'You can do anything for 30 more seconds!' I told myself as I looked up at the clock counting down from 12 minutes on the wall at my CrossFit gym.
Twelve minutes was the amount of time we had to find a heavy clean and jerk—basically, the heaviest you can lift that day, which may or may not be a PR. If “clean and jerk” sounds like a weird, foreign phrase, you’re not alone. Just a few years ago, I felt the same way—I would not have been able to tell you what it meant. But here I was, about to PR the Olympic lift.
With chalk on my previously sweaty hands, I grabbed the barbell—90 pounds total—and ripped it off the ground and up to my shoulders. That was the clean. Halfway done, I thought to myself. Now, it was time for the jerk. I took a deep breath in, bent my knees slightly, and gave it everything I had to drive the barbell up over my head, dropping back under the bar afterward into a split jerk. I slammed the bar back on the ground—my favourite part—and shouted for joy, feeling on top of the world.
Ninety pounds might not sound like a lot to some people, but as a runner who had never really spent much time strength training before stepping foot into that CrossFit gym, I’d come a long way.
I’ll admit, Olympic lifting isn’t for everyone (although I encourage you to give it a shot before you write it off completely—you may surprise yourself, because I know I did). However, strength training in general—using dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, or even your own body weight—is for everyone. Yes, including runners.
A common misconception is that the minute you pick up a dumbbell, you’re well on your way to looking like The Rock (or Ryan Hall)—you’ll get big and bulky, and your race times are doomed to suffer forever. But that’s simply not true.
If you scan the starting blocks of professional track and field events, you’ll notice the men and women racing have lean muscle. Decorated steeplechaser Emma Coburn makes deadlifting nearly 200 pounds look easy. And, Olympic long jumper and sprinter Tianna Bartoletta posted a photo on Instagram of a loaded trap bar. On her blog, Bartoletta wrote that since getting serious about weightlifting, she’s seen positive changes in her performance on the track.
Sure, most of us aren’t running pros. And regardless of whether we’re fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon or just go out on the weekends for a few feel-good miles, the general majority of us don’t need to be lifting that heavy. (Although if that becomes a goal of yours, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!) The point is: These athletes are lifting serious amounts of weight and aren’t 'bulky.' What they are is fast.
It’s important that you build strength in all your muscles—not just your legs. While it may seem like your legs are doing all the work as you run, your upper body and core play an important role in logging faster miles, too.
'Your core is your power center, the home base of your body,' Lindsey Clayton, RRCA run coach and senior instructor at Barry’s in New York City, previously told Runner’s World. 'Having a strong core stabilises your body as you run, and adds power to your arms and legs to drive your body forward.'
Plus, building muscle is a huge part in remaining injury-free, Runner’s World+ coach Jess Movold tells me.
'You’re asking a lot of your body [when you run], and without strength training, your joints and bones and body aren’t as well equipped or durable to be able to continue challenging efforts,' she says.
Movold ran her first marathon in 2008, but didn’t start hitting the gym until February 2016 to train for that year’s New York City Marathon. In those eight years, her race times didn’t vary much. But when she added strength training consistently to her routine—about three to five times a week—her marathon PR went from 3:36 to 3:16.
Research backs Movold’s experience up: A 2021 review in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that lifting heavy (whatever that means for you personally) truly does make your muscles stronger. Another 2021 study in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology stresses the importance of having a strong upper body when it comes to running efficiency. Last but not least, a 2020 study confirms building muscle in your lower body—specifically your glutes—is a key factor in powerful sprinting performance, which comes in handy at the track and when you’re kicking at the end of a race.
'There’s something so satisfying about a hard lift or using heavy weights that’s different from running,' Movold says. 'When I’m going to lift, it’s such a champion mindset—I’m in the gym lifting heavy weights, there’s loud music, there’s a larger sense of accomplishment and stress release.'
Ever since I started lifting, it’s been my goal to encourage more runners to do the same. Many times, people tell me they don’t even know where to begin. Movold’s advice: Keep it simple and stay confident.
'Don’t overthink it, don’t look at the person across from you at the gym and assume that’s what you should be doing or that’s what you should be lifting,' she says. 'Your only goal is to get stronger—you don’t have to go and use crazy contraptions to do that.'
I’ll also add: Find a trainer or a workout class with an instructor, if you can afford it; that way, someone can watch you to make sure your form is correct and you’re staying safe. Plus, this takes planning your own workouts out of the equation. As Movold confirms, it might be confusing and overwhelming to plan a strength session when you’re not even sure what exercises like kettlebell swings and renegade rows and Romanian deadlifts are, never mind how to do them correctly.
That being said, it’s okay not to know these things. There was a time in your life when you didn’t know what you know now about running. Give yourself the same grace with strength training—you’ll learn and improve as you go.
I’m chasing strength PRs the same way I’ve always chased running PRs. Each time I walk into the gym—which, at this point, is about three to four days a week—there’s a new opportunity to lift heavier than I ever have. And nothing excites me more.
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