Incorporating consistent strength training into my training as a competitive runner is a relatively new development. Anybody who's talked training with me recently knows how adamant I am about the importance of strength training for runners, but I had to travel a long (and occasionally painful) road to obtain that knowledge.
My earliest experience with the weights was during the summer months in high school. I tagged along with my brothers to the high school weight room and basically learned the lifts the football players did: bench press, back squats (complete with a weightlifting belt!), leg press, hamstring curls on a machine, bicep curls, tricep extensions, and on and on.
Fast forward to college. During my running career at the University of Wisconsin the priority on strength training shifted along with my evolution from mid distance to distance runner. When I trained as an 800m runner early in my career, I learned a few more Olympic lifts, but we did not lift consistently throughout the year, and I wouldn't say I knew the importance of what I was doing. As a result of my “lifting” between high school and college I felt like I had strong prime movers (quads, hamstrings) but I did little core work so I felt very unstable. Running on the road or track was fine, but put me on grass I was out of control, just ask my good friend and teammate Hav, right Hav?! ;)
As I transitioned into more of a cross country runner and miler my final two years of college I was rarely in the weight room. One summer I became serious: I ramped up my miles, ran the second half of every run decently hard, and for the first time in my life I became mindful of my diet. I had a transformation that was almost immediate; in a couple months I became a runner. Sure, I was competitive and athletic before that summer, but deep down I never thought of myself as a runner or felt like a runner. My takeaway from this time was that to be a runner, all you have to do is keep it simple: run more, run harder. Chop wood, carry water, right? Looking back, no, not right.
My routine for my last two years of college and the next four years after that was pretty much just run 60-70 miles a week and occasionally do 5-10 minutes of “core.” My simplistic plan caught up with me when I was 25. While I was coaching at Cal-Berkeley I always tried to get in my 70 minutes of running a day and this was a good way for me to connect with the athletes. However, the job also required a fair amount of sitting during the day and the combination of running hard and sitting for extended periods of time did not mix well. I ended up with a serious psoas injury that was hard to diagnose and hard to treat that left me out of running for 6 months.
It wasn’t until I started training post-collegiately again at 26 that I was able to experience the benefits of a consistent, functional strength training plan. Jason and I were coaching at the University of Oklahoma and I was also getting my master’s in exercise physiology so I was truly being a student of the sport. I was fortunate to get acquainted with some world-class coaches and resources during my late twenties and for the first time in my life I was consistent with proper strength training and core work. I realized that I didn’t have to deal with the nagging injuries or discomfort that I had been for so many years. I had plantar fasciitis for almost 7 years and I wouldn’t have moved past it without proper strength training.
Not only did annoying little injuries start to go away but I began to feel stronger on runs. For the first time I felt like I could feel my glutes powering me forward instead of just cycling my legs through. I felt taller and had better posture. My balance and stability was better. I wasn’t flailing my limbs and upper body all over the place anymore. I was cleaner, more efficient. I also felt like I was recovering better and less moody after longer runs.
Now I know that the differences I feel from strength training are: 1) improved running economy (the ability to run faster while using the same amount of energy), 2) improved resilience because I have a stronger core and muscles that generate force, 3) improved function because I’ve implemented contrasting movements to counteract the repetitive nature of running, and 4) improved recovery because lifting heavy induces positive hormonal responses that don’t occur with running or bodyweight exercises.
All of this seems like common sense to me now, but man, what a ride to get here!