If you’ve been reading my columns here for any length of time, then you will know that as an aging runner, I’ve become a huge fan of strength training. In fact I would go so far as to say that if you’re over 40 and involved in any kind of endurance sport, whether that be running, cycling, cross country skiing, or even just looking to reduce your risk of injury and extend your life by preserving muscle mass - yes, strong people live longer and healthier - then it is imperative.
My learning curve has been relatively steep over the last couple of years, and one of the first things I had to figure out was how to schedule strength training into my running program. I typically run 5-6 days a week, and it can be a challenge to know when and how much to lift in order to maximize strength whilst still managing to maintain a good running volume. Here is what I have learnt.
1) A preparation period is a great place to start. By this I mean learn how to perform the basic lifts with good technique. The Bow Valley is full of great trainers that can teach you the correct form for the squat, the deadlift, the bench press and other strength basics. The purpose of this phase is to become confident in the movements and technique to safely lift heavier weights in the next phase without fear of injury. Whether or not one has has significant experience lifting weights, taking several sessions (or longer for beginners) to focus on lifting technique will go a long way to preventing injury and optimizing performance.
2) Following the preparation phase, we enter the strength phase. This would typically be in the off-season or early season for your sport, when you are just getting back into some sport specific training. As a trail runner in Canmore, for me this would typically be from January to March. It’s tough to get in a lot of running volume at that time of year, and most of my runs are relatively short. Strength training during this phase should concentrate on heavy lifts, typically in the repetition range of 3-6 for optimal strength adaptations. I would recommend 2 to 3 sessions per week. Week by week the amount you can lift will increase.The goal is to recruit as many muscle fibres as possible by taxing the major muscle groups to their maximum. The last couple of repetitions of each set should be a challenge! As a beginner lifter, training near repetition failure is not necessary, however for more experienced lifters, approaching failure almost certainly elicits the best results. This type of lifting is very fatiguing so is done in the early season when run/ski/bike volumes are lower. The five basic movements on which to focus could be a squat, hip hinge (deadlift), push (bench press), pull (pull up/chin up) and carry (the farmer’s carry). Every third or fourth week athletes should program a “de-load week” , where they reduce the weight and reps significantly to allow for recovery and adaptation. As strength increases during this phase, progressively more and more weight is added to the bar.
3) As race season approaches, and as the volume of sport specific training starts to ramp up, it is a good idea to reduce the volume lifting. By this I mean, reduce the number of weekly sessions to two, and reduce the weight on the bar. This phase will feel much less taxing. I recommend working in the 2-3 sets of 8 - 12 repetition range. At the end of each set you still feel as though you could knock out a couple of additional repetitions. This is also a good time to add in some plyometric drills if you are a runner or skier - these are fast, explosive type movements, such a hopping, skipping, jumping and bounding. The box jump is a great example. If you are doing some kind of interval training for your sport, then it’s a good idea to do these sessions on the same day, ideally separated by a few hours. The temptation is to lift on your rest or easy days, but it’s best to keep these days truly easy, so don’t lift weights.
4) As race season approaches, which for me would generally start about now in June, then I change things up again. I will continue to lift twice a week, but my gym work becomes a bit more rehab focused and ‘sport-specific’. It’s a good idea to focus on any niggling injury areas, or areas which historically cause you trouble. If you’re prone to achilles problems, calf raises are great. If you tend to have hip pain, then the “7 way hips” routine is a good example, readily available online. As a runner, I will do more single-leg work, such as single leg squats or weighted step ups. I also tend to do a bit more foam rolling during this period, and if I have a race on the near horizon, I’ll skip the weight lifting completely in the 1-2 weeks prior.
So that’s my routine and recommendations if you’re an endurance athlete. Gyms should be reopening this week and I am sure that the strength trainers are eager to help, so go ahead and learn how to lift. It’s never wrong to be strong!!