Bro, Do You Even Lift?

We’re going back to the science this post with another question I think a lot of us have. Should we be weight lifting?

Ultrarunners have loads of excuses for why they don’t lift weights: it’s boring, no time, don’t want to get bulky, it will make me slow, it’s hard, etc. I myself lift a lot during the snowy winter months but lift significantly less (once or twice a week, with no lower body training) during the racing season and rest of the year.

Common sense would have us believe that extra muscle mass would hinder our ability to perform our best. Increased muscle mass adds body weight and larger muscles may hinder our flexibility. Weight training may also lead to overtraining and muscle fatigue, inhibiting our performance on long runs or speed-work days. On the other hand, stronger muscles could help us run faster and larger muscles increase our capacity for glycogen storage and thus, our energy stores.

Even the pros are split on whether or not lifting weights has any benefit.
Geoff Roes, 2010 Western States 100 winner, doesn’t do strength training anymore. He used to, but now says “ I think if I continued to do it with as much running as I have done the past three years, I probably would have been overdoing things.”

Elite ultrarunner Rob Krar works some weight-lifting into his training but he never sticks to the same routine. He says he’s always changing it up “mainly bodyweight stuff…some medicine ball and kettlebell work, a lot of balance work, working the small muscles you don’t get on an average run.”

So what does the current research have to say about it?

For starters there is what is known as the ‘interference phenomenon,’ which you may have heard of in your running circles. Essentially it means that when training for strength and endurance at the same time you can only get better at one. If you are emphasizing strength training you will get stronger but your endurance (VO2 max) will not improve, while training more for endurance will negate any strength gains.

The problem is that there have been so few studies to discover what works best, and the ones that have been performed contrast results.

In 2016 Balsalobre-Fernández et al. gathered all of the studies they could find regarding strength training and its effect on highly trained long distance runners. The search yielded 5 scientific studies that collectively showed a positive correlation between lifting weights and endurance running. Moreover they found that 2-3 strength sessions per week was ideal, as one strength session per week was not enough to benefit from and more than three did not allow enough time for muscle recovery and negatively impacted endurance performance.

On the other hand, Vikmoen et al. (2016) studied 19 female endurance athletes and had 11 of them do four leg exercises (3 sets x 4-10 reps) twice a week in addition to endurance training while the other eight athletes only did the endurance training. The endurance test was an all-out 40 minute run. The study took place over 11 weeks and the results showed that the lifters did gain strength and increase their 1 rep max, but there was no gain nor loss in endurance. Both the lifters and endurance only athletes covered the same distance after 40 minutes.

The last article I’ll mention is by J. R. Karp PhD in 2010 from The Strength and Conditioning Journal. He breaks down distance running to the physiological level, “Unlike most sports, which require strength, speed, and power to be successful, distance running is primarily limited by the delivery and use of oxygen…..There are no studies showing that strength training increases oxygen delivery from lungs to muscles. The responsibility of oxygen delivery rests on the shoulders of the cardiovascular system….the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials (2008) qualifiers found that these marathoners do little, if any, strength training.”

It seems that lifting weights isn’t the key to an Olympic Marathon gold medal, but last time I check they ran on a flat course with no hills.

The bottom line

While there is conflicting research on whether or not strength training is beneficial or not for highly trained distance runners, most if not all the studies on this relationship tend to agree on a few key points:

  • Too much strength training has a negative effect on endurance.
  • Strength training has a positive effect on bone density and may help to prevent injury.
  • Strength training is beneficial for untrained runners as it contributes to their overall fitness.
  • Lifting heavier loads for less reps (4-10 reps) is more beneficial than lighter loads for higher reps (12-20 reps). This builds strength rather than endurance, which you already get by running.

After doing all the research for this post I still think I will only lift twice a week but I’ll likely add some lower body stuff like squats and deadlifts. As long as I don’t lift to failure or overtrain, functional lifts that will make my legs stronger will help me better power-hike uphill. Keeping a strong core seems important too. Plus, if I’m honest, I would like to keep some of the muscle for the beach 😉

What does everyone else do? I’d love to hear what you guys do/how you feel about weight lifting, especially lower body work.

Thanks for dropping by, be sure to bounce back later this week for my review of the vegan protein powder, Vivo Life PERFORM!

Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G. V. (2016). Effects of strength training on running economy in highly trained runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(8), 2361-2368.

Karp, J. R., PhD. (2010). Strength training for distance running: A scientific perspective. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32(3), 83-86.

Vikmoen, O., Raastad, T., Seynnes, O., Bergstrøm, K., Ellefsen, S., & Rønnestad, B.,R. (2016). Effects of Heavy Strength Training on Running Performance and Determinants of Running Performance in Female Endurance Athletes.

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