How Weightlifting Made Me a Better Runner

Ah, weightlifting and running — two exercises that are often perceived as being on opposite ends of the spectrum. You have the big, bulky weightlifter on one end and the thin, lanky long distance runner on the other. There are several articles and threads on forums about how long distance running catabolize muscle and how excess muscle can slow down your running. Depending upon which camp you’re in, you look at the other activity with suspicion. Recently, however, there’s been a growing interest in combining the two activities, (in particular with runners and CrossFit that I’ve personally observed), in order to achieve greater fitness. I’ve been coming across more articles that advocate strength training for running to prevent injury and to become a stronger runner.

I started running more frequently because of Ben. He’s a runner. I do serious barbell weight training (squats, bench press, and dead lifts). When we met, I only ran intermittently. I began running more often because Ben introduced me to races and I discovered that though I don’t care so much for running, I do love racing. I love competition and my competitive side had been lying dormant for many years. Once I discovered with some training that I could make serious gains in running, I ran off to the races! Literally.

Before weight lifting and several years ago, I did some running. The training I did back then was a 100% low intensity steady state (LISS) cardio, aka, the long slow distance. Thus I ran a lot of 10-mile training runs each week. My goal back then was mostly focused on burning calories. What a pointless goal. I didn’t care about being a better athlete. Work outs were things I suffered through so that I could lose weight.

A few years ago I decided to stop focusing on losing weight, and instead work on getting stronger. I began lifting weights. I was thrilled with the gains in strength and how being a physically stronger person helped me in life. I stopped worrying about “burning calories” and instead made increasing strength my goal. Having a positive achievement of lifting a particular weight turned going into a gym from a chore into an activity that I really enjoy and look forward to. Changes in my body were a by-product of the positive gains I made, rather than the end goal.

Going into running from a weight training perspective shaped how I do my training for running. I’m a different runner now. I run so much faster than what I thought I was capable of. I’m going to describe some of the things that I’ve learned in weightlifting and how I apply them to running.

  1. Progressive overloading. Progressive overloading is the gradual increase of demand or stress on the body. In weightlifting, the goal is generally to become stronger. The only way to do this is to lift heavier and heavier. There are several different programs, but all have the same general philosophy that once you can comfortably lift a certain weight, you increase the weight you lift in the next training session (or if you keep the same weight, you increase the volume by lifting more repetitions).

    I know the long slow run is the foundation and the holy grail for becoming a faster runner, but frankly I think many runners do the long slow run incorrectly. As fitness increases, the pace at which the long slow run is done also needs to drop. At a certain point, an activity no longer provides any gains and instead switches over to maintenance. For example, if I want to lift 50-lbs, lifting several reps of 20-lb dumbbells isn’t going cut it. Once I can comfortably lift a weight for about 5-8 reps, I overload my muscles by going up in weight.

    I do something similar with running. I want to run faster, so I increase the speed at which I run for a particular distance. For example, once I became comfortable with running a 5K at a 9 min pace, I began training running 5Ks at a 8:30 pace. I found that the most efficacious way of becoming a faster runner is simply running faster, even for the long slow run. What was once a slow pace for you may know be too slow because your fitness increased. Take stock of your fitness levels every few months to readjust your training paces.

  2. Microloading. Microloading is a small increase in weight in order to overcome a huge jump in weight differential (for example, you can comfortably lift 30-lb dumbbells, but 35-lb dumbbells are too much because it’s 10 lb increase total). In order to get over that hump, you microload by adding small weights so that the increase is much smaller (1-2 lbs rather than 10 lbs all at once).

    I focus a lot of my training around 5Ks because I love racing and there are several 5Ks in the NYC area from spring to fall. I used to think that the way to getting faster at a particular distance was to run that distance over and over again until I got faster. While I do think that this method does work, I don’t think it’s the most effective method. I pick a pace that I would like to run a 5K in. The pace must be something I can’t physically do for 5K right now, but not completely out of my reach (e.g., 6:00 pace). I run at my future 5K pace for a mile or 1.25 mile for a session. In the next session (a few days to a week later), I go a little bit farther by adding a quarter mile. In the third session (again a few days to a week later), depending upon how I feel, I add another quarter mile or repeat the same distance. I keep this up until I can run 2.5 miles at my desired 5K pace. Once I’m there, I test myself by running a 5K.

    The thought of running a sub-25 min 5K seemed right daunting in the beginning of the summer last year. I couldn’t imagine myself holding a 8:00 pace for a little more than 3 miles. But I knew that I could run a 8:00 min mile for one mile. So I started with that and started adding a little bit more distance whenever I was doing speed work.

  3. Rest days are just as important as training days. In weightlifting, after a training session you rest for a day in order to let the microtears heal. Muscles grow and become stronger during the rest period. By constantly training, you prevent your muscles from healing fully. I love weightlifting because I don’t need to go to the gym every day. Back when I was focused only on burning calories, I felt bad if I didn’t go work out every day. Now I know that resting serves an important purpose in fitness.

    After a strenuous work out, it’s important to give yourself time to rest and to recover. Rest is also important to prevent overtraining and injury.

    Run intensely and rest intensely.

I know people run for different reasons. Some people don’t care about becoming faster and prefer running slowly for relaxation. Others have found a training program that works for them and they’re meeting their goals. As someone who’s relatively self-taught (relying on reading info from books and the internet and some guidance from Ben) and needs a very flexible and open plan (okay, Ben calls it the “having no training plan”), having a general guideline of progressive overload allowed me to make what I consider to be fairly large gains with minimal running. I run very few miles per week (if I run more than 10 miles, it’s a high volume week for me). Would I become a faster runner if I ran more miles? I’m pretty sure I would. But there are several weeks in the year when I’m at work 12-16 hours per day (leaving work past midnight on a regular basis is not unknown to me) and I just can’t devote the time to do lots of miles. So the question is, how do I make the most of what I can do? Right now I found this and it works really well for me.


2 thoughts on “How Weightlifting Made Me a Better Runner

  1. I love this! As someone who’s started as a runner a couple of years ago and only just discovered weight lifting (slooooooowly making my way into it but loving every bit), I too can also definitely see benefits. Anything that makes you stronger!

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