Why You Should Lift Weights -- Why You Shouldn't Lift Weights

08/07/2009 - 10:43

By Pete Rea/ZAP Fitness/Running Journal/August 2009

In the larger quilt of sport, long distance runners occupy a unique panel. Unlike the vast majority of athletic endeavors, success in running based endurance events require little fine motor skill or hand eye coordination (most distance runners I know cringe at the thought of attempting a lay-up or catching a frisbee) such as skill based sports (i.e. baseball, basketball, soccer etc.). Moreover explosivity and power, a key to so many sports, is often non-existent in the top tier of distance running. This month’s Young Guns column will focus on this issue of power, more specifically weight lifting as it relates to distance running success and improvement. Is weight lifting necessary? It is a topic debated to this day even amongst the top coaches and athletes in the sport. This month we attack the subject looking at two polar opposite schools of thought in regards to weight lifting.

The Case for Lifting

#1. Arms are for Power/Legs Follow Arms’ Lead
During my first USATF Coaching Education Lecture in Hartford, CT, an esteemed collegiate coach from Penn State University discussed the need for lifting arm weights specifically for the benefits associated with leg extension and arm drive. “Arms are the pistons which enable the legs to drive, particularly in the late stages of races,” said the coach. In other words finishing well during the last 25 percent of any race, be it an 800-meter race or a marathon can be improved exponentially if a runner has greater strength in their arms to utilize when fatigued.

#2. Improved biomechanics and its’ resulting decreased oxygen consumption
As stabilizer muscles, notoriously weak in long distance runners get stronger, as well as their accompanying prime movers, distance runners inherently decrease unnecessary lateral movement, thereby improving efficiency and efficient propulsion. This improved biomechanics decreases the probability of injuries across the body. Additionally as runners become more economical they utilize less oxygen thereby going into debt later in a race. Dr. Ron Johnston of the University of New Hampshire explains, "Strength-training improves running economy due to both a reduction in wasted motion, or because stronger legs allow runners to rely more heavily on their more economical slow-twitch muscle fibers.”

In terms of the lower body (specifically leg weights and lower body power), resistance or weight training improves the tensile strength (ability of muscle tissue to withstand overload without breaking down) of your leg muscles, and thus enhances the recoil or return of energy with each foot compression or step. Additionally, your neuromuscular system becomes better coordinated from resistance training, enabling you to run using less energy and less oxygen.

#3. Bone Mass and Muscle Mass Decrease with age. Lifting Weights slows this process.
While not specifically related to “across the board” performance, we all know that older individuals, runners included, lose both muscle and bone mass with time. Weight lifting -- be it lighter weights with greater repetitions or heavier weight fewer reps -- have both been shown to slow this process (and in a recent German study on aging even reverse the process of bone loss in subjects).

#4 Women dig Ripped Guys and Vice Versa
This has nothing to do with running, but may sway you in the direction of lifting. Let’s be honest -- runners need all the help we can get.

The Primary Case Against Lifting

#1. Arms are Simply Counterbalances
Arms are not “Pistons” but simply counterbalances According to former Ethiopian National Team Coach Salah Tadesse. “Arms do not drive the legs as so many Western coaches believe. The human arms are designed to simply be a counterbalance to the real driving apparatus: the legs. And your counterbalances need not be bulky but rather light and lean.”
Tadesse summed up this case against lifting argument at an IAAF coaching clinic in Switzerland in 1997 with the argument “while a pound is a pound, in terms of overall volume muscle is more dense than fat. Why would anyone want to make themselves more dense in a sport where we are fighting gravity each moment? The body on a distance runner should be light with a very large aerobic engine.”
Tadesse’s argument is commonplace amongst anti-lifters i.e. while being more powerful may indeed make you more efficient, muscle utilizes more oxygen than fat as well, thereby counterbalancing the notion of improved efficiency.

#2. The body should, in a healthy manner, be light with a very big engine and the engine with no bulk to impede progress.
This is the heart and is inextricably linked to Tadesse’s argument. Olympic Gold Medalist Kip Keino makes similar arguments during his public appearances. According to Keino lean muscle mass will always outperform bulk in events longer than 30:00 in length. He has commonly argued that as events get shorter (5K, 3K, mile, 800), overall explosive power becomes exponentially more important.

#3 Look on the Podium
Perhaps the least effective argument in the anti-lifting campaign (however one which anti-lifters insist on pressing) is simply the notion that virtually all Olympic Medalists in the 5K, 10K, and marathon are ectomorphic, so you should be too.

Alternative Thoughts for Those on the Fence about Lifting

Hills may just be the happy medium for many a runner torn as to whether they should hot the weight room. Disciples of Arhur Lydiards methods such as myself have long found incredible results in power and improvers efficiency simply by spending daily time on the hills. In fact a 1985 study by exercise scientists Svedenhag and Sjodin suggests that similar improvements in running economy from weight lifting can be gained by simply running hills. In their study, 16 elite male runners improved their running economy by one-four percent per year through a combination of long-distance running, intervals, and hills. Other studies that included just long-distance running and intervals found no improvement in running economy, which indicates that the hills were what led to the improvements found in Svedenhag and Sjodin's study.

How Does Hill Running Improve Power?

Running uphill requires that your legs propel your bodyweight up against gravity. Moreover, they do so under conditions that more closely replicate racing conditions than does even the most well-designed weight-machine. Evidence for the benefits of hill running comes from the Kenyan and Ethiopian runners of today, and goes all the way back to the great New Zealand runners of the 1960s and 70s. The best runners in the world run hills day after day. Of course, there may be genetic factors that separate elite runners from recreational runners, but it certainly appears that hill training is an important element that, unlike your genes, you can change.
Another advantage of hill running over lifting weights is that you are simultaneously building up your cardiovascular system. Hill running, therefore, can be viewed as another form of resistance training. In this case, your bodyweight is the resistance. To improve your leg strength, you can perform resistance exercises by moving lead and steel in the weight-room, or you can perform resistance exercises by moving your entire body uphill against the force of gravity.


The larger body of study indicates that improving your strength will indeed improve your running economy. You can improve this strength by lifting traditional weights or running hills -- the so-called “natural weight.” Regardless of whether you choose to hit the hills or hit the weights, your running economy and racing performances should improve with one of the above changes. As with all the Young Guns Columns -- I will close with what has now become cliché. If you are no longer improving, and you have given your current “system” full time to engage, change something.

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok Sponsored non-profit facility that supports post-collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, NC. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state of the art weight room, exercise science lab for testing and a 24-bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include two-time Olympic Trials Qualifiers Zika Rea and Randy Ashley as well as head coach Pete Rea. For more information go to or call 828-295-6198.

Copyright © 2017 Running Journal