2011-05-26

The Marathon: Part VI - Strength Training

There are essentially three forms of strength training, and my Level 3 training schedule is designed to use all of them.

For marathon training, the key is to develop good muscle strength while keeping mass to a minimum. Countless runners underestimate the importance of muscle strength training, but it is a key to making running easier and more efficient. This will help you improve and feel better, regardless of your skill level.

What You Stand to Gain
One of the most important benefits to running of strength training is the improvement in overall posture. Take notice of the people you see over the course of a day. People with weak upper body muscles tend to sag at the shoulders, their necks hunch forward, and they are constantly shifting their body weight from one side to the other as they stand. This is not just a question of an unhealthy body; these poor folks cannot even hold themselves upright! Imagine the extent of their muscle atrophy that they are too weak to carry the weight of their own spine.

That a person can run an entire marathon despite having a weak upper body and core does not mean that everything is okay. Developing core and upper-body strength means being able to sustain proper running form over the multiple hours required to run a marathon. This reduces the probability of injury, as well as increasing your speed.

Speed is the other major benefit of strength training. When I say "speed," I am not merely suggesting that you can improve your time (although that is true). I realize that many of you are only interested in finishing the race strongly. That's okay.

But keep in mind that running for four hours is far more difficult than running for three hours and forty-five minutes. Every minute you shave off your time is a minute made easier on your body. Again, you will reduce your risk of injury. Beyond that, running will be a far more pleasant experience for you overall.

Let's face it: it feels good to run faster than your nearest competitors, whomever they may be. This is a valid and important aspect of running, no matter what your peer group is. Weight training will help you get there.

High Resistance Training
The first of the aforementioned three forms of strength training is standard, classic resistance training with heavy weights, and fewer repetitions.

The physiological objective of this kind of training is to increase the size of your muscle fibers. As you work out, they start to tear. You can think of it almost like metal fatigue or an elastic band in that the activity slowly and imperceptibly breaks down the tissue involved. The body rebuilds this tissue to withstand a greater workload in the future. Namely, the muscle fibers are rebuilt thicker and stronger.

There is a lot of information - and misinformation - out there when it comes to resistance training. Most experts agree that this kind of weight training is most effective under the following conditions:
  • Training is done no more than 2-3 times per week. (Only one day per week is dedicated to high resistance training in the Level 3 schedule.)
  • Repetitions are limited to about 6-12 per set.
  • Proper form and technique is utilized at all times; weight is reduced if proper form cannot be maintained.
  • The athlete aims to just reach muscle exhaustion by the final repetition.
Low Resistance / High Repetition Training
This form of strength training works a little differently in the body. Rather than increasing muscle fibers, lower resistance / high repetition strength training increases the plasma content between muscle fibers. This also increases muscle size, but not quite in the same way.

The rules to this form of strength training are almost identical to high resistance training, except that weight is significantly reduced while the number of repetitions significantly increased.

A common myth in the fitness world is that this kind of weight training "tones," whereas high resistance training "build mass." In reality, both forms of exercise build a different kind of mass, and you should expect to see your muscles increase using either technique (or a combination of both). Marathon runners need not worry about muscle size, up to a point. Besides, it is unlikely that a runner could build up a detrimental amount of muscle mass in an 18-week training regimen; nor would a body-builder be particularly interested in running a great marathon.

Plyometric Training
The secret weapon to any strength regimen is plyometric training. In simplified terms, plyometric exercises improve the body's ability to convert muscle strength into speed.

This is accomplished by repetition of "explosive" movements, such as jumping. My workout schedule involves plyometric exercises such as squat jumps and clapping push-ups. Believe it or not, these exercises will help you develop running speed and function as a refreshing reprieve from the typical hours of track work included in most training programs.

Most people find plyometrics incredibly difficult initially, if they are not used to them. After a week or two, however, they become much easier, and much more fun. So if you find your heart pounding and your lungs gasping for air in the beginning, take my word for it: you will thank me in a couple of weeks.