Make sure to check out Barbell Shrugged Episode 145 featuring Nate Helming. The show premieres Wednesday, October 8th.
Let’s dispel a few rumors.
Not all skinny runners are weak! And of course, not all strong men and women are lumbering Ogres out on the road or running trail. In fact, these athletes have a lot more in common than they may realize. By focusing on that I hope to give you a direction on how to improve both of those qualities at the same time.
We do face a problem, however. The strong athlete wanting to improve their running skill will face a similar fear as the runner that wants to build their strength under the barbell. How can you increase these new domains without sacrificing all of the hard fought progress? Won’t the runner grow bulky and slow? Won’t the strength athlete lose their explosive and powerful edge?
That fear is easy to understand, but, in fact, these two athlete types need to be accomplished and comfortable with the alternative skill if they way to perform optimally and succeed. Let’s explain why, starting with the skinny folks first.
Runners need to be strong if they hope to be like the consistent, marathon-slaying, PR-breaking wonder athletes they are channeling for inspiration. Let’s be clear, to succeed in running you need to run a lot, fast and efficiently, and you need to do it all with minimal interruption either from injury, sickness, or other life stresses.
Runners need to be strong if they hope to be like the consistent, marathon-slaying, PR-breaking wonder athletes they are channeling for inspiration.
But here’s where we all get a little tripped up. Running alone doesn’t provide all of the tools, the support, and the horsepower the runner needs. Those skinny folks need the strongmen and women (the barbell loving gym dweller’s) for a little support and training boost. Here’s the truth, whether the running community likes it or not – Runners who squat heavy are not only stronger than their strict road-warrior kin, but they are less susceptible to injury.
A strong runner that can deliver force to the ground more quickly, more efficiently, and can run further and faster.
Runners who squat are more mobile because they have to be. Mid-range athletes who also sit professionally get stiff as hell, which leads to season stopping ankle, knee, hip, and low back injuries. Squatting gets them down there and shows them—quite bluntly—where they’re at. With just a little practice, even the tightest of runners can squat properly, and begin to reap the benefit.
Strong runners are more connected. Low-tension runners who never sprint, cut, tumble, or do anything that requires serious stabilization at the spine struggle to develop it. Squatting heavy teaches the runner exactly what 100% tension feels like, and what happens to the rest of the body—loss of motor control in the form of collapsing arches, buckling knees, and arched low backs—when the necessary tension isn’t there. Yes, these runners may gain a few pounds but it’s usually weight where it counts; in stabilizing and reinforcing the chassis so the body can go further, faster, and harder all without rattling apart from achilles issues, IT Band Syndrome, or any other common running injury you might expect.
Finally, runners need to recover so they can go out and train again. It’s no surprise that the weekly mileage can be grueling both mentally and physically. Experienced runners learn to get smart and focus more on recovery: better eating, better sleeping, and other strategies to minimize inflammation in the body and return to some hormonal balance. But here’s the deal – The runner’s domain is inherently catabolic.
If nothing else is done (even with good sleeping and eating), runners, especially the aging ones, will recover more and more slowly, and they’ll wait longer and longer to train. Lifting heavier in season—let me say that again—lifting heavier in season provides the testosterone and human growth hormone response to right the hormonal ship. Weird I know, and something probably very few endurance athletes have considered, but keeping those strength sessions in year round will counterintuitively make those tired and heavy legs less heavy and tired. Strength athletes are muscular and explosive for obvious reasons.
For those strength based athletes wanting to add mileage on the road and pick up their running skill, I can say that you need two things: a little patience and a little respect. Yes, we know, you can probably pick us up and snap us in half, but we have a different kind of gear for suffering that you don’t have. We have a “grind through all elements uphill both ways with blisters and nausea, and this will never end” gear, we’ll go out there the very next day and do it again. More importantly, we runners have well adapted bodily tissues and ingrained techniques that have been earned.
For those strength based athletes wanting to add mileage on the road and pick up their running skill, I can say that you need two things: a little patience and a little respect.
Take what you know from the gym—how to be mobile, strong, stable, and powerful–and learn to develop another gear. This gear doesn’t require as much tension. It does require more focus on breathing, rhythm, cadence, and flow. But don’t despair. All the right tools are there, they just need to be fashioned in the right order and slowly built up over time.
Start two times per week as a warm up to your strength session. Add some short running/walking intervals or even push/pull a sled. Sneak a few running drills in with short focused jogs. Start with a Tabata run interval: 4 minutes broken down into 20” faster running/10” walking or total resting. If you have a treadmill, crank up the incline and do some hill running and sprinting. Pretty soon you’ll see some of your squatting strength translate over to running strength.
The crucial athletic elements to be running strong and “strong” strong are the same. Just by thinking about and applying what you know to the other side, you can approach your new activity with renewed focus and a sense of confidence.
Remember, it’s also about maintaining a sense of balance and priorities. Sure, I want my runners to squat more, but does a collegiate 10,000m runner need to squat 400 pounds? Probably not, unless he or she can accomplish that only with the 2-3 relatively modest strength sessions they’ll do in their week. Vice versa, a little running will help the strength athlete develop some endurance, improve their breathing and even open up their hips and low back a little bit. Does the strongman or woman need to run 50 miles on the trail immediately? No, not unless they’ve lost a bet.
So there you have it. The world would be a better place if the local run club hung out with their friendly neighborhood gym dwellers. Each has something to offer the other, and the groups—in my humble opinion—would achieve more together than they ever will alone.
- Make sure to listen to Nate on Episode 145 of Barbell Shrugged
- Hear more from Nate at The Run Experience, YouTube and Instagram