I speak to a lot of runners and everyone is interested in improving their performance and reducing the frequency of injury. However if you mention weights or resistance training, runners are often concerned with not wanting to bulk up. Many runners are also of the opinion that to get better at running all you have to do is run more miles, but is this just going to make your existing problems worse and is there a smarter way of working?
Let’s run through what resistance training can do for us, how we can manipulate training to get the results we want and what are some of the options available.
Effects of Resistance Training
Resistance training offers an array of benefits that can be extremely beneficial in preparing the body for high forces involved in sprinting but that will be equally beneficial in strengthening the body for the repetitive loading of distance running.
- These benefits including:
- Increased muscular strength
- Increased connective tissue strength
- Increased bone density
- Improved muscular co-ordination
- Increased power
- Increased functional range of movement
- and yes……
- Increased muscle mass
The big question everyone wants answered is: "Will I become a beefcake if I do weights?"
The not so straightforward answer is that it depends, not just on what you do, but how you do it. You can see from the many elite distance runners that spend a lot of time in the gym and on conditioning exercise that this isn’t the case. A familiar example being when Mo flashes the Mobot, his lean, chiseled guns barely cast a shadow yet the strength and power needed to put in a 52 second final lap in a 10000m race is clear.
There are various factors we can manipulate in the design of a conditioning program that will determine the overall training effect including:
- The amount of load
- The duration of loading
- Training volumes
- Environmental factors.
Most people are comfortable with the concept that doing more reps of a lighter load will improve endurance and doing fewer, heavier reps will lead to larger strength and size gains.
People are less familiar with the effects of exercising slowly, particularly eccentric exercises, where there is a controlled lengthening of the muscle under load. This puts muscles under longer periods of high loading and will develop strength quickly but with the possibility of developing bulk and reducing speed.
Performing exercises quickly will help to develop power; the higher the load and the quicker the movement, the greater the power developed. This has benefits in terms of performance but also brings higher risk of injury.
Don’t be too quick to judge any of these options based on their individual effects as each will be useful at different times and in various combinations.
Endurance based exercise will resist the development of large bulking so think about your training volumes across your whole program not just the number of reps of a particular exercise.
If you’re maintaining high running mileages, building up to lifting heavier loads in the gym will lead to larger increases in strength but is unlikely to develop lots of muscle bulk. Equally if you are only managing small volumes of running, resistance training with higher reps and lighter loads can be used to supplement muscular endurance still avoiding further impact and the chance of adding unnecessary bulk.
Slow controlled exercise (including eccentric loading) is effective at improving neuromuscular control because the nervous system is required to switch small amounts of muscle on and off in a coordinated way to give a smooth lengthening of the muscle under load. Physios use this type of exercise in injury rehab and conditioning for several reasons:
- Regain muscle mass after injury induced wasting
- Developing muscle mass/strength
- Improve neuromuscular control (relates to stability)
- Rehabilitation and prevention of tendon injury.
While you are likely to put on some muscle mass the most notable change is likely to be an increase in muscle tone, which you see as improved shape and definition. The other important thing to consider is that unlike body fat the extra muscle is going to be contributing to moving you forward.