Most runners and coaches believe that heavy barbells are should be reserved for bodybuilders. They think strength and conditioning could injure runners, make them gain too much bulk or get slower. For decades, runners have been told that time spent with dumbbells is time that should have been spent running.
That all changed with Mo Farah’s stunning double gold-medal performance at the 2012 London Olympics. Running fans around the world were eager to learn his secret. The answer was surprising: Mo Farah hit the weight room.
“People have always thought distance runners should lift light,” Farah’s coach Salazar told The Guardian in 2013. “Don’t you believe it.”
That 2013 interview convinced many in the running world that serious, strength training can boost running performance. A decade ago, bulking up was the bane of fast times. Today, runners commonly talk about squats, deadlifts and kettlebells.
Studies say that the ability to efficiently and quickly produce a forceful stride is a key component of running faster. The more power you generate with each stride and the less energy you use, the faster you’ll be. If you can continue to generate powerful strides without hitting an unsustainably high intensity, you’ll be able to maintain this elevated pace for greater distances.
Lifting Heavy is Better Than Lifting Light
Distance running is an endurance-oriented sport, so it’s commonly assumed that a runner’s weight training program should incorporate high repetitions with low weights. However, research has shown that performing repetitions in the 12-20 range does not increase muscular endurance more than 6-8 repetitions.
In fact, the optimal repetition range for strength and power gains appears to be in the 4-6 range. This allows for maximum muscle overload and recruits the most muscle fibers, leading to increased strength and size.
Heavy Weights Won’t Bulk You up
When it comes to the weight room, a runner’s biggest reservation is that the benefits of adding power to your stride would be negated if it also added weight to your frame. But as Salzar told The Guardian, don’t believe it. Runners don’t blow up like bodybuilders after lifting a few heavy weights. It’s just a myth.
Muscle “bulk” is dependent on several variables, which include excess calories, heavy training 4-5 times per week and a lack of catabolic activities such as running so that adaptation may occur. If any of these variables are not in place, “bulk” will not occur.
As runners, the time we spend running vastly outnumbers the time spent lifting heavy. Therefore, unless you’re taking Human Growth Hormone, it’s difficult for runners to put on extra weight from lifting heavy.
So Why Doesn’t Everyone Lift Like Mo Farah?
You’re surely wondering why more training schedules don’t include serious amounts of heavy lifting.
Power is only one factor of running performance. Your aerobic system and your ability to clear lactate is far more important. Having a strong, powerful stride will only take you so far without the aerobic system to support it. So if you’re crunched on time and want to boost performance, prioritize running.
Secondly, weight training is an additional stress. Like a hard workout on the track or trails, lifting heavy will leave your muscles sore and tired the next day. That can detract from your runs. The more heavy lifting you do, the less effective your runs will be.
Whether lifting weights is worth it is up to the individual. But there’s one thing for sure: it doesn’t hurt to get strong.