This weekend, as I perused the interwebs, I came across a post from a fitness professional whom I thought was brilliant. It read:
Running does not make you stronger, you must be strong to run
Brilliant, and very true.
As one of the great things about the internet, we had some interactions on the post from those who may not have the most up to date information or approaches when it comes to training endurance athletes. Now the thing about this is, that the professional who posted this, is incredibly open minded, welcoming of CONVERSATION, and understanding where others are coming from, so when the following was posted, a conversation was begun:
I don’t think this is correct. None of the best distance runners in the world are strong. They’re light and have great power endurance. But definitely couldn’t be classified as strong by any measurement other than in running terms such as the strength to hold pace while running up a hill. (Again, really power endurance than strength anyway).
Given strength training is likely to make people even bigger, and that ~70% of most western countries are overweight or obese, this is actually only going to compound the problem.
Making yourself bigger to deal with impact forces doesn’t make sense when by making yourself bigger you’re going to have to deal with more impact forces.
What people need to do is shed the excess weight and learn to run well.
Edited to add - don’t disagree that running doesn’t make you strong. But saying you need to get strong to run is as ridiculous as saying you need to run to get strong. And we’d all recognise the fact of that.
And a second post from the individual (after the fitness pro stated that she is talking about the AVERAGE runner, not necessarily the top in the world), and that strength training can be done without much hypertrophy, to which the response was:
Good thing you both explained the difference between strength training and hypertrophy to me. I had no idea! (sarcasm).
If you're going to use someone as a strength example, I wouldn't pick the guy who half squats 40kg and actually does circuit training as my example :)
You're still both wrong.
While the answer for each athlete will ALWAYS be IT DEPENDS, the stance that this individual took- that runners are weak and strength training would hurt their sport performance due to hypertrophy- is incredibly prevalent in the fitness industry, and even with some performance coaches.
THIS IS A BIG PROBLEM. And is in fact one of the biggest obstacles that we MUST get past if we are to unlock the human being’s full abilities to perform in endurance sports.
The vast majority of runners out there,ESPECIALLY those at the amateur levels, NEED a properly designed strength training program to help them maintain good posture, muscular balance at the joints, to help them deal with the forces in their sport, and to keep the joints of the spine, hips, knees, and feet from taking unnecessary strain due to insufficient muscular strength and poor posture.
“STRONG” is all RELATIVE to what that athletes needs are.
Runners, as a whole, do NOT need to be moving heavy weights, although “heavy” (relative to that athlete’s abilities) must be included at certain points in the training program to elicit best results.
So today’s post is a sharing of what current best practices are, and WHY strength Training for runners is a MUST, as well as why when compared to other sports athletes, the raw numbers for runners SHOULD be lower, but that does not mean they are weak. Rather, they are SPECIALIZED to perform in their unique sports demands.
The following is my response to this individuals post:
Yes, you are correct that learning how to actually run properly will be a huge boost to the runners abilities. This too, as much as proper strength training for runners, is way too often neglected or overlooked.
Yet one cannot simply state that strength training for runners will slow them down or cause them to not perform in their sport. That statement is ignorant, and is in fact one of the biggest reasons why so many runners continue to be plagued by injuries that can, and should be, prevented with basic strength training done on a consistent basis.
Many professional runners are incredibly weak to the point they are useless outside of their running, in an UNHEALTHY fashion, Ryan Hall himself publicly stated this:
Speaking as one who has worked for over a decade in Strength Training for endurance athletes at all levels, it’s been my experience, and is my expert opinion, that strength training is an absolute MUST for runners, alongside technique refinement and tissue-quality training (these 3 go hand in hand in hand).
HOWEVER, your statement above of:
"If you're going to use someone as a strength example, I wouldn't pick the guy who half squats 40kg and actually does circuit training as my example."
Your thought process follows the "classic American thinking" that lifting weights will automatically lead to body-builder type muscle growth, or unnecessary muscle growth. This is ignorant, and follows a very shallow thought process of "what strength training is", as well as what “STRONG” is or needs to be.
While adding body building style muscle mass can be the case when someone follows a strength program that does not suit their sports needs/demands, the thought that "muscular hypertrophy as a result of strength training is unnecessary" is, in fact, incorrect, as there are 2 types of muscle hypertrophy:
When strength training for endurance sports, we actually are programming for myofibrillar hypertrophy (the contractile parts of the muscle themselves), allowing for very dense muscles, and for the muscles and tendons to be able to carry good muscle tension.
While this will usually lead to increase in weight, when done properly and in the correct proportion, it actually leads to a better overall functioning athlete; in sport and out.
Again, I must stress, WHEN DONE PROPERLY.
Programming is where many endurance athletes and well-meaning fitness professionals go awry, and ultimately leave strength training due to unwanted results (muscle mass, or increased strength with decreased results).
Hypertrophy is, in fact a part of the correct process with which to progress endurance athletes in strength:
1. Anatomical Adaptation
3. Max Strength
4. Conversion to sport specificity
5. in-season maintenance
IF we want to get into the issue of half-squats vs. full squats, we can certainly do so:
The 1/4 squats, as per your citation of Mo Farrah and your dismissal of his half squatting and circuit training as not "really" being strength training, is one of the major obstacles that the general strength training community need to wrap their heads around if we are to truly allow strength training for endurance athletes to move forward and help us unlock the full human potential in these events.
1/4 squatting, while you seem to dismiss it, is in fact completely sport-specific to these athletes, as with proper running form the hip and leg is put through a 1/8-1/10 of a full squatting motion with each footstrike. Thus 1/4 squatting for runners, is essentially the equivalent of "ass to grass" squats for olympic lifters- it is BOTH necessary for their in-sport success, and to strength the tissues and muscles through the ranges of motion (and then some) required by their sport.
Add into the equation the fact that "ass to grass" squatting and Deadlifting off the floor are not requirements by any means for someone to see sport success- UNLESS they are an olympic lifter (in the case of squatting) or powerlifter (in the case of deadlifting off the floor), and we can now begin to better understand how "partial lifts" are in fact strength training in ways that will significantly help these athletes.
"Assess the athlete's sport needs and demands, and build your programming to meet and even slightly exceed these demands" is a basic principle when it comes to programming. Do not forget or neglect this, as if you do, you will simply be burning the athletes mental and physical energies in ways that will hinder their progress, not propel them forward.
We want to be as efficient as possible in our programming in sport and out, allowing for the least amount of energy and effort being put forth, in order to see the sport result we are after. THAT is the true secret to the top coaches and athletes accomplishments!
As per your issue with circuit training, this actually goes back to what Verkhoshansky pushed in his foundational book "Super training" as the primary mode of strength training for strength-endurance:
Timed sets (2-4+ min in length) with 20-40% of estimated 1RM with multiple exercises formed in a fashion that most replicate the athletes sport demands, with timed rest periods.*
This serves multiple purposes, as the building of athletic performance, and not simply strength for strengths sake, is actually built upon 4 pillars which MUST be addressed through proper training:
1. Cardiorespiratory fitness
2. Neuromuscular Fitness
4. Metabolic Demands
Doing strength training for many top-level endurance athletes in a timed set, circuit fashion, actually allows for the 4 pillars of athletic progression to be simultaneously built, thus allowing for the maximum effectiveness to be elicited by a single strength training session. (See above about how training must be energy and time efficient)
This is in fact, in my opinion, an optimal way for an endurance athlete at Mo's level to train. For the “average runner" however, it depends, and more often then not, we will be focused more on building baseline strength and balance of the muscles at each the joints.
Some of your "average runners" will need to focus more on the myofibrillar hypertrophy and max strength end of things, as they build up not only the muscular strength to deal with the forces demanded on the body by their sport, but also the tissue qualities needed to be able to use less muscular force, and more of the "spring" supplied by building up of tissue qualities over time, such as the fascia and tendons.
It is NOT size nor the total weight one can lift that most endurance athletes need to have their programming seek after.....rather, it is the ability of the body to produce and maintain muscle tension and "tuning", and inter & intramuscular coordination which will allow them to execute the long-duration of repetitive movements in their sport that will ultimately propel them to success.
In that case, you are correct, endurance athletes "Max strength" abilities pale in comparison to other sport athletes....but then, it SHOULD. Yet you cannot discount their needing strength training simply because their raw numbers are low! This would be, and is, a huge mistake!
As you so pointed out, it is their strength endurance and power endurance that they need to build atop the platform of Strength, not strength for strength sake. So yes, runners are weak compared to other athletes, if we look at raw numbers. But they should be.
All this being said, your simply writing off "strength training for runners", as well as the style of strength training selected, is a huge mistake and one that is incredibly pervasive in most peoples current thinking on strength training for endurance athletes. It is a HUGE impediment to our unlocking the development of the best human abilities in the endurance sport abilities.
This includes "Half squatting" and "circuit training" as being "bad", as you seem to be hinting to in your post.
There is a correct time and place for different kinds of training, and in this case these ARE appropriate and very specific to this athlete, and where he is (based on what information is available to the public about this athlete, and having never met him, or assessed him).
This is EXACTLY the kind of thinking that is so prevalent across the fitness industry, and even with some performance coaches. As Lee Taft said in his interview with me on my Podcast "The Strong Savvy Cyclist and Triathlete", We really are barely even beginning to tap into the performance gains that strength training offers runners....
This kind of thinking: that 1/4 squats and circuit training "aren't really strength training" and that "strength training will only slow runners down because they'll put on unnecessary size" is holding us back from truly unleashing top-human performances, and is hurting our clients- literally - as many of the common injuries sustained by runners could be avoided through simple, short, consistent strength routines done at home, or at the gym.
*Verkhoshansky recommended 40-60% of e1RM with 25-40 reps per set, 2-4 sets per exercise with 1-2 minutes rest in between. The sets should take 80-150 seconds to complete, with the speed being 6-80% of max speed per rep, with 8-14 sessions per week.
Over the course of my career I have found the 2-4 minute sets with 20-40% of e1RM to have high success with endurance athletes in fewer sessions per week, usually due to life and time constraints.