**This post is one of several in an excerpt series from the book, Be a Better Runner by Sally Edwards & Carl Foster**
Lifting weights is good for everyone of every age. But for maximum benefit, you must go into the gym the same way you do when you train for a race: with a plan.
STRENGTH-TRAINING RULE 1: DO TWO OR THREE SETS OF HEAVY WEIGHT TO FAILURE
Why lift weights at all if you don’t do it hard enough to get stronger? The next time you go to the gym, observe how many people are actually pushing hard. The rule of muscle building is “No strain, no gain.” You must work hard enough to set off alarm bells that will alert your brain to send in reinforcements that will strengthen you for the next time, and you do this by going to “failure”—the point at which you can push no more without breaking your form.
Therefore, whether you use dumbbells, barbells, or weight machines, your tenth rep should be a struggle. If you can do an eleventh rep, add more weight. Note: If you use bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, add a weighted belt or increase maximum quantity. To warm up properly and safely, do your first set at lesser weights and more reps, and then go heavier and to failure for the next set or two.
STRENGTH-TRAINING RULE 2: HIT THE WHOLE BODY
Every muscle of the body deteriorates when ignored. A strong upper body contributes to leg speed. A strong back helps you maintain upright form and a good arm swing. Pulling exercises, such as pull-ups and rows, are often ignored but are key to a strong back and help balance out a frequent overemphasis on front-side muscles developed by pushing exercises such as bench presses, chest presses, and push-ups. As in all sports, runners need a strong core, developed not only by a variety of ab exercises, but also by their back-side counterpart, the back extension. Dips are great for working the triceps, balancing the biceps worked by pull-ups and curls. Remember: Steady-state running alone does not stop age-related muscle-mass shrinkage.
STRENGTH-TRAINING RULE 3: MOVE THE WEIGHTS FAST
You don’t move slowly in real life, so why move weights in the gym slowly? To build speed, size, and power in every muscle do what pro and college trainers tell their athletes: Go Fast. A caveat: Do it under control with good form so that you don’t injure yourself. Explosive movements, although good for you because they rebuild the fast-twitch muscle fibers that we often ignore, can injure you if they take your body by surprise.
Why worry about fast-twitch muscle fibers? First, they keep us safe; giving us the quick reactions we need to dodge rocks on the trail or not trip over errant vacuum- cleaner cords. Next, they deteriorate at a faster rate than slow-twitch muscle fibers, mainly because we use them less often. During running, we mainly use fast-twitch muscles when sprinting, and how often do nontrack runners do that? The bottom line is that well-maintained fast-twitch fibers will make you faster at all running distances and make you safer and healthier in all aspects of life.
STRENGTH-TRAINING RULE 4: DON’T FORGET THE CALVES, BUTT, HAMSTRINGS, AND HIP FLEXORS
Runners should pay particular attention to a few overlooked muscles. Since calves are so important to running (for shock absorption and push-off ), strength-train them with rapid body-weight toe raises on the edge of steps and curbs and heavy weight on calf machines.
Also, don’t overly focus on the quadriceps and forget the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors. Glutes, the largest muscles in the body, add power and help maintain your posture and running form. Strong quadriceps need to be opposed by strong hamstrings for balance, while strong hip flexors give you range of motion.
Don’t have access to a gym? The single best exercise that stimulates all of the aforementioned muscles is the lunge.
STRENGTH-TRAINING RULE 5: DON’T WASTE TIME BETWEEN EXERCISES; PAIR NONCONFLICTING EXERCISES OR USE A CIRCUIT
Here’s one surefire way for runners to minimize their time in the gym: Cut out the down time between exercises.
Instead of standing around for sixty seconds in between sets of leg extensions to catch your breath, use that minute to do a nonconflicting exercise, such as a chest press. Do pairs or triplets of nonoverlapping exercises. Follow a bench press, a pushing exercise which works the chest, with a seated row, a pulling exercise which works the back. In this way, one rests as the other is worked, eliminating downtime. This is the idea behind circuit training, which lets you string a dozen nonconflicting exercises together in one circuit, such as dips, calf raises, pull-ups/lat pulls, squats, chest presses, leg extensions, rows, hamstring curls, bicycle sit-ups, biceps curls, overhead presses/handstand push-ups, and back extensions. By the time you finish the loop, you’re ready for the second and third circuits.
Proximity is key. If you’ll end up wasting time switch-ing from one exercise to another, break the big circuit into smaller mini-circuits that are in the same neighborhood.
STRENGTH-TRAINING RULE 6: EASE INTO IT AND ALLOW FORTY-EIGHT HOURS OF RECOVERY TIME BETWEEN WORKOUTS
Although you need intensity to get results, you should start slow to be safe. Do fewer, lighter-weight reps on your first set (to warm up), take more recovery time (rest and sleep) between workouts, and gradually build up over a good month, after which you can start doing real resistance training without losing time to massive muscle soreness from doing too much, too soon. Since muscle fibers need at least forty-eight hours to recover from a hard workout, don’t lift two days in a row. In fact, for best recovery, alternate heavy and light workouts.
Muscles learn. If you do the same exercises all the time, the exercises get easier. A movement that initially took ten muscle fibers to move soon takes nine fibers, and then eight. To keep firing all the fibers, you need to add more weight and/or change the exercises you do every couple of months. Mix it up. At a macro level, lift heavier weights for fewer reps (eight or seven to failure) for a month, and then switch to more, lighter-weight reps (twelve to fifteen to failure). At a micro level, change your technique. Do biceps curls, but change your grip from underhand to overhand, machines to dumbbells.
STRENGTH-TRAINING RULE 7: COOL DOWN WITH A RECOVERY SPIN AND STRETCHING
After you lift weights, your capillaries are dilated, so jump on an easy cardio machine to cool down, and then stretch. The bike or elliptical machine allows you to slowly bring your heart rate down. As a runner, you may have a tendency to want to hop on a treadmill, but fight this. You’ve already blasted your legs with the machines; they don’t need any more micro-tears at this point. For the same reason, a hard run the next day is not a good idea; if you must run, consider an easy recovery run on a softer surface, such as a trail, or water running.
More to come ..
Keep your eyes peeled as we continue to release excerpts throughout upcoming weeks. If you fall in love with these tips from our excerpt series, make sure to stop in and grab a copy of Be a Better Runner from our online store, and keep it on your shelf at home to reference and share with others!