Runner vs Gym

“Today I did Bulgarian split squats, Romanian deadlifts, single leg squats, front squats, back squats, squats with press, jump squats, box jumps, toe raises with weights, dynamic step ups….” I start bragging to my husband when he gets in the car after work.  “Um, honey? Why don’t you just blog about it?” he replied, half joking.

The truth is, sometimes I hate the gym and sometimes I love it. Today was one of those “good days” when I learned new movement patterns and refined old ones with my awesome new strength and conditioning coach.  And it is not a lie, I did all those exercises today, and yes, I am already sore.   I am sure by tomorrow’s run I will really be regretting asking for increased weight and additional volume today. But remember that 1990s saying “No Pain, No Gain”?   That is today’s motto.

Pre Classic, 2005. Sometimes we need strength just to keep us on our feet.

Where and how does strength and conditioning fit into a runner’s program?  I have many thoughts on this question, and have discussed it with many of coaches, athletes, and experts whose opinions both differ and overlap with mine.  Power-speed oriented folks will say it is essential to performance and is an integral part of a running program.  In fact, rumour has it that some top Russian woman spend more time in the weight room than on the trails running.

African runners tend to put less of an emphasis on gym work than Europeans and North Americans.

Yet others will cite the African distance success and rhetorically ask, “how many Kenyans do weights”? The longer distance folks, marathoners, for example, almost all ignore the weight room.  They may do some core strength exercises and functional movement work, but it is rare to see a 5’1 90lb distance runner doing power or Olympic lifting.

Over the years, I have oscillated back and forth between using strength as a means for injury prevention, and only doing it only sporadically, to a full on intense “periodized” strength program.  I have had results (or “non-results”) with both approaches.

The 1500m is not a true distance event, nor is it a sprint event.  Falling somewhere in between, athletes need to be aerobically strong,  powerful and fast.  For some athletes, such as Dylan Armstrong (above) Canada’s shot put record holder and Olympic 4th place finisher, lifting is a major component of his program and he is in the gym daily.  But even Dylan’s program has changed over the years from being focused on absolute “strength” and lifting as much weight as possible, to speed and technique.  His coach, highly respected and world renowned Dr. Anatoli Bondarchuk, revamped Dylan’s program a few years ago from a focus on absolute load (you don’t even want to know what Dylan can squat!) to focus on technical proficiency.  His efforts seem to be paying off.

As a young athlete, I was lucky to have Leah Pells as mentor. When I was 17, she joined me for a workout in Kelowna.

On the other hand, I recall a conversation  I had with Leah Pells following her 4th place finish at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in the 1500m.  She attributed much of her success to new work in the weight room, including concentrating on heavier “strength” lifting over  the “endurance lifting” of high reps with low load that is often popular for distance athletes.  Fifteen years later, this is where my strength coaches leads me too, as he encourages me to put down the wimpy bar bells in exchange for the real deal with plates.  Even though I believe that it will make me stronger and more powerful for the end of a race, I am at times reluctant to add heavy weights for the DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) effect it will bring and the impact on the next day’s run.  There is also the delicate balance between being strong, but not adding on 10lbs of muscle that now needs to be packed around the track as quickly as possible. In the end, it is a careful balancing act between technique, volume, frequency, load and recovery that ensures optimal results.

I actually enjoy the weight room, with two caveats: I must have a written program and I must do it regularly.  I like to go in with very clear expectations of the day’s business: how many sets, reps, and the order of exercises;  otherwise I feel like I used to when I visited the Stanford library and I would see classmates months ahead in the assigned reading, or even more traumatizing, doing reading from the supplementary reading list.  The gym can be overwhelming with the endless machines and exercises. Without a plan, most over-achieving athlete feel like they can never leave until they have done every exercise ever invented; otherwise, you risk feeling like a slacker and it is better to have not gone in the first place.

And above all, it must be a regular occurrence.  Unlike running, if I lose my routine in the weight room, it is gone for a long, long time.  I understand how people can fall off the band wagon of exercise, health or weight loss goals: once you are disrupted from the routine it feels like you are back to the very beginning, even when it may only be more like treading water; you can still go forward, it just requires starting up again.  But once you lose that momentum, it is all over until it is time for New Year’s Resolutions.   Maybe excusable for some to take a break from the gym, but for those of us trying to be among the best in the world, procrastination is lethal.

When one is already running 9-12 times a week, including hard interval sessions, tempo runs, and long runs, it can be difficult to know how to place extra training (stress and stimulus) into the program.  My priority is always to be recovered enough for my workouts sessions (interval / speed work) and hard days in the weight room can really impede recovery, particularly when it is done irregularly.  It is also nice to “spice” up training with a session or two a week inside: doing technical and focused work; working hard and getting sore muscles, but a break from the retching lungs and burning stomach of speed endurance sessions on the track.

I love feeling like a real athlete and not someone who runs because I am not coordinated or strong enough to do other sports.  And I do love being the smallest, and usually only female, athlete in the non-cardio section of the gym and asking to share the platform with a big grunting, sweating gym rat.  They are initially wary, but once they see my mean “clean”, they give steer clear.   They may lift more, but I dare you to compare technique.  And I double dare you to race.

So what about you? Where do you stand (or squat) on the “runners vs gym”debate?


6 Responses to “Runner vs Gym”

  1. I will weigh in on this. I think that it has to do with the power:weight ratio in accordance to the distance that is being run, with sprinters at one end and marathoners at the other. Marathon types need less time in the gym because it is less efficient for them to the extra weight and expend extra energy in the muscle mass they aren’t fully using, while the sprinters can afford to expend this energy for the 10 seconds that they are racing. So I would think that any event in between would require a balance of power, endurance, and speed in relation to the distance.
    As for muscle soreness from over-training…I have an app for that.

  2. I’ve done it all…with tennis though, not running (the running thing is my post-collegiate athletic outlet!). Anyways, for tennis, where you need to be explosive and have a quick first step, a mix of agility/speed training and, actually, pretty heavy weight lifting worked best for me. In high school, a group of us actually worked out with a guy who trains mostly football players ( I thought some of the stuff he had us girls doing was crazy, but it actually ended up helping the power behind my shots and overall movement on the court. Thankfully, I did NOT end up looking like a football player (which I feared at the time) and got to hang out with some pretty hot guys — not a bad deal and probably half the reason I kept going back!

    Anyways, with running, I’m not so sure. I’m in my 2nd year of running and the pounding has done a number on me. I think probably adding back strength and conditioning would help, at least for me, to increase my mileage without feeling so worn down. I’ve realized how strong your core has to be now that I’ve run more. I never appreciated that before a I ran. Maybe it’d make me faster, too. Or maybe I’m just looking for a magic bullet to make me super lightening good. When you get more specific into what you run (ie what event vs just “running” such as myself), I really have no clue.

    Just my two cents.

    • That is really cool you are a tennis turned runner. So you would fit under the “coordinated” runner category! I bet you have some great drills for power/speed, too. As you increase your mileage you probably do want to make sure you are doing some strength, but like my question to Greg above (a great physic) I am not sure how many “strength” work versus functional strength work a recreational runner needs. I personally love doing drills / strides / and some exercises out on the grass after a run. I usually just make up a light circuit and feel like it is a good way to get some “strength” work in while still being outside (when it is not snowing!) and without having the hassle of going to the gym. It is amazing how much you can do, especially if you use a kids playground for some equipment – pull ups, dips, squats, lunges, toe raises, etc are all pretty accessible and give you a decent workout. I imagine when I am done competitive running that will be the majority of my strength routine!

      • You know, I hadn’t thought that all those speed/agility/quickness drills I did for tennis could also help my running. Thanks! I forgot to mention some of the best strength stuff that has also worked well for me is stuff I did as a gymnast, which is mostly body weight stuff…seems pretty much like what you described! Gymnasts are, I think, pound-for-pound some of the strongest athletes out there. So, maybe I’ll try that again, too. I like being outside, rather than being in a gym, and also, being in medical school, a lot of times I don’t have time to do both so I like your idea of what you do on grass. When it gets warmer, I’ll try it. Thanks!

        And yeah, tennis to running was, actually, a bit frustrating for me at first because I didn’t understand how I could play a 3 hr match, but then running for a half hour seemed like torture. It took me a while to actually like running. I really hated it when I played tennis, but I live for it now (weird, huh?). Although, I find myself sometimes wanting a 90 sec changeover break when I’m running sometimes! (I need to get over that quickly; training for a marathon in May).

  3. My feelings are that strength comes in many forms and sizes. Dylan being one extreme and Malindi another. As far as a middle distance athlete, you need to be an aerobic machine but really every athlete in the olympic final is probably on an equal footing in terms of their ability to carry oxygen, the difference being who is stronger and has a better ability to run effciently with 14 mmol of lactic acid coming into the bell lap. This is can be trained in the gym and practiced on the track.

    Ps: don’t forget the Kenyan ran to and from school with her backpack full of school supplies. aka gym?

    • But here’s my next question…how much of being strong at the end of a race is functional strength vs absolute strength? And do you need to lift heavy things to be functionally strong? Again, the difference might depend on an olympic vs. Recreational athlete. For recreation
      athletes, with limited training time, how important is gym over corrective posture and core work exercises?

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