5 RUNNING STRENGTH TRAINING MYTHS
There are many known benefits of distance runners performing regular strength & conditioning exercise as part of their training cycle. These include reduced running related injury risk and improvements in performance.
However despite a growing awareness of the value of strength and conditioning for distance runners, there remains several key myths that runners have regarding strength training. These myths often prevent runners from incorporating strength & conditioning work into their training routine.
The key myths are outlined in the below image which has been adapted from Richard Blagrove’s book Strength & Conditioning for Endurance Running.
Myth 1: Strength training will make me ‘bulk up’.
The fear of bulking up or putting on excessive muscle mass is a valid concern for any distance runner looking at starting strength and conditioning. All runners appreciate that any increase in body mass has a negative effect on running economy and therefore performance.
In comparison to the athlete who is looking to ‘bodybuild’ or build muscle mass, the distance runner is not looking to build mass, or muscle hypertrophy. While some of the exercises will overlap the program prescription is very different when it comes to bodybuilding as opposed to distance running strength work.
The aim of the distance runner completed strength training is on training the neuromuscular system to generate higher levels and rates of force development and improve tissue capacity. While the aim of the bodybuilder is to hypertrophy (grow) their muscles through cellular changes that occur with the contractile proteins.
In addition the ‘interference effect’ stunts the hypertrophy of muscles for distance runners doing strength work. Research has shown that when endurance running and strength training are completed in tandem, gains in strength related qualities such as muscle hypertrophy are in fact stunted. The same research also failed to find any increase in body weight amongst the subjects as a result of the strength training intervention.
This blunting of the adaptation is thought to be due to a conflict in the signalling pathways at a intracellular muscular level.
Hence it is unlikely that endurance runners completing strength training will gain excessive muscle mass.
Myth 2: Strength training can cause injury
The perception of many people is that lifting heavy in a gym setting is a high risk activity. This belief is also evident amongst runners who may fear that exposing themselves to heavy gym based loads through strength training, may carry with it an injury risk.
However the risk of injury is reduced when runners first learn the correct technique for lifting, followed by the addition of external loads through the weight that is added. The exercises that a runner would focus on are all derivatives of the mechanics of running: push-pull, step up, lunge, and squatting.
Interestingly the loads that a runner’s body experience in a gym setting are below the forces that a runner;’s body experiences when running. See below for images that highlight the peak muscle forces when running, and also the peak joint loads experienced at the ankle, knee, and hip.
I often say runners are more likely to get injured by not doing strength work than by actually performing correctly executed strength exercises. However weight training carries a low level of risk, with one study reporting 2-4 injuries for every 10,000 hours of gym based strength & conditioning exercise (1).
Myth 3: Strength training will result in unwanted muscle soreness
It is a reasonable concern that weight training will cause muscle soreness and interfere with running sessions.
DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) often does result from a running completing initial strength work. Despite the soreness from DOMS it has not been shown to negatively affect endurance performance.
Following initial soreness from DOMS the given muscle(s) are quick to adapt and cope better with the same subsequent loads. This is known as the ‘repeated bout effect’ and it serves as being protective against subsequent muscle damage. The exact mechanisms of how the repeated bout effect works are not fully known, but the adaptation is thought to be a mix of neural, mechanical, and cellular changes (2).
If you do experience muscle soreness one to two days following the start of strength & conditioning it is important to not be concerned, and take comfort in knowing that your running performance will not be negatively impacted.
Repeat bout effect https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12641640
Myth 4: Strength training should not be performed by younger runners
Despite common belief and opinion, there is no harm to a young or adolescent athlete including strength and conditioning work into their training.
A position statement released from the British Journal of Sports Medicine (3) stated that an appropriately designed resistance training program should be viewed as an essential component of preparatory training programs for aspiring young athletes, further adding that youth who do not participate in activities that enhance muscle strength and motor skills early in life may be at increased risk for negative health outcomes later in life.
Traditional and misinformed fears that resistance training may be harmful for a developing skeleton have been replaced by evidence based findings that indicate that the opportune time to perform strength training is during childhood.
One of the commonly cited concerns of children undertaking strength training was that it could ‘stunt growth’ through injury to growth plates. This concern has been nullified through a body of research which rather shows positive effects on the developing skeleton for the young athlete undertaking strength training (3). In fact it has been found that mechanical stress placed on the growth plates may actually be beneficial for bone formation, density, and growth.
While resistance training should be included in the programs of all young runners, sessions should be supervised by a qualified coach, with a focus on technique refinement and the quality of movement.
The International Olympic Committee released a 2015 Consensus Statement for youth athletic development and they stated that young athletes should be encouraged to participate in regular varied strength and conditioning programs that are suitably age based, quality technique driven, safe and enjoyable (4).
Myth 5: strength training will reduce the available time to run
A common concern runners have is that the inclusion of any strength training may negatively impact on the time they have available to run.
Given that most recreational runners are already time poor, this is a valid concern.
For strength and conditioning work to be completed by most ‘already busy’ distance runners the options are to drop some running out of the program, or to add strength work onto the program.
Both may be valid options, however most runners do not want to drop running sessions out of their program, and where possible it is advisable to keep running the ‘main thing’ in terms of training time allocation.
Chris Johnson and Nathan Carlson on The Runner’s Zone podcast summarised things nicely when he stated that 80% of training time should be devoted to running, and 20% to strength work.
Rich Willy on Episode 132 of The Physical Performance Show suggested that for the runner who struggles to set aside time for 2 x 30min gym routine workouts per week that another option is to build ‘training blocks’ into the weekly training cycle. Training blocks being 5-10 minute mini sessions of strength and conditioning exercises.
Another option as outlined by Blagrove (1) is to build in strength and conditioning exercises into session warm ups and cool downs.
While in the short term finding time for the inclusion of strength and conditioning exercise into an already full training program may be difficult, longer term the benefits it will bring include reduced injury rate and enhanced performance.
I hope that the addressing of these top five strength training myths boosts your confidence and resolve to either continue allocating time to strength and conditioning sessions, or to look to begin including strength and conditioning sessions into your weekly training cycle.
If you have any questions please leave a comment below.
If you know a runner that could benefit from this blog post, please share the link with them.
Physio With a Finish Line™,
Brad Beer (APAM)
APA Titled Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist (APAM)
B.Physio/ B. Ex. Sc
Author ‘You CAN Run Pain Free!’
Founder POGO Physio
Host The Physical Performance Show
Featured in the Top 50 Physical Therapy Blog
- To learn more about the benefits of strength training for endurance runners: Strength training for runners: a detailed look at the evidence Part 1 HERE>>
- Richard Blagrove: Strength & Conditioning Coach & researcher, PhD, Exercise Physiologist, Author: The Physical Performance Show: Expert Edition podcast
- Blagrove, R. Strength and Conditioning for Endurance Runners (2015).
- McHugh, MP. Recent advances in the understanding of the repeated bout effect: the protective effect against muscle damage from a single bout of eccentric exercise. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2003 Apr;13(2):88-97.
- Lloyd RS, Faigenbaum AD, Stone MH, et al. Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. Br J Sports Med 2014;48:498-505.
- Bergeron MF, Mountjoy M, Armstrong N, et al. International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. Br J Sports Med 2015;49:843-851.