3 Myths About Strength Training for Runners

How to effectively improve running-specific strength
Staff Writer

Jeff Gaudette— Despite the advancements in our understanding of the role strength training plays in our development as long distance runners, there are still some pervasive myths in the running community about the best way to approach improving running-specific strength.

Like most long-standing myths, the misunderstandings about strength training come from outdated information that has been passed down throughout the years. Unfortunately, in today’s world where anyone can become a running coach by attending a weekend seminar and forums and message boards contribute to the spread of misinformation, many runners simply repeat the information they’ve “learned” without regard for recent findings, research and developments in the sport.

Luckily, in this article I am going to dispel some of these myths and hopefully start reshaping how all runners view and incorporate strength training into their running schedules.

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Myth #1: Maintain Short Rest Between Sets
When most runners hit the gym, they feel like they need to replicate the feeling and the work they do on the roads. Typically, that means keeping the heart rate elevated. As a runner myself, I know it can feel foreign to consider a workout effective if I’m not breathing hard.

That means most runners try to take as little rest as possible between sets. It’s not uncommon to find runners resting only 30-60 seconds between exercises. Unfortunately, these brief rest periods are detrimental to strength development because of the primary energy system used and the rate of recovery.

Unlike in running, which relies on the aerobic system for energy, the major source of energy when trying to build strength is what we call adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is responsible for providing the energy to produce short, powerful movements — like we need for strength training. As you can see in the chart above, ATP requires at least two to three minutes to approach full recovery.

By not fully recovering between sets when strength training, you’re not able to maximize the recruitment of your muscle fibers and the quality and effectiveness of your session plummets.

While it will feel completely foreign to you as a distance runner, it’s important that you take the necessary recovery time between each set to fully replenish your ATP system. If your goal is to build strength, you need to be taking at least a 2-minute recovery between each set.

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Myth #2 Training with High Reps Builds Endurance
It’s often claimed (since distance running is endurance oriented) that the use of high reps with low weight is the best way to build endurance to running-specific muscles. The thought process is that high repetitions, just like higher mileage, will improve muscular endurance. That’s why you often see runners lifting the 5-10lb dumbbells for shoulder raises or even in the running-man motion (don’t worry if this is you, I used to do lots of this myself).

Unfortunately, high reps and low weights don’t build muscular endurance.

First, recent research has shown that performing repetitions in the 12-20 range does not increase muscular endurance any more than the 6-8 repetition range. Second, you’re already working on your muscular endurance when out on the road and when doing track workouts. The purpose of strength work is to build strength so performing routines and rep ranges that target this goal is ideal.

Therefore, rather than using light weight and high repetitions, you should lift the maximum weight you can safely handle for 6-10 repetitions. The 6-10 rep range allows for maximum muscle overload and will recruit the greatest number of muscle fibers, thus leading to increased strength.

The next time you head to the gym for your strength training session, consider reducing your repetitions and adding more weight to your exercise. You’ll maximize your strength gains much faster this way.

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Myth #3 Heavy Weights Bulk You Up, Light Weights Make You Look 'Toned'

When I first suggest to runners that they will be better served by lifting heavy weights, their initial reaction is, “I want to look like Mo Farah, not Arnold Schwarzenegger.” This fear comes from a misunderstanding of how “bulking up” actually occurs.

Muscle bulk is not determined by lifting heavy weights alone. In fact, lifting heavy weights is the least important part of the equation. Nutrition, specifically excess calories, is what contributes to bulking up when lifting heavy weights. (As a side note, it’s the same for using running as a means to lose weight. The mileage itself is not the most important factor, but rather the negative calorie balance.)

Moreover, because the amount of time you will spend running will vastly outnumber the amount of time you spend lifting heavy weights, it will be virtually impossible for you to gain unwanted or detrimental mass (unless of course you’re seriously overeating, which is not a training problem).

Don’t be afraid of looking like a body builder if you’re including heavy lifting in your running routine. It just won’t happen.

Likewise, lifting lighter weights with more repetitions won’t make your muscles look more “toned.” The common belief is that high reps magically get rid of fat. While lifting light weight at high reps to fatigue can create a muscular response, it does not necessarily remove fat better than low reps with heavy weight. The mythical “toned” look is a result of not losing muscle mass in conjunction with losing weight.

As an example, one study from the University of Alabama in Birmingham showed that dieters who lifted heavy weights lost the same amount of weight as dieters who did just cardio, but all the weight lost by the weight lifters was fat while the cardio subjects lost a lot of muscle along with some fat.

Consider how these three common myths play into your current perception and approach to strength training. Hopefully you’ve been reading enough of the current literature to have already made positive changes to your strength training routine. If not, use the information we’ve presented to dispel these myths to make the most of your time spent in the gym.

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