Why getting in the gym is important for ANY runner!
Updated: Jul 30, 2020
One thing that I notice on a near daily basis when treating runners is the fact that I keeping seeing the same sorts of issues over and over again. In fact, most injuries that runners get actually originate from a frustratingly simple cause - a lack of strength. I've mentioned before that having the appropriate amount of strength to perform in a sporting activity or exercise routine is vital. After all, if you choose to do an activity which your body is not strong enough for, then you can expect to pick up injuries. For example, if you (as a beginner), wanted to start lifting weights in the gym to build muscle, you wouldn't go straight in and start lifting heavy straight away, and without first learning the proper technique to do so, as doing this would most likely result in injury. So why do exactly the same thing with running?
Most runners embark on a new fitness regime while doing little to nothing in terms of making sure their body is ready, and this means that many of the key muscle groups that are used to run properly are weak. These muscles include the glutes, abdominals, hip flexors and hamstrings, which are all weakened through our everyday sitting habits. Therefore we need to compensate for this by strengthening up, as if we don't, we run with a technique that is misaligned, unnatural, bad for our joints and detrimental for our muscles. Even an untrained eye can surely see the differences between the techniques of a club-level runner, and that of an elite performer. Yes, there are clearly going to be differences in cardio fitness, as someone with lower fitness levels will no doubt find running harder, but it's more than that. A lower level runner just looks so tense, and frankly uncomfortable, because they are creating so much more work for themselves. The technique isn't there, and that's because they're not strong enough - after all, how can we run properly if the muscles we need to do this are too weak? This is so prevalent that many runners who I have assessed can't even clench their butt cheeks properly when lying down - so if they can't even do that, then how will these glute muscles support their body weight repeatedly when running?
Strength and conditioning is therefore key. In the past, I've used the analogy that your strength is like laying the foundations before building a house. If you do this, everything else you lay on top is going to be stable and dependable (e.g. your increased mileage). But if you don't lay the foundations from the outset, then you'll experience problems later on when the house starts to sink when more pressure is added. Unfortunately, the latter is the approach most runners take, and frustratingly, most of the time I don't get to see them until the damage has been done. It's at this point where we have the challenge of trying and undo already established bad habits, which is like desperately trying to lay the foundations only after the house has already started to sink... This is why in many ways I believe Couch to 5K programmes can be quite damaging, because it is very rare that the participants are taught that they need to strengthen their bodies and develop their running techniques. After all, there is more to learning how to run than simply increasing your mileage. So while the programmes are great at improving cardiovascular health, by continuing in this same format all we seem to be doing is swapping increased risk of illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease for chronic joint problems... Time for a rethink? I think so...
"...in many ways I believe Couch to 5K programmes can be quite damaging, because it is very rare that the participants are taught that they need to strengthen their bodies and develop their running techniques. After all, there is more to learning how to run than simply increasing your mileage"
So what sort of strength and conditioning should you be doing? Often I do start people off by giving them some home-based exercise plans, usually involving body weight-focused exercise, and resistance bands. However, while these sorts of exercises are necessary as start to bridge the gap between doing nothing at all to doing more testing exercises in the gym (as we are dealing with beginners to strength and conditioning after all), they are only really suitable as a start. In fact, these sorts of exercises are good for little more than training much smaller muscles and basic activation, rather than strengthening. So when we quickly outgrow our basic living-room based routines, we need to turn to the gym, as it's only when we start adding more resistance where we start to notice any significant gains in strength.
"when we quickly outgrow our basic living-room based routines, we need to turn to the gym, as it's only when we start adding more resistance where we start to notice any significant gains in strength."
It's now at this point where the excuses start to come in, like "I don't want to become a bodybuilder and build loads of muscle, because this won't help my running". But these sorts of statements are only borne out of a lack of understanding of what S&C should involve. Yes, distance runners shouldn't aim to build lots of muscle to 'bulk up', but I'm not talking about lifting massive weights, as big muscles would be detrimental to an endurance athlete, weighing them down (especially in the upper-body). In fact, performing 3-4 sets of around 12-15 reps to failure would in my opinion be ideal to build a certain level of muscular strength-endurance which would be an ideal for an endurance athlete, as you don't want to get too 'bulky', but at the same time, it would be advantageous to build the muscle slightly. The reason for this is that is that if the muscle is lacking in tone to the point where it is so small it is barely even there (e.g. being barely able to squeeze butt cheeks), then to a certain extent, it would make sense to build the muscle somewhat. You simply wouldn't get this through resistance bands or low-weight/body weight-based circuit classes, as the resistance is simply not great enough. You can then use quicker running and plyometrics in order to develop speed and power later on. In sum, runners are often afraid of training with heavier resistance, but in my view, the resistance currently isn't heavy enough!
So going into the gym and getting some expert guidance is the next logical step for most runners, and this is the ideal time of year to do it! When the nights are dark and cold, why not mix up your training a bit to make it more interesting? I do acknowledge that many runners choose to run because they prefer this activity over going to the gym, however gym work has to be implemented in order to ensure injury reduction, and good joint health. So whether you like it or hate it, it has to be considered part of the sport. For example, I overall love training and competing in multi-event athletics, but I obviously much prefer training for some events over others, but I have to accept that it's my weaknesses that I should focus on more if I want to improve. It's the same with running - most runners are not going to increase their potential by training more mileage, but they will improve through strengthening their body, which is where one of their weaknesses lie...