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Five Resistance Training Myths in the Running World

By: Eric Cressey, MA, CSCS

To some, resistance training is the Rodney Dangerfield of the running community; it gets no respect. To others, it's like Tom Cruise; runners think it might be useful, but it just doesn't make any sense to them. And then, there are those to whom resistance training is like Abraham Lincoln; it's freed them from being slaves to ineffective programming. As a performance enhancement specialist who has a lot of "Abe" endurance athletes under my tutelage, I'd like to take this opportunity to bring the Rodney and Tom runners in the crowd up to speed. With that in mind, let's look at the five most prominent myths present in the running community with respect to resistance training.

Now, I know what you're thinking: this Cressey guy is just another meathead who doesn't run telling me what to do. We've had lots of pigheaded guys like this over the years, and none of them understood us. They were all like this guy.

Myth #1: Runners Don't Need to Resistance Train

I figured I'd start with the most obvious of the bunch. I had been under the impression that – now that we've done a ton of resistance training research over the past 20 years – that this wasn't still a myth at all. Then, just last month, one of my marathoner clients brought in a copy of a popular running magazine; it included a "debate" that featured two experts arguing over whether or not runners needed to lift weights.

Huh?

This is what some people within the running community have taken from over two decades of dedicated resistance training research from some of the most brilliant scientists in the world? I thought back to the hundreds of hours I'd spent working in the human performance laboratory at the University of Connecticut as I worked for my master's degree; time and time again, our research had proven unequivocally that resistance training was important for making and keeping people healthy, strong, fast, and lean. Had all our efforts been in vain? At that moment, if someone had told me that the Easter Bunny isn't real, I might have lost it altogether.

Just to recap: we know resistance training is good for general health, as it:

1. Enhances endocrine and immune function (which are compromised by endurance training)
2. Maintains muscle mass (also negatively affected by endurance training)
3. Improves functional capacity in spite of aging by maintaining maximal strength and power (both of which decrease with prolonged endurance training)
4. Builds bone density (something many runners lack due to poor dietary practices, but desperately need in light of the high risk of stress fractures)
5. Enables us to more rapidly correct muscle imbalances, as evidenced by the fact that resistance training is the cornerstone of any good physical therapy program (and I've never met a runner without imbalances)

So, I think that the answer is somewhat clear. It's quite obvious that runners are a superhuman race that is not subject to the normal laws of physiology like the rest of us.

In case you're not picking up on my sarcasm, please go splash some cold water on your face and knock back a bit of Gatorade to get some glucose to your brain. Then, reread those five points from above (which are just the tip of the iceberg, for the record). Ask yourself:

1. Do I have an endocrine system?
2. Do I have an immune system?
3. Will I get old? Do I do things that require strength and power?
4. Do I have bones?
5. Do I have muscle imbalances?

If you answered "no" to any of these questions, I would seriously recommend that you consult a psychologist instead of a running coach, as you're obviously dealing with a serious case of denial.

Runners are just like the rest of us. You may wear shorter shorts, but you still put them on one leg at a time. You need resistance training.

And, if the general health benefits aren't enough, consider these research findings:

- A University of Alabama meta-analysis of the endurance training scientific literature revealed that 10 weeks of resistance training in trained distance runners improves running economy by 8-10% (1). For the mathematicians in the crowd, that's about 20-24 minutes off a four-hour marathon – and likely more if you're not a well-trained endurance athlete in the first place.

- French researchers found that the addition of two weight-training sessions per week for 14 weeks significantly increased maximal strength and running economy while maintaining peak power in triathletes. Meanwhile, the control group – which only did endurance training – gained no maximal strength or running economy, and their peak power actually decreased (who do you think would win that all-out sprint at the finish line?). And, interestingly, the combined endurance with resistance training group saw greater increases in VO2max over the course of the intervention (2).

- Scientists at the Research Institute for Olympic Sports at the University of Jyvaskyla in Finland found that replacing 32% of regular endurance training volume with explosive resistance training for nine weeks improved 5km times, running economy, VO2max, maximal 20m speed, and performance on a 5-jump test. With the exception of VO2max, none of these measures improved in the control group that just did endurance training (3). How do you think they felt knowing that a good 1/3 of their entire training volume was largely unnecessary, and would have been better spent on other initiatives?

- University of Illinois researchers found that addition of three resistance training sessions for ten weeks improved short-term endurance performance by 11% and 13% during cycling and running, respectively. Additionally, the researchers noted that "long-term cycling to exhaustion at 80% VO2max increased from 71 to 85 min after the addition of strength training" (4)

The take-home message is that running is more than just VO2max, anaerobic threshold, and a good pair of sneakers; it's also about localized muscular endurance and nervous system efficiency. And, you can't have strength endurance unless you've got strength. Build a solid foundation and you'll be a complete runner.

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