There’s no rule that says you have to strength train to be a good runner. There are plenty of runners throughout the pack that are perfectly successful without a strength training program. In fact, if you look deep into the literature, you should only expect very modest performance improvements (by way of improved running economy, reduced chances of injury, etc.) from strength training interventions, on the order of a few percent in any category depending on how you slice it. So, don’t expect strength training to turn you into the next version of your favorite elite runner overnight (or at all). Expect that a reasonably well thought out strength training program can (not will) yield some modest, if imperceptible, improvements… so long as it does not compromise your overall running plan.

Next, to achieve the greatest benefit, be fully prepared to do strength training all the way through your key event. This means continuing to hit the iron (albeit in a less stressful fashion) when your training load is the highest, something that not a lot of ultrarunners are willing to do when trying to maximize volume, do back-to-back long runs and eek out every drop of vertical gain. Strength training is a lose it or lose it proposition. So, if you are looking at strength training specifically for performance gains, be willing to make this commitment. It’s plausible that if you do some limited strength training intervention for a relatively short period of time (like the 6-week one mentioned earlier) that some of those benefits translate to the training at the time, which results in more productive workouts. Then, those more productive workouts cascade downstream for weeks and months, producing additional adaptations. But, that’s a bit far-fetched and it can be hard to justify a performance-based strength training strategy on improvements stemming from three-degrees-of-separation.

Finally, if you like strength training just to do strength training or to in pursuit of some other life goal, that’s fine! If your goals are to be able to lift your suitcase into the overhead compartment (remember when that was a thing?) without assistance from the person sitting in the aisle seat (who is currently forced to stare at your crotch as you muster up the effort), that’s great. Want to do some ‘curls for the girls (or guys)’? Perfect! Want to be more ‘functional’ or whatever that means? That’s cool. If you want to strength train for these reasons, there’s no reason to masterplan it out. You can do a program that you like, fits in your lifestyle, is reasonably challenging and achieves these goals without having to over-orchestrate the whole thing.

However, in this author’s humble opinion, if you are going to take the time and effort to dedicate yourself to strength training, you might as well make it applicable to your running as well as your life!

Proper Strength Training Periodization

One of the downfalls of some strength training research is that the intervention is done over a relatively short timeframe. You don’t train for a 100-mile ultramarathon in six weeks and your strength training should not merely encompass 6 weeks either. Furthermore, your run training is not the same month in and month out (or at least it should not be). Your mileage will undulate depending on the time of year, and you will cycle in different types intensity depending on your needs. Your strength training should be no different! This is one of the biggest issues I see with runners who implement ‘one size fits all’ strength training programs. They succumb to the monotony of doing the same set and rep combination of exercises ad nauseam. This is the equivalent of running 50 miles per week, every week, and expecting to continually improve. Lunacy.

In developing strength training programs for athletes, I utilize a three-phase approach, dividing up the entirety of training into roughly equal thirds. For the purpose of this example, we are going to assume that you have 9 months to train. The early season is the very beginning of your training, and will be roughly 3 months. You should be lifting relative heavy weights, with 4-5 sets of 4-6 reps. Your mid season would be months 4-7. For this timeframe, you will want to decrease the weight and number of sets while increasing the reps. Finally, when the late season comes around, you decrease the weight even further and add more reps, up to 15 and most importantly, decrease the frequency by one day per week. This two month final phase is purposefully lower in overall stress so that you can concentrate on the bigger miles in those final several weeks.

If your timeframe is shorter or longer you can adapt proportionally.

Push, Pull, Squat, Hinge, Carry (or rotate)

I give a fair amount of grief to triathletes. They have always been early adopters to technology, persistently measure every gram on their bike, and with three sports to juggle they tend to overcomplicate their training, to their own demise. However, the strength training world takes workout complexity to a whole other level. With convoluted names like derivatives, potentiation complexes and ballistics, it’s hard to determine if you are reading about an actual workout or have stumbled upon a lecture in quantum mechanics. Strength training does not need to be that hard and you really need only 5 classes of exercises to get the job done, all of which accurately describe the actual movement you are doing.

  • Push: a pushup, bench press or dumbbell press
  • Pull: Lat pull down, a pull up or row
  • Hinge: Deadlift of any variety or hip thrust
  • Squat: A squat, lunge or reverse lunge
  • Carry or twist: Literally, carry something heavy or woodchoppers/medicine balls slams

One exercise in all of these categories should be in each of your strength training sessions. If you want to get complicated and substitute a step up for reverse lunge because you feel it’s more specific to trail running, be my guest (it’s probably not). However, at the end of the day consistency is going to trump specificity. So, pick exercises that you are familiar and comfortable with. Below is a common way I prescribe these to athletes who have two days per week of resistance training:

DAY 1

  • Push Ups
  • Dumbbell Row
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Squat
  • Farmer’s Carry

DAY 2

  • Overhead Press
  • Pull up (with assistance if needed)
  • Hip Thrusts
  • Reverse Lunge
  • Medicine Ball Slams 

Don’t be intimidated

Let’s face it, no one reading this article is going to have 500 lbs on their back getting ready for a one rep max squat. Runners by nature are not that strong! And, all too often, runners are intimidated into not loading up heavy weights because they feel the need to have picture perfect proper form in the weight room or else they are going to break something on their delicate frame. News flash: like running mechanics, there is no perfect weightlifting form. Furthermore, if you can handle running 100 miles, you can handle a few more pounds added to a back squat. So, don’t be intimidated! Trust me, you are going to be just fine. Even if you have a very elementary level understanding of strength training, you can pick up the basic movement patterns of a push, pull, squat, hinge and carry fairly quickly and with some deliberate instruction. If you are completely new to strength training, hire a qualified personal trainer or have one of our coaches watch you on Zoom. Trust me, it won’t take long.

Furthermore, none of the strength training set/rep combinations need to be done to total failure, unless you are highly experienced (see the RPE scale above). So, if you are new, ease into the weight. Settle on weight that you would allow you to squeeze out on or two reps more per each session. 

Fitting strength workouts into the week

Now, how do we structure these training days into the overall architecture of your weekly schedule? Remember that strength training should complement your run training, not detract from it. Looking at the sample week below, you will notice a few things; first you will see that your strength days are scheduled as far away as possible from your long run and hard runs. This will allow you to go into those workouts as fresh as possible so you can have the best workout. In addition, scheduling your strength training workouts in the evenings of the days with more intense running work allows you to truly take your easy days easy. On the days where you lift and run on the same day, it is important to prioritize your training, taking care to program your runs prior to your strength work. For your particular schedule, you might be forced to do your long runs in the evenings or on a different day, but in any case, the overall strategy of placing your strength training days such that you have as much recovery as possible should reign supreme. Things get particularly tricky if you add a third strength training day to the week, but the general theme should remain the same: schedule your strength training sessions as far away as possible from your next hard or long run.

 

What if I don’t have a gym?

My neighborhood gym closed down last week due to COVID induced financial strain. It is a shame as the business owners did everything they could to keep their small business afloat. Chances are, if you belong to a gym, your access to it is reduced or non-existent. And, this will be the case in many areas for the foreseeable future. In addition to this, even if you wanted to recreate a gym in your garage, chances are you would have a hard time even finding equipment right now, as record demand is creating backlogs for many manufactures. So, how can you get a reasonably effective workout without a gym? I have two words for you: resistance bands. Not the things you see in your physical therapist’s office. I’m talking about heavy, thick resistance bands, some of which can create resistances equivalent to over 200 pounds. Although they are not perfect, you can do any simple exercise with more than a reasonable amount of resistance with a set of bands that will only set you back $50. Brands like Intey and WODFitters sell entire sets and can easily be found on-line or at your favorite local retailer right now. Some have handles, some come in loops but they can all do the trick with minimal instruction.

So there you have it. You asked, I answered. If you are going to strength train, do it right. Doing it the right way that’s productive to your training need not be complicated, nor take up copious amounts of time and energy. All it needs is a bit of reasonable structure and effort.


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Comments 2

  1. Great article and it goes well with the podcasts on the topic that you’ve done. The sample days you give have about 5 movements. And the total number of sets for the session is also 5. So, we do 1 set per movement? It’s a very short session, with say 2 mins (or less) for Rest In Between and then the time to do the work sets. Warm up aside, this takes less than 20 mins. Am I grasping this right? Thanks.

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