Have you ever heard the saying, “In order to run faster you need to run faster”? Have you done your speedwork and your tempo runs and your long runs and not seen much improvement in your running paces? What about instead of running more you actually started running less, but still got faster?
Think it’s crazy? It’s not. And the secret is strength training. But by strength training I don’t mean using hand weights or dumbbells in a group exercise class. I mean getting friendly with that big heavy Olympic barbell in the gym. Picking up weights that are heavier than your purse or backpack. And running less.
Here’s how it works: four or five days a week you do 45 minutes of strength training. Two days a week you do 20 to 30 minutes of high intensity interval cardio. One of those can be running and the other can be swimming, rowing, cycling or using the Stairmill. One day a week you do a longer endurance cardio workout of your choice.
I’ve personally been following this plan for over two years and I’ve dropped a significant amount of time from races and my overall training pace. When I started marathon training in October 2016 my long run pace was 8:45 per mile when it used to be closer to 10:45 per mile!
My paces at each of my five marathons
The key is to flip your paradigm. Instead of thinking of weight or strength training as a way to ward off injury or as something you should do in addition to your running, start thinking of your cardio as something you do in addition to your strength training.
Strength workouts are most effective when you combine low rep, high weight full body power lifts with “assistance” endurance exercises. Full body lifts include deadlifts, bench presses, squats and overhead presses. While you might typically think of these as “upper body” or “lower body” exercises, they are actually also working your core, your back, your arms and your legs all at once. The assistance exercises, such as barbell rows, kettlebell swings, dumbbell curls, hamstring curls, lunges and a variety of other moves done with slightly lower weight and more reps help with your muscle endurance. And, of course, you can’t forget the ab work!
4×8 sumo deadlifts! Yes, I make weird faces when I lift.
Figuring out much to lift for each exercise can be a challenge at first. Lower rep, higher weight power lifts should be done in three to five sets of three to eight reps each at 75 to 85 percent of your one rep max. Your assistance endurance exercises should be 2 to 4 sets of 12 to 20 reps each at 60 to 70 percent of your one rep max. Hold on. I can see you scratching your head and saying, “Huh??”
First, pick an exercise. Let’s say a squat. Pick a weight with which you’re pretty sure you can do at least 10 reps. If you can do all 10 reps and feel like you can do more, pick a heavier weight. Do this until you can barely eek out 10 reps with good form. This weight is 75% of your one rep max. The chart at http://bit.ly/OPRCchart can help you figure out the rest of the percentages.
Let’s keep using the squat as an example. Your workout starts with 3 sets of 8 squats. If you did 10 squats at 45 pounds you should do your 3 sets of 8 with anywhere from 45 to 51 pounds.
Source: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 4th Edition
You want the last rep in the last set to feel like you can’t do anymore. If you feel like you can do two more reps you’re ready to up your weight!
Workouts should consist of one or two power exercises, two to four assistance endurance exercises, and at least one abdominal muscle specific exercise. Although, in reality, most of the other exercises you’re doing are working your abs, too! In all of the power lifts you need to keep your abs tight to protect your back. In many of your assistance exercises you’ll be keeping your abs tight as well.
Form is incredibly important if you want to see results from strength training. If you’ve only ever lifted on your own or in a group exercise classes you’re missing out on some great tips. Has anyone ever told you when squatting to pretend like you’re trying to keep a big rubber band from pulling your knees together? Or when doing a kettlebell swing to thrust your hips forward instead of raising your arms? Or how to correctly do a deadlift so you don’t hurt your back? If not, I highly recommend doing a few session with a personal trainer. Be specific about what you want to learn. If you want to learn to deadlift, tell them you want to learn to deadlift. If you want to have them help you with your squat form, tell them that. While you can get some great tips from http://www.bodybuilding.com/exercises there is some feedback that only comes from someone watching you do an exercise.
Picture taken by one of my trainers
Learning that heavy weights are not as intimidating as you probably once thought will open up a whole new world. Lifting heavy and running less will not only change your pace, it will change your attitude! It’s empowering to look at a weight and know you can move it yourself. If you’re struggling in a race you’ll not only have the muscular strength to power through, but you’ll have the mental strength as well. And if you track how much you lifted each workout you’ll find you can get PRs in strength training, too!
So, flip your paradigm and try putting the emphasis on strength training and see what kind of results you get. I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised!
I put together four weeks of workouts plus even more information at http://bit.ly/oprcstrength. And, of course, ask me questions! I don’t want to be all evangelical about this, but it really worked for me and I’d like to see it work for more people.
Note: I am not currently a personal trainer although I put together this information based on study materials for the certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Always consult with a personal trainer before trying any new moves. I’d hate to see you get hurt!