A Strong Runner is a Fast Runner!

01/28/2011 - 13:35

By Lena Hollmann
For the past few years, my 5K times were hovering around 26 minutes. And at age 59, I figured they couldn’t go anywhere but up, i.e. get slower. Then I surprised myself by running in the low 25s this fall and finally a 24:38 on a fast Myrtle Beach course in October. With no changes in my training! Except for one thing. In July I enrolled in the National Personal Training Institute, a six-month program that teaches the science behind exercise and fitness, and also provides the hands on experience needed to become a top-notch personal trainer. During the practical sessions students were training each other, which meant I found myself doing squats, leg press, kettle bell swings, hamstring curls with a stability ball, and several core (abdomen and back) exercises. Plus upper body work. Hard workouts, several days a week. I continued running also, but with somewhat lesser mileage than before I started the program.

When I ran 25:13 at a 5K in Virginia in September I thought the course may have been too short. But after running a 25:08 in Raleigh about a month later, on a course that I knew was accurate, I realized it was not a fluke. I had actually gotten faster! I ran with a spring in my step that I didn’t have before. By now I had figured out that it must be all those squats and wall sits that made me stronger. And with stronger and more efficient leg muscles my heart didn’t have to work as hard at a specific speed. This in turn allowed me to run faster.

In my 20s and 30s, my goal was always to run “faster than last year.” As I got into my 40s I had to adjust those ambitions somewhat, and try to be content as long as I didn’t slow down. In my 50s getting slower became a fact of life, so to suddenly run faster at age 59 felt like a gift from above! Becoming faster like this simply doesn’t happen at my age unless we make some changes in our training, either intentionally or by accident. In my case it was the “accidental” gym workouts that became the catalyst.

When we run, several major muscle groups are at work. Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, hips, and calves. Plus abdominal muscles to support and stabilize. The stronger these muscles are, the harder we can run, and the less prone we are to injury. We also need to balance the different muscle groups, since if one is stronger than the other, we are increasingly likely to injure a muscle in the weaker group. We runners tend to have strong (but tight) quads and calves, but weak glutes and hamstrings.

The remedy for most of us is to incorporate strength and flexibility training into our program, at least twice a week. Even if it means giving up a running session or two, adding strength training could result in fewer injuries and faster times, especially for races in the 5K/10K range. And believe it or not, it can also assist you in losing or maintaining weight, more than running in itself can!

The latter is because when we run long and slow, we primarily burn fat. Which is great, right? The answer is “yes, and no.” If you want to lose weight or maintain your current weight, then going for a 10-mile run is certainly better than sitting on the coach and watching Seinfield re-runs. However, if you want to increase your metabolism, running in itself will not do the job. Our bodies are incredibly adaptable, which is a good thing in most circumstances, and it certainly helped our ancestors survive during rough times. But if your body gets used to burning fat during long runs, it will adapt by slowing your metabolism, so that it can store more fat for future runs. In other words, you become more efficient as an endurance athlete, and can perform the same work using fewer calories. Which is fine as long as we don’t put on extra weight!

While we need to store some fat in order not to hit the wall during marathons and longer training runs, carrying extra pounds that we don’t need will slow us down. It is therefore in our interest to keep our metabolic rate up. In addition to preventing injury and making us stronger and faster, doing resistance training a couple of days a week will build or maintain muscle mass. And since muscles burn calories, our metabolic rate will increase, which in turn allows us to take in more calories before that number on the scale starts creeping up.

Hopefully I have convinced you that runners can benefit from strength training, and below is a sample workout. For exercises with weights, the resistance chosen should make the exercise challenging, but not extremely difficult. And it should be no heavier than you can perform 12-15 repetitions. If exercises are performed in his manner, you will improve your muscular endurance without building up unnecessary “bulk”. And as runners we usually don’t want to bulk up. After all, how many of you have seen somebody looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his hey days win a major road race?

You may want to do a Google search of the exercises to see demos and review proper form. And if you haven’t done any resistance training for a while, you will need to ease into it by doing fewer reps and/or use lighter weights.

Without further ado, here is the workout:
First, do lunges carrying a barbell over your shoulders, or dumbbells or kettlebells in your hands. This will strengthen your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. A variation that concentrates more on the glutes is to do standing lunges with your back foot on a bench.

Next, do some stability ball hamstring curls. If you are unsure how to do this exercise, do a Google search, and you will find several U-tube demo videos.

Then try a wall sit: Sit with your back against a wall, but no other support. The thighs should be parallel to the floor, and make sure your toes are far enough out that you can see them in front of your knees. Hold it for a minute or longer if you can. This exercise you can actually do while watching those Seinfield re-runs!

For core stability, I recommend the plank exercise. There are several variations, some more challenging than others, and much easier for you to Google “plank exercise” than for me to try to explain it here.
Finish up with some stretches, with emphasis on those muscles that are tight. For us runners these are usually the hip flexors, glutes, and calves.

You can try other similar exercises, squats instead of lunges for example, to put some variation in the program. Do the program twice a week, and as long as you work hard and are consistent, it will most likely yield results. A personal trainer can also help you vary the exercises to target different sections of the muscles on different days. Keep with the program, and don’t be surprised if you blow your competition away at the races come spring!

Footnote: I recently started a blog, with tips on running, fitness and healthy living. It is primarily targeted for baby boomers, but is not exclusively for those age groups. To read my blog or to subscribe, go to

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