I recently was reading the latest edition of a popular running magazine, and stumbled across a quote from an elite runner, who just medaled at World Champs in Osaka, that perpetuates the myth that distance runners need not lift weights. The quote rips on lifting for distance runners as the athlete gained twelve pounds of mass during a forced break where her primary cross training modality was strength training.
Why won’t this myth go away? Sure, I would agree that a poor program would be a wise thing to avoid, but an intelligently designed strength program is an indispensable addition to any athlete’s program.
It is quite simple to avoid significant hypertrophy in strengthening an endurance athlete for many reasons. First, the body types of those who tend to excel in the distances generally tend to be quite slender. Secondly, the hormonal environment created by running big volumes of endurance based work and more intense runs is not conducive to a gain in muscle size. Lastly, by utilizing rep schemes that emphasize maximal motor unit recruitment, the strength gains will be void of useless hypertrophy that is caused by higher rep, medium intensity schemes.
Typically, when I program for distance runners, I will usually spend up to the first 8 weeks (usually only 2-4, though) ironing out inefficiencies caused by high volumes of running, while I grove proper lifting technique in the big lifts, and develop stability/mobility where it is necessary. When I feel that the athlete is technically proficient enough to lift heavier loads, I will begin to add in lifting sessions at a high percentage of the athlete’s maximum effort. The reps are kept low, and rest quite high. Total volume of the session is typically dictated by experience and training age. It is rare, however, to have any of my runners go above 6 reps per set in the core lifts (the young, inexperienced guys get this high). Also, I program in remedial work to prevent or correct imbalances and other limiting factors in the athlete.
Distance runners, get some guidance on programming and get to work in the weight room. You’ll be amazed at how much better you feel, and how much you can improve in a relatively short period of time! Coaches, if you get your athletes following a well designed program, you’ll be able to keep your athletes healthier and thus improving at a greater rate! It’s a win-win.