The best business leaders go out on a limb, don’t follow convention and aren’t afraid of treading a different path. They also don’t turn their back to different ways of approaching their jobs or stop seeking new ideas. Running coaches are leaders too: what they say and do impacts on their immediate circle of influence and, depending on their profile, the broader running community as well. This is why the majority of distance-running coaches need a good kick up the bum for ignoring the blindingly obvious facts about strength training in running.
Don’t get me wrong: distance running coaches know their running. They know it well, intimately even. It’s what they love. But immersed in their passion, some can forget that it’s not all about the running. A closely-related blindspot is the idea that being lighter translates into better performances in running: If I just get lighter I’ll be faster or be able to sustain my pace for longer. The flawed logic here is the idea that losing weight will favourably alter an athlete’s power-to-weight ratio.
The problem is that when weight reduces, it might result in short-term performance gains. But in the medium to long-term you are losing weight and power. Not to mention weakening bones and muscles as athletes sometimes strive too hard and begin restricting energy and nutrient intake to meet some arbitrary benchmark of what they should weigh. It’s not a good idea if you want to stay injury-free and physically and emotionally healthy.
The connection with strength training is the unfounded belief that by touching a set of dumbbells a distance runner will somehow immediately grow into a hulking, muscle-bound monster. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Body builders don’t run, because they need all the fuel they are consuming to be turned into muscle. So while a body-sculpting champion might look fit, there’s a fair chance they wouldn’t be able to jog to the corner store to pick up a litre of milk.
Runners find it almost impossible to bulk-up – but they can and should get stronger. Here’s why:
Strength training that closely mimics running postures and movement patterns retrains the neuromuscular system to work efficiently and effectively. Strength gains often result as much from ‘neurological adaptations’ rather than from absolute increases in muscle size. So you can get much stronger without your muscles growing at all. For this reason, strength training really is running technique training.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to get physically stronger or be scared off adding some lean muscle mass to your otherwise sinewy running frame. Running is an activity that is much more strength-related than people think and to maximise the body’s ability to store and release energy in the tendons and muscles it helps to be strong. Stronger runners get more free energy – counterintuitive as it may seem.
In terms of performance, most scientific studies that have looked at the introduction of strength training to runners’ programs usually report gains of about 5%. This is perhaps understated, as many of these studies are performed on already fit and trained runners – the potential gains for recreational and less-serious runners are probably much greater. Finally, strength training helps stabilise the body to enable it to resist twisting forces that are such big contributors to overuse injuries.
You won’t find any argument from me that it helps to be generally fit and relatively lean to run well, but this shouldn’t ever be confused with being skinny or light. Lean can and should mean strong and shouldn’t ever be measured in terms of weight. Changes in body composition through strength training and running are far more important and desirable than getting lighter.
Two thoughts to consider the next time you or your coach becomes fixated on weight: lean is not skinny. Lean can be strong. If a coach has weight loss as a primary goal of training or is disproportionately focused on weight, they should be questioned.
It’s a bit like a CEO solely being focused on cutting costs. Companies can become so stripped down that eventually they collapse on themselves. So too can runners. It is much healthier and effective to focus on what runners can do in terms of training and racing performance and not what they weigh.