There was a long debate on how to best incorporate strength training into a runner’s training program. While the consensus now states that strength training should be incorporated in some way in every runner’s training program, the age-old questions still remain – how much, how often, can you still get a good workout in a short amount of time, what about workouts with just bodyweight or limited equipment? As you’ll find in run training, everyone has different ideas on how runners should strength train, mostly based on their own personal experience, but also as is the case with running, there is no one-size-fits-all program.
Now there is another underlying question during the coronavirus pandemic. With gyms largely still being closed (outside of the exceptions few and far in between), people have had to be creative to get in workouts they would otherwise complete at the gym. In this article, I hope to offer some more ideas specific to distance runners on how you can get in your strength workouts, both during and after the coronavirus pandemic. While some may already have a training program that they implement to partner with run training, I hope to give you some ideas if you’re looking for something new to try or if your routine is starting to feel a little stale.
How to Strength Train at Home
This has become a big question in recent months due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it is possible to get in a good strength training workout at home with minimal or no equipment. Bodyweight workouts are a no-brainer and can be done anytime, anywhere whether that is at home, in a hotel room, or at the family cabin. The one caveat to bodyweight workouts is that it can become hard to progress with bodyweight workouts and to progressively load bodyweight workouts but there are some exceptions. It would involve swapping some exercises for new ones or by upping the difficulty on exercises you already do (instead of a traditional pushup, try decline pushups or instead of traditional lunges, try plyo lunges). An Internet search that can provide some inspiration in this regard and stroke your creativity are prisoner workouts. Once seeing a workout like “the deck of pain” (where you prescribe a suit with a particular exercise, face cards count as 10 reps, while aces count as 11) or Mike Tyson’s bodyweight squat routine while in prison, you’ll see firsthand how a deck of playing cards can lead to some creative workout regiments.
Regardless of budget, you can also find good equipment to build your own at home gym as well. I’m not even referring to barbells, squat racks, and the like, but I’ll offer my suggestions for an ideal minimalist equipment home gym that doesn’t break the bank. I also won’t be discussing DIY home gym equipment (but if you feel so called to go this route, then more power to you) though that is another Internet search that gets the creative juices flowing. I would say the cornerstone of a home gym are good dumbbells. I would personally suggest getting a pair of adjustable dumbbells because not only are they great in terms of storage (compared to buying several pairs of dumbbells of various weight) but they also have more range than you would typically get if you were to go the individual pairing route and not break the bank. Even shopping on the cheap and only getting weights in 5 pound increments, buying individual dumbbell pairs at various weight is still comparable in cost to the adjustable dumbbells, so may as well go for the convenience (and the more quality, durable product). Both Bowflex and NordicTrack have good pairs of adjustable dumbbells at various prices with similar ranges in terms of weight.
Another item I would suggest getting are resistance bands. They also store easily, are cheap and easy to find and are often quite applicable to use for running-specific exercises that are both lower and upper body. Exercise balls would also fall under this category and additionally they can help with progressing your workout (think back to the feet elevated or decline pushup vs. a regular pushup or placing your feet on the ball instead of the ground when doing glute bridges). These are different than medicine balls, although medicine balls are also what I’d consider great exercise equipment that you could put in your home gym if you have the budget and space. Jump ropes would also be good to have on-hand since sometimes you can’t beat the classics. While the cardio benefits are minimal compared to running, they still are a sneaky way to get some extra cardio in or to incorporate into a killer circuit. Plus, if you have children, jump ropes can be a way to get the whole family in on the fun.
As a bonus, two other things I would suggest for a home gym, so long as budget and space allow, are an ab wheel and a TRX Suspension System. A TRX has similar benefits to resistance bands but allows you to get more creative. The one caveat is that storage, or even finding a place to utilize it around the house, can be an issue unless you have a garage or a big enough attic or basement. An ab wheel is a personal spin of mine on at home workouts. They can be found at most fitness stores or online and typically run cheap while being easy to store. They are a different, if your looking for some variety, and an effective way to train your core, which are crucial running muscles.
Programming Strength Workouts Safely
One aspect of incorporating strength training for runners that tends to be the most uniformly agreed upon is the frequency of strength training sessions in a given week. Most would say that 2-3 strength workouts per week is the standard, ranging anywhere from 20-40 minutes per workout. You can certainly get good workouts longer than 40 minutes but recovering from the session needs to be taken into account. On the other hand, despite what many believe, you can get in a good strength training workout with less than 20 minutes as well, even just 10 minutes goes a long way. While this can come from the camp that 10 minutes is better than 0 minutes, we often do these kinds of workouts anyway while often not realizing it. Look no further than your post-run core routine to see a prime example of this. With these shorter workouts, as you’d expect, they can be done more frequently in a given week, as much as 5 times, because they don’t require as much recovery time as longer workouts would. Ultimately, you want to implement what is right for you.
Many people feel they don’t have enough time to add strength training to run training and to an already busy life, but these short post-run routines (which typically can be done anywhere and mesh well into post-run recovery exercises like stretching and foam rolling) prove that it can still be done amidst a busy schedule. If you feel you also fall under this category, completing full body workouts will also be more beneficial for you than to divide your workouts up by body part or by even doing an upper body/lower body split. For a runner, I would rarely build a strength program around body part splits, unless it was during a runner’s offseason or they are far enough out from key races that it makes sense to work on weaknesses. These kinds of splits are more often found in bodybuilding and while they have benefits for developing the whole athlete, it should be kept in mind that bodybuilding generally focuses more on looks and aesthetics rather than performance.
How Much Should I Lift and When?
Different strength workouts call for different protocols. The loads you lift in a circuit workout, where the emphasis is on completing as many rounds as possible and completing rounds as quickly as possible (minimizing rest periods), versus the loads you lift in a compound movement heavy workout, are going to look very different. Each of these workouts are trying to reach their own desired training effect that fall on opposite sides of the spectrum. There is no right or wrong answer here as both types of workouts have value. We aren’t just training different muscles, but also, different energy systems with these differing types of workouts.
Everyone should have days where they lift lighter and heavier much like how runners should have easy run days along with harder days like tempos, intervals and long runs. That is to ensure that, like with your running, your strength training workouts are also progressing over time as you get stronger and more fit. Just be sure that your strength workouts don’t detract from your run training, but rather, complement it. The biggest factors for individuals that should be taken into account are experience with strength training and past injury history when starting any strength program.
The biggest perk strength training provides runners with is that it helps with injury prevention. Runners move entirely in one plane of motion and strength training can help fix muscular imbalances and teach runners to not be so one dimensional, but to strengthen and develop the whole athlete. Heavy weightlifting workouts can be as important as strides and intervals in terms of developing a finishing kick. We train the aerobic system plenty while running or even during circuit training, but the anaerobic system benefits when we do short bursts close to max effort, both in running sprints and during a set of heavy barbell squats. This also trains the different kinds of muscle fibers found in our body. The slow twitch muscle fibers through steady aerobic exercise and the fast twitch muscle fibers through sprints and heavy lifting. For most, the fast twitch fibers disappear as you age and it the phrase “use it or lose it” very much applies as far as maintaining fast twitch muscle fibers. Runners have long been concerned, and some to the point of staying away entirely, of bulking up if they start lifting weights, but this won’t happen when putting in the running and cardio volume of an endurance athlete. So, while runners have long wanted to use that extra time to log more miles, that time would be better suited with a strength training workout.
As previously mentioned, while your strength training routine should complement your run training, you also want to make sure you are progressing in your strength training. During the pandemic, take it upon yourself to be extra creative in programming your at home strength training. You can program by workout type or you can incorporate multiple pieces into one workout. For those of you feeling really ambitious, another Internet search that gets the creativity flowing is playground workouts. It is a perfect excuse to get out of the house during the nice summer weather and get in some schoolyard jump rope and monkey bar pullups in. That being said, don’t commandeer Junior’s swing set so you can get in a set of pistol squats. More so now during the coronavirus pandemic, but if you go out to get in a playground workout in at the local park or schoolyard, if the playground has yellow caution tape surrounding it, or any other indication of being closed, don’t use that playground. Make sure to always abide by social distancing guidelines and to be cognizant of the high touch surfaces playgrounds tend to be.
Brian Comer is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Brian, check out his coaching page.