Running is lifting, just not enough

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“Let’s cut the BS, I’m not going to the gym. So what would you have me do?” I attempted to be honest in opening a conversation with my friend Scott who specializes in strength training.

We were coworkers and friends, and he’d been nagging me to get more serious. It was 2013 and I’d come to a few of his group training sessions but hadn’t committed to a plan. I’d enjoyed them sure, but sort of saw it as an aside.

I’d attended each class with a runner’s arrogance. I’d enjoyed some squats, pushups, and overhead presses, but chuckled during skipping and agility drills. Cause, after all, I was a runner. I aimed to excel in a single direction. What my ego overlooked was that the root of my ongoing running frustration lay in the weighted movements I was mocking.

He suggested that just running wasn’t enough. That to be an “athlete” required strength in multiple “planes.”

“What does he know?” I arrogantly doubted. Questioning whether he truly understood what high-performance running required. After all, I’d never heard of the runners I most admired doing much weight training. And yet his questions pulled at my injury-prone insecurity.

I knew I wasn’t durable. A frustrated runner, often sore and stretching, pushing and pulling at my muscles helplessly, there was much I didn’t know about my own body. And so I opened up with honesty.

“I’m not going to the gym. I need that time in my day for mileage. But what would you have me do to supplement?” I attempted to ask with an open mind.
“I’d have you lift heavier weight, with fewer reps. Fairly short sessions, maybe 20–30 minutes at home, making sure to move in all the planes to keep your body balanced.”

Balance? What did this have to do with balance? I wondered.

“Running is essentially a single leg squat repeatedly quickly.” He explained. In order to fortify my full stride, he’d have me move my legs forward, backward, and laterally while holding a kettlebell of increasing weight. I’d also need to lift arms in both a push and a pull. He was starting to make some sense.

And so I began.

“OUCH!” I exclaimed melodramatically as I attempted to sit down on the toilet a day after an introductory squat session. My hamstrings were wailing as if they’d been roused awake after a long slumber. Because they had. It’s been forever since I’d targeted strength to my “posterior chain” of muscles. But what started with wimpy whining graduated to a simple understanding of the basics for what my stride required to keep its “shape” under the load of hours of footfalls.

Eventually, I realized that his explanation of planes, strength, and mobility was the vernacular I’d been searching for as an injured runner. Many times I’d tried to describe how sometimes my running felt wonderfully “tall,” other times it felt frustratingly “short.” When I felt “in-tune,” it was as though my torso flowed over the top of footfalls, other times I just didn’t.

My years competing as a runner had repeated a familiarly frustrating cycle of quality training while I felt good followed by poor training when my form felt bad. I had no sense of how to maintain proper body balance and mobility. Because it had never occurred to me what those things even were!

I’d always thought of muscular “strength” training as somewhat superfluous compared to the cardiovascular strength gained through more running. The endurance athlete’s dream: more, more, more of a single metric. But once I set my runner ego aside I was able to see that these weighted movements he prescribed not only made my healthy stride stronger, they also kept my healthy stride healthier.

Once I came to understand how weights counter-balanced the stress of running mileage I began to crave the sensation of my muscles moving forcefully through the prescribed planes. I found that if I ran too much without also lifting weights my spine began to arch and my stride length began to shrink. To my horror, more mileage without corresponding weight training produced less progress.

Like the foundation of a home in a storm riddled region that needs to be constantly reinforced, weight training proved the only method I’d found to keep my body’s form true while it was being subjected to the punishment of a marathon training cycle.

But I still wasn’t gonna go to the gym, so what was I to do? Some people love the gym, and I send my best to them, but having never found enjoyment there, and without free time to spare, Scott outlined a simple plan that took me about 18 minutes to complete. Repeated twice a week, it sacrificed the equivalent time of 6 or so miles on the road, while helping keep all of my other miles from breaking me.

In the past five years, I’ve formed a bond with my trusted kettlebell because it’s kept me running relatively pain-free. At times it’s traveled with my family in the car to nearby vacations. Another time I ordered a second one directly to my in-laws for our visit over the holidays.

“What are you trying to do, kill the mailman!?!” My father-in-law joked. He was right to scorn me for such a heavy surprise, but it was a small cost for the benefit of consistency.

Having done my routine, fairly regularly, for over five years, I’ve come to see the strength it provides is as integral to my success as all the time spent out on the roads. Because although the moves are done in a slow, controlled pace, they enable much faster movement.

Years past my teens I still relish the chance to shift gears, drive my knee, hurl my hand up, and leaning into the smooth curve of a 200-meter sprint. I’m always shocked that I can summon somewhat similar speed to my childhood. Such ability to surge surely doesn’t come from hours spent shuffling at easy pace.

No, maintaining a fast and efficient stride as I age relies on the series of purposeful movements repeated unglamorously, alone in a basement, on a few square feet of concrete between a box of holiday decorations and another of retired running shoes. It’s in this small space, for a few dozen minutes each week, thanks to a friend’s encouragement, that I’m able to maximize all of the other hours spent out running on the roads.

[If you’re interested in a video of my routine, which might not work for everyone, it’s linked here]

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My basement routine on youtube

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2:19 Marathoner. Writer about running.

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