Weight Lifting for Runners and Triathletes

by S. Scott Zimmerman

Copyright (c) 2002


The Basics

As a runner or triathlete, you can benefit from weight lifting in the several ways.

Benefits of Strength Training

Importantly, weight lifting can help restore muscle balance that running creates. Specifically, running strengthens the muscles on the hind side of the body: the calves, hamstrings, and lower back muscles. To maintain proper balance, you should strengthen the front side muscles, primarily the quadriceps (quads) and abdominal muscles (abs)

In addition, weight lifting can strengthen your upper body to improve running form and avoid arm and shoulder fatigue during the latter stages of a marathon or a triathlon.

Key Strength-Training Exercises

As a runner or triathlete, you really want to spend most of your training time on the road or pool, not in a gym. Therefore, I suggest you do compound exercises, that is, those exercises that build several muscles at a time. Here are the exercises I recommend:

For details of these exercises and alternative exercises for the same muscle groups, go to Exercise and Kinesiology Web page, which includes video clips of how to do each exercise.

Training Efficiency

To further increase the efficiency of your strength training--to give you more time on the road and less time in the gym--and to emphasize endurance over muscle mass, I recommend the following:

Free Weights vs. Machines

Most serious body builders prefer free weights (dumbbells, barbells, chinup bar, dip bars, and a bench) over machines (bench press machine, lat machine, cable row machine, etc.). I also prefer free weights because I feel that they are better at improving balance and coordination. But machines also work fine, so go ahead and use whichever system you prefer. Also, nothing's wrong with mixing or alternating free weights and machines.


Key Principles of Strength Training

  1. Strength exercises fatigue and wear down the muscles. The body builds them back up--and increases their strength--while you are at rest. Therefore, rest is as important as exercise. Always rest at least 48 hours between exercise bouts. In practice, this means that you should do each exercise two or three times per week, with at least a day of rest in between. (Feel free to do abs crunches daily, if you desire.)
  2. For best results, you should perform each exercise to "temporary muscle failure." This means that you should do as many repetitions (number of times you lift a specific weight in a specific exercise) as possible, until fatigue prevents you from doing even one more repetition (or "rep" for short).
  3. To avoid injury and get the most from your exercises, you should learn proper form for each exercise and maintain that form for every rep. In other words, you should never "cheat" on form to squeeze out another rep; once you can't do another rep using proper form, you should quit.
  4. Long-distance running in some ways counteracts the effects of strength training. To avoid this problem, do your strength training on your days of light running, that is, on your easy days or on your days off from running. If, on a running day, you can separate your running and strength training by at least 6 hours, all the better.
  5. If you feel pain or excessive discomfort, immediately quit the exercise. You might need to go to a lighter weight, skip that particular exercise for the day, or skip the remainder of your training that day. In some cases, your body just might not be made to handle a particular type of exercise. For example, because I've had low-back problems in the past, I can't do the normal deadlift. Instead, I use a special apparatus called a hex bar (or a trap bar) for doing bent-legged and stiff-legged deadlifts.
  6. Perform each repetition slowly: a 1-3 second push or pull followed by an even slower return to the initial position.
  7. Start with light weights and build up slowly. For each weight-lifting exercise, choose an initial weight that you can lift for 10-15 repetitions. If you pick a weight and can't make at least 10 reps, drop back to a lighter weight. If you pick a weight that you can do more than 15 reps, increase the weight. During each strength-training session, try to increase the number of reps. If and when you can go up to 20 reps with a particular weight, move to a heavier weight (2-10 pounds more) in the next session, such that you can barely lift it for 10-15 reps.
  8. Monitor your progress by including information about your weight training in your exercise log.
  9. Suspend all strength training during the taper period in preparation for your races, except for maybe light lifting in the early part of the marathon taper.

An Exercise Program

Here's a sample exercise program. It includes an A day and a B day, which you alternate. For example, over a two-week period, your schedule would look like this:

Monday Wednesday Friday Monday Wednesday Friday

On your A day, you might do the following:

On your B day, you might do the following:

For an explanation of how to do these exercises, go to the Exercise Instruction Web page. You should take some time to explore this Web site so you can find a variety of exercises for each major muscle group.

Good luck and happy lifting!