Ever wonder why strength coaches encourage runners to lift heavy sh*t?
It isn’t because we think everyone should train like a powerlifter, a crossfitter, or a bodybuilder. In truth, lifting heavy has a lot more carryover to running performance than you might think.
Running faster - regardless of what distances you run - requires your muscles to produce more force. And strength is exactly that: the degree to which a muscle or a group of muscles is able to produce force.
To oversimplify it, in order to train muscles to produce more force, you have to give them enough resistance to produce force against.
How? Lifting heavy sh*t.
This is why if we only ever lift light weights for excessively high reps per set we're kind of missing the mark - even if it feels like we got a great workout.
While high reps have a place when it comes to practicing movement skill and neuromuscular coordination in that way (i.e. practice makes perfect), it’s not as effective for activating and recruiting better quality muscular contraction for performance.
If we were to categorize the effects of and reasons for different rep ranges when doing a particular exercise, it would look something like this:
15+ reps using light weights or no weight at all
High reps can be great when we're learning a new skill, but it doesn't necessarily help us improve force production.
If someone tells you runners can get all the leg "strength" they need from running, they are only considering this type of strength, leaving HUGE performance gains on the table
I would program something like running technique drills in this rep range
8-15 reps using a moderate weight that feels heavy by the end of the desired rep range
Designed to increase muscle size by increasing the amount and size of muscle fibers. (This is what people actually mean when they say they want to get "toned.")
Still holds immense value for runners, particularly when we consider how it improves bone density. And a bigger muscle is going to be able to produce more absolute force than a smaller muscle.
All runners would benefit from including some hypertrophy work in every strength workout for the reasons listed above. I would also stick to this rep range for someone who was newer to lifting to allow for more practice reps to further improve technique before going heavier.
I also program stability work in this rep rang. Even though the purpose of stability work isn't really increased muscle size, I find this rep range sufficient for this type of work before quality starts to suffer, which then defeats the purpose.
1-6 reps using a weight that feels like at least a 6/10 or heavier from the get go
Less about increasing muscle size and more about improving force production relative to current muscle size.
Working against heavy weights for low reps increases force production by improving the quality of the signaling from the brain to increase the amount of existing muscle fibers that get recruited and the coordination with which they fire, resulting in a more forceful contraction.
I would program in this rep range for runners who are more comfortable with the movements. Keep in mind, too, that "heavy" is relative, so while one runner might be lifting less than another, they can both be working on strength provided whatever weight they are using feels sufficiently heavy for the designated rep range. HINT: if you do 6 reps and feel like you could do 15, your weights are too light. If you feel like the workout is insanely easy, it's not that the programmed reps are too low, it's an issue of weight selection.
How does this translate to real life? One Run Empowered client has told me that he is noticing the difference that lifting heavier is making when it comes to finding faster and faster top speeds as well as the speeds he can hold, which then translates into improvements in the quality of his speed work, that of course benefits his running performance as a whole.
If you want to PR in any distance, getting stronger will improve the likelihood of that happening.
A quality strength training program for runners should include mobility, stability, strength and power. Too often, runners are taught to stop short at mobility and stability, leaving huge performance gains on the table when we avoid lifting heavy. Don't sell yourself short by assuming you should lift light weights for high reps all the time.
A good strength program for runners doesn’t have to be complicated, but it should be comprehensive in order for it to actually be effective.
If you're interested in comprehensive strength training for runners that eliminates the programming guesswork and will help you run faster, run farther and finish stronger, check out Run Empowered! Get access to a plan and a coach to help you crush your goals!