Girls Run Wild

In Tom Woodward’s Words: Strength Training for Endurance Runners

Posted on: May 27, 2011

Tom Woodward is both a finance guru and a personal trainer.  He is committed to his own fitness and nutrition regimes and is constantly finding new ways to push himself to that next level.  He dedicates himself to continually learning about fitness and overall healthy living, and he is always willing to share his knowledge and techniques with others.  He is particularly good at being able to sift through the immense amount of information out there about the health and fitness industry and recognizing what really works and what is false advertising.  Tom currently offers his services as a personal trainer and a nutrition counselor.  I asked Tom to weigh in on the topic of strength training while focusing on a long distance running goal.  His post below provides great insight into how strength training can both complement and bolster one’s fitness goals.  Want to learn more about Tom or have a question for him?  He can be reached via his own blog Health Unchained, by email at, or on Twitter @TomWoodward.  If you like what you read here, check out Tom’s blog for more information about his training services.

Tom Woodward

Strength Training For Endurance Runners

Whether you’re a competitive endurance athlete or simply looking to train recreationally for a 5K run, there are some important factors besides running that should be considered in order to maximize your performance and long-term health. To this point, I’ve completed 4 trail 10k’s, a sprint triathlon, and the escape from the rock triathlon. Though my endurance experience is limited and nowhere near distinguished, I was able to gain a basic grasp of how to improve at running. Above all, endurance running is about training often enough to improve your cardiovascular system and stride efficiency while at the same time avoiding injury. Anyone who can do these three things consistently while following a smart training program will see their race times decrease. In order to build a strong cardiorespiratory system and an efficient stride while staying injury free, it’s very important to consider training methods other than simply lacing up the sneakers and pounding the pavement every day.

Running can be brutal on bones and connective tissue. A majority of distance runners experience foot problems, shin splints, knee tendonitis, and even back problems over the course of their running careers. Joints, tendons, ligaments, and muscle tissue take a pounding and wear down when exposed to repetitive shock absorbing forces like foot strikes in running. Many people tend to focus too narrowly on the health of the heart and forget about the fact that our skeleton, muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments are the foundational structures of our body. The health of these tissues is just as important as a healthy heart if you wish to stay active over the long haul. And just like building a healthy heart, you must train these tissues the right way in order to keep them healthy. While distance running can be a phenomenal way to train the cardiorespiratory system, on its own it is a very poor stimulus for muscle and connective tissue growth. Distance running does not put enough stress on the musculoskeletal system to allow it to adapt and grow stronger. In order to get these tissues conditioned and strong enough to avoid running injuries, you need to expose them to at least a minimal level of stress that will cause them to adapt.

Strength Training Basics

Unlike endurance running, strength training increases muscle mass, bone density, connective tissue thickness, nutrient metabolism, and hormonal expression and regulation. These are all very important factors to consider, especially as we start to age. As early as age 30, our tissues start to weaken and decrease in quantity and quality, which can result in sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass) and osteopenia (loss of bone mass) if left unchecked. These conditions are particularly prevalent among women since they carry less muscle mass than men to begin with and they tend to avoid strength training. Over time, sarcopenia and osteopenia can lead to chronic or acute joint injury, which can be debilitating and cause even more muscle and bone loss from inactivity. The best way to combat or reverse this degradation of tissue is through strength training.

Since this is a blog for women, I’d like to address the notion that lifting weights will make ladies large and bulky. This is completely false. The main hormone for building muscle mass is testosterone, and women have much lower circulating levels than men do. Add to that the fact that gaining muscle is largely a factor of how much food you eat. Body builders trying to gain muscle need to eat upwards of 6,000 calories a day to put on mass. So in order for a woman to become ‘big and bulky’, she would need to eat more food each day than most men as well as doing a cycle of anabolic steroids to increase their testosterone. If you’re still not convinced, here is a great article by a girl who lost a lot of body fat and increased her fitness levels tremendously by cleaning up her diet, cutting out cardio and starting to lift weights exclusively.

Strength Training Options

I realize for some women it can be daunting to walk into the weight room let alone the confusion about where to start. The good news is that the most effective methods and fairly easy to learn and don’t require much fancy equipment. If you’re a beginner, you’ll also see a lot of progress early on that will keep you motivated to keep training. For people that are unconditioned and have not lifted before, I’d recommend just starting with your own bodyweight. It’s important to be comfortable controlling your own bodyweight through a full range of motion. Staples like push ups, pull-ups, squats, and leg raises will help you build a little bit of strength while getting you used to the movements.

If you’re freaked out about the weight room, unsure how to start ,or are lacking in motivation, classes are a great option. Do a little research to be sure they incorporate strength movements. Slow yoga, step classes, spin classes, or any other type of cardio class is not what you’re looking for. Your best bet is something like TRX , CrossFit, or a kettlebell boot camp. They also have great classes at gyms like Crunch that involve high intensity weight circuits. You need a class that will challenge your muscles with your own bodyweight or free weights, not just a class that will make you sweat. Remember that running is your primary cardiovascular training, so doing an additional cardio class that has no strength benefits will not be very helpful.

If you have the motivation, the best way to strength train is by using free weights in the gym. You should keep this very simple. There are a lot of extraneous and useless machines and excercises going on in most gyms which are largely a waste of time unless you’re a professional bodybuilder. You want to do movements that require full body coordination so you can build usable strength that will transfer over to running and other sports you might play. Since women have less upper body strength relative to their weight than men, it’s important to do upper body work in order to preserve your muscle mass and bone density. The best exercises for the upper body are the overhead press and the pull-up. These should be two staples in your program and you should do them as much as 4-5 times per week if you can. The presses can be done seated or standing with dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells. Pick a weight that is challenging for 8-10 reps and do 5 sets with a few minutes rest in between. If they have a weight assisted pull-up machine at your gym, consider yourself lucky and make it your friend. Set the weight stack at whatever you need to get 5-8 good reps and do 5 sets. Set a goal for yourself to decrease the weight over time. People tend to shy away from these two exercises because they’re difficult, but try to stay diligent with them because they are very effective. They strengthen not just your arms and shoulders, but also your back and abs if you do them often enough and heavy enough. If you do just these two exercises, you can forget about bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, chest flys, shoulder raises, and other exercises you might have done before that isolated muscles. Only bodybuilder need those exercises. Since you’re a runner, you want the biggest bang for your buck in the gym. Presses and pull-ups are the meat and potatoes of training the upper body. Add in some push ups, sit ups, and dips at your discretion but stick with the main two most of the time.

For the lower body, the first thing I do with anyone when I’m starting them out is put them through the goblet squat. This is a fantastic exercise that can be done by almost anyone, even if they have poor flexibility. To do this, take a dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a weight plate and hold it very close to your chest, cupping it in your hands like you’d hold a goblet. Keep your chest up, back tight, and pull your shoulders back and down. Then simply squat down all the way so your hips go below parallel and then squat back up. For ladies, the isometric strength required to hold the dumbbell in position can even be an excellent upper body exercise. Pick a weight that makes 10-15 reps difficult.

Your best bet for time efficiency and a potent workout is to superset these exercises. Do a set of goblet squats, rest 1 minute, do a set of overhead presses, rest 1 minute, then do a set of pull-ups, rest 1 minute, and then repeat the whole process 4 times through. This will only take about 25 minutes and you’ll get a full body strength workout. There are other movements that are certainly beneficial, but they take some time to learn and usually require a little coaching. Barbell exercises like squats, deadlifts, bent over rows, and power cleans are excellent full body exercises that will increase your strength and power. If you have any interest in learning them, don’t hesitate to contact me and I can get you set up with some good materials to help get you started correctly.

In addition to gym work, I’d highly recommend some sprint training as well. It has been proven repeatedly in studies that strength and power training carries over to endurance training, but not vice versa. By replacing some of your long distance running workouts with interval track workouts of 200m, 400m, or 800m sprints, you’ll develop some powerful anaerobic capacity and kick your metabolism into overdrive. This is also crucial if you’re looking to get faster in your races. In these sessions, you’ll be able to push above your VO2 Max and lactate threshold in addition to getting your body used to running at a faster pace. Sprint workouts also have the added bonus of being without question the best way to lose body fat.

If you’re looking for a way to improve your health, get stronger, lose fat, and improve your running, make an effort to train for strength and power at least twice a week. Ideally, you should try to do two or three full body strength workouts in the gym as well as one sprint session on the track. Good luck with your training!


2 Responses to "In Tom Woodward’s Words: Strength Training for Endurance Runners"

[…] Weight lifting is still important for runners.  Just ask Thomas Woodward. […]

[…] May, Tom Woodward provided an awesome contribution to my blog in which he discussed the importance of strength training for endurance runners.  One exercise that Tom spoke about was pull-ups, which are great for strength testing – and […]

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