Should you lift weights to be a better marathon runner?
With the ING New York City Marathon just weeks away (…after some of us fought hard for last year’s marathon cancellation due to Hurricane Sandy), I figured now is as good a time as any to revisit a misunderstood and often controversial topic about marathons: lifting weights as part of your training.
I figured there’s no one better to turn to for insight on this one other than Halevy Life’s own Director of Programming and Education…AND marathoner, Nick Johnson.
Lifting for the Long-Haul: Should Runners and Marathoners Lift Weights?
By Nick Johnson
I want to start off by saying I am by no means a “runner” nor do I particularly enjoy running, at least in the beginning. I have however “competed” (relative term) in a few races and have spent much of the last year training for them. Like many people attempting to tackle their first marathon, I assumed reading was the place to start as far as developing a training regimen and get in shape. I read every article and “free” program I could get my hands on, and with all reading said and done I came to the simple conclusion that I needed to run, and run, and run some more. So that is what I did. I completely ceased my training routine in the weight room and hit the road.
I started training on a regular basis for marathon one 6 months prior to the race date, slowly building up my miles with 1 long run a week. From everything I had read, this was the way to do it. As race day drew nearer (1 month away) I started to develop pain in my knee. Went to the doctors office and was told it was simply “runners knee.” I have had a history of leg injuries and figured if I took it down a notch I would be fine; From an endurance perspective I was in the best condition of my life. Finally race day came and I started off at a good pace. Then came the fun at 10 miles in, first with hamstring cramps, then eventually cramping all throughout my legs. I had a 3:30 pace going before this happened and was pumped, like I said, best shape of my life. I ended up finishing in just less than 4 hours, which wasn’t horrible by most standards, but definitely not up to my expectations.
After that terrible experience I swore I would never run another marathon. I didn’t run for a month or so, until I was approached by a co-worker and asked if I would run one with her. Naturally my response was “of course” (female, couldn’t say no). So 4 months from the race day I came up with a new plan. I would continue my strength training routine, just scale down the frequency and intensity, and do 2 shorter runs accompanied by 1 long run a week (down from 5 runs/week). My second marathon time was 3 hours 20 minutes, and I felt great afterwards, with some still left in the tank. I directly contribute this success to continuing with my strength-training program through the marathon training.
Here are the 3 reasons why you should lift when training for endurance races:
1. Prevent Overuse Injuries
Too much of one thing is almost always a bad thing (i.e. food, as in diet and nutrition; a well balanced diet is necessary to meet the body’s nutritional demands). The key to success is variation. Yes, you need to be running if you are planning on competing in a running event, but those training for running events have a very high susceptibility to injury. A 2007 study done by Fredricson and Misra in the Journal of Sports Medicine showed that two thirds of runners will sustain an injury every year and 90% of those training for a marathon will suffer from an injury. This can be attributed to overuse and weakness. Most lower body injuries from running are caused from weakness in the hip muscles, especially the hip abductors. What could possibly be one way to counteract overuse and weakness? LIFT!
2. Improve Your Time
One of the best ways to improve your time is to produce a powerful stride both quickly and efficiently. It makes sense right? The more power you can produce with each stride while using minimal amounts of energy, the faster you can run. You will not see increases in power from running long distance, therefore a supplementation of resistance exercises is essential. Let me take a second here to talk about what type of lifting you should do. Running a marathon is an endurance event right? That means we should train for muscular endurance, correct? Yes! But you do this when you run. Research has shown that rep ranges of 12-20 do not increase muscular endurance any more than a 6-8 rep range (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18787090). The best way to work on running economy is lift to compliment your running, so get in the weight room and perform large muscle recruitment, heavy exercises (deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, etc.)
3. Make Running Easy
Lifting will create neurological adaptations that you won’t get from simply running. Your body will be able to recruit more muscle fibers with each contraction, translating directly into better running economy. The August edition of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research has a study in which participants were divided into 3 groups; no lifting, light lifting (2x/week, 3 sets of 10 at 70% max), and heavy lifting (2x/week, 4 sets of 3-4 reps at 85-90% max). After 6 weeks only the heavy lifting group showed improvements (6% running economy).
Whether you are looking to improve your running time and cut down on your chances of getting an injury I would highly suggest adding a balanced resistance training program of 2-3 days a week to your running routine. If you have any questions as to what I did or what I would suggest doing to improve your marathon time hit me up on twitter @HL_Nick.