Strength training for beginners: 8 simple rules
When it comes to making strides, runners are, more often than not, laser-focused on adding mileage. That’s not a bad approach – more miles are one way of becoming a better runner. But there’s more you can do: strength training. In general, strength exercises ‘help with maintaining or increasing muscle tissue and improving bone density over time, as well as helping to reduce injuries and body fat’, says Yusuf Jeffers, a strength, conditioning and running coach. ‘When applied to a runner, strength training will help with increasing speed, power, and neural adaptations.’
If you’re not used to lifting, getting started can feel intimidating. So, some strength and running pros let us in on the golden rules of weight training – tips that build the foundation of an effective and efficient strength running programme, particularly for runners.
Ready to pick up some weights? Follow this expert guidance on strength training for beginners...
Start new moves using just your body weight
‘Novice lifters should start without weight, and with the guidance of a
professional, to learn proper technique and emphasise correct movement characteristics,’ says Natalie Niemczyk, a physiotherapist and owner of Revolution Running Physical Therapy in New York. You want to allow the body to go through an adjustment period, in which you may feel increased fatigue and need more recovery – similar to when you begin
running programme, Niemczyk says.
Once you’ve mastered body-weight programme, step it up to light weights. The stimulus you’ll get, even with lightweights, will be plenty at the beginning of your strength journey, says AndySpeer, a Peloton tread and strength instructor. He notes that technique, balance and range of motion are all more important initially.
Incorporate holds into your strength-training routine
Isometric exercises also benefit runners’ strength and stability. These moves require contraction of a specific muscle or group of muscles and holding that contraction in the same position for time (think planks).
‘Isometrics are a powerful training tool, especially for runners,’ says Speer. ‘Holding positions for 30 to 60 seconds, such as lunges and single-leg balances, helps strengthen muscles, connective tissue and your core.’
Also, it may be the best way to help fortify the body against internal and external forces, which will help you to maintain a stable posture during activities such as running. This is an important factor, as good running posture can make you more efficient, as well as help ward off overuse injuries, such as knee and IT band pain.
Target your entire lower half
Glutes, or the group of muscles in your backside, are your powerhouse as a runner. And when it comes to sprinting performance, research has found that strong glutes are key. The quads and hamstrings also play a crucial role. What about the rest of the leg, though People often neglect everything below the knee – but you shouldn’t.
‘Your calves and tibialis anterior [the muscle in the front of your shin]are very important in running,’ says Speer. The former lift your heel and provide a lot of the power required for running, while the latter helps with dorsiflexion (the action of toes pulling up to the shin). Speer’s advice: using a wall to balance, perform bodyweight calf raises and toe
raises. Do two to three sets of 10 reps each, increasing over time.
Focus on compound moves and running muscles
When it comes to choosing what moves to do for your strength workouts, Jeffers suggests compound exercises that complement running movement patterns versus single-joint isolation exercises. That means doing moves such as squats (working multiple muscle groups, like quads and glutes). These types of lifts recruit more muscle groups, leading to a bigger response, he says. Research agrees: one study in Frontiers In Physiology found that multi-joint exercises could provide higher gains in physical performance, thanks to a larger increase in cardiorespiratory fitness and maximal strength, compared to single-joint ones. You should also make sure your strength workouts focus on unilateral (or single-side) movements such as single-leg deadlifts and lunge variations, Speer says.
Time your strength work to your run or race
Strength training – which Niemczyk says is most effective when performed two to three times per week in the off-season and one to two times per week while training for a race – is meant to support your running, not make it more difficult. That means beginning a strength programme too close to race day can not only hinder your running performance, but also place you at risk for injury, she says. What’s more, ‘adding too much lifting volume as your running volume increases can be counterproductive’, says Speer. ‘If your miles per week are increasing to a challenging level, keep your lifting manageable and consistent. When you lighten your running mileage, this is a good time to push your weights.’
Runners should aim to periodise their strength training if possible, says Jeffers, just as you would do with your running. Meaning, pick up your lifting routine when training for shorter, quicker racing, rather than starting a lifting programme when you’re also training for a marathon.
Involve your mind, not just your body, in the workout
‘Make sure you’re not just going through the motions, but feeling the correct muscles turn on,’ says physiotherapist and running coach Carly Graham Brady. For example, you want to focus on ‘actually driving through your heels to use your glutes [in moves such as squats, deadlifts and lunges] or keeping your core tight during ab work’. Jeffers agrees, adding that it’s crucial to do each repetition with good form, focusing on quality of movement versus quantity.
Take rest breaks
Resist the temptation to turn your lift session into a cardio workout if you really want to get stronger. This means resting between sets and letting your heart rate come down, advises Jeffers. Proper rest ‘helps with being able to give appropriately intense efforts to elicit muscular adaptations’, he says. If you rest for at least a minute between big moves such as deadlifts, that rest period will allow you to continue to lift heavy, rather than dropping down or sacrificing form because you’re tired from insufficient recovery.
Log your lift sessions to track your progress
Just like you track your runs, you should record the moves you do and the weights you lift in strength sessions, Jeffers says. Progressive overload – or gradually increasing
the weight, frequency or number of repetitions in your strength-training routine – is what leads to strength increases and keeps you from hitting a plateau. To make sure you’re moving forward, keep track of where you are. Plus, seeing the progress you’ve made over time can build confidence, especially if you started with, for example, body-weight squats and now lift 15 to 20kg in that move.
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