Getting Stronger to Run Faster
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
One of my high school teachers told me, when I was a Freshman, that girls often don't run as fast after they hit puberty. It felt like a warning, and I vowed to work even harder to run fast. I didn't slow down, possibly because I was done growing by the time I was 13 and possibly because I didn't achieve a normal hormonal balance until my mid-20's. Puberty is incredibly important developmentally, and while it may result in decreased athletic performance for a couple of years, girls typically become stronger and faster as they age. Some research shows that women marathoners peak around 29, while women of all ages continue to set records and break barriers. But I digress.
When I got to college, my coaches were obsessed with our "race weight," and we took great measures to stay small and light. Aside from restricting food (which I've written about at length), our weight lifting program was structured in a way to avoid getting "bulky." We lifted twice a week with the typical tools-barbells, kettlebells, etc. Nothing too heavy and nothing too complex. Too much muscle, I was told, would slow me down.
What I didn't know at the time, was that it's physiologically impossible to build bulk when running high volume. It's nearly impossible. In shirking the weight room, I grew weaker. And in shirking weights while restricting food, I grew weak enough to become far slower than I could have been.
How Weight Training Helps Runners
1. Decreases Your Risk of Injury
This is the most beneficial benefit, in my very humble opinion. Running is a high-impact sport, and a 2020 study found that about 30% of people who run consistently endure either an acute or chronic injury. Running has some pretty cool upsides as well, like building bone density and decreasing your risk of cardiovascular disease. But, you can't gain any of the benefits from running if your injured. Engaging in consistent and progressive strength training can help you address imbalances, increase stability, and strengthen the major and minor muscle groups that are put under enormous stress while running.
2. Improve Muscle Activation
I learned this lesson the hard way, but just because you have muscles doesn't mean you're always using them correctly. In runners, this can happen with the glutes, especially if we sit a lot. If your glutes aren't working properly, your hips will take more of the load and you might end up with a muscle strain or injury. Consistent strength training is a good way to isolate specific muscles and train muscle recruitment patterns. One of the best ways to tell if you have an underlying weakness or activation issue is to have someone watch and critique your running form.
3. Improve Your Running Economy
Running economy is the relationship between oxygen consumption and running speed. VO2 max is the upper limit of your oxygen consumption (aerobic capacity), and lactate threshold is the level of your aerobic capacity that you can sustain for a long time. The less oxygen you need to sustain any given pace, the better. A well thought-out strength program can improve your biomechanics and result in a more efficient use of energy. Improving your movement patters means less wasted energy, more endurance, and more speed.
I've used a lot of different strength training methods, to having a regimented workout schedule in college to working off the Runner's World strength guide, to memberships at Planet Fitness. For over a year, I've used Ultimate Sandbags and have been trained remotely by Ben Beeler. I do two hour-long sessions each week, working off a dynamic plan. I send Ben videos of movements I want him to review and I like that my program is tailored to my needs. Over the past year, I've seen and felt my body get stronger, slowly and progressively. And in the past year, I've run thousands of miles and avoided serious injury. Consistent strength training has made me a more resilient, more efficient, and overall stronger runner.