Among the questions most often asked within the Lonely Goat Running Club chat group on Facebook are those relating to stuff runners can do in the gym. Questions such as: “What gym classes should I do?” “What weight sessions are good for runners?” “What is the best cross training for runners?”
The thing is, there probably isn’t one, best answer that fits everyone. That’s because every runner is different, and will want to achieve different things. Instead, ask yourself the following: “What gym work would best help your running?”
To help answer that question, consider what it is you want to achieve in the gym: Do you need a substitute for running; something to help your running; or do you just want to have fun? Let’s look at each of these three options in turn…
Gym-based substitutes for running
There are plenty of reasons why you might find you need to get in the gym rather than get out running. For example:
- You’re currently recovering from an injury, and need to do something other than running to keep your fitness up;
- You know you can’t push your mileage too high before your niggles turn into injuries, so decide to keep the amount of running low and add volume with a low-impact alternative;
- You find yourself in a location where you can’t run easily, such as an oil rig.
For each of these, there are different options available to you: Swimming, elliptical trainer, stationary bike, rowing machine, stepper, and probably some new-fangled contraptions we’ve not heard of yet!
To make the most of these, try and replicate your running as accurately as you can. Running is a predominantly aerobic activity (unless you’re a sprinter!), so any time spent increasing your heart rate and getting moderately out of breath is going to be helpful.
You can also simulate higher intensity running sessions, such as intervals or tempos. Just keep the durations the same, for example: A 30 minute running session of 15x one minute hard, one minute easy, could be done by swapping the running for swimming/elliptical/cycling/rowing/stepping.
Yes, the training effect won’t be quite the same, as your musculoskeletal system will be worked differently, but the cardiovascular effect of cross training should be a good substitute if running isn’t possible.
Cross training and strength work to help your running
Rather than go to the gym to find activities to replace your running, you can also opt for activities that support your running. For the most part, these will consist of movement work, or strength work using weights.
While the debate over stretching to improve flexibility for runners continues, there are benefits to working on your mobility and stability. After all, having a lovely, long, elastic stride can help you run faster, and good balance and control will keep you moving efficiently when you start to get tired.
Some exercises will be a closer match to the movements you do when running, such as the massive variety of lunges that exist. You can lunge forwards, backwards, sideways, step up, step down, and twist. Do them slowly and steadily and you can work on your control. Do them quickly and you can work on adding ‘pop’ to your run.
Other exercises won’t be as similar to running, but can help counteract the effects of modern life – such as unkinking your back from sitting at a desk all day – so can still benefit your running. Yoga, pilates, and similar movements can all help get you moving smoothly again. Either join a class, or opt for a DIY approach.
There’s a convincing argument that the best way to mould your body into one that runs well, is to do lots of running. After all, do enough running and your body will adapt to be more efficient.
That said, there are times when adding some extra strength work, in the form of weights or resistance work, can be helpful. It can serve a similar function to the mobility work mentioned above, by helping you remain strong and stable when running. It can also help develop a winning finish-line kick by boosting your power and ability to recruit a range of muscle fibres.
Generally speaking, lots of reps at a low weight will help with your endurance; and a few reps at a heavy weight will help with your power and speed. There are a lot of ‘strength work for runners routines out there on the internet, but a good starting point is to combine the two approaches (high reps/low weights; and low reps/high weights), with a selection of squats, deadlifts, lunges, and whole-body movements, as this will help you create a well-rounded routine.
If you’re new to heavy weights, then we recommend you start off under the supervision of a professional. Do too much, too soon, with bad form, and you risk serious injury. At first, you may find it better to do the exercises with just your body-weight, or some light resistance from elastic bands. Once you’ve got used to that, you may be able to progress to adding weight.
Things to consider
The whole idea of weight training for runners is to help your running, not hinder it. If you go too hard in the gym, you may find your legs are too wrecked to run well. Just bear this in mind when you’re tempted to go for a new heavy squats personal best the day before a race!
Also, rest assured that it is possible to do weights and not add bulk. If you want to get massive muscles, then you will need to go to the gym all the time, do heavy weights with high reps to create a lot of muscle damage, and eat a huge amount of food (especially protein) to rebuild those muscles bigger than before.
If you’re just popping to the gym a couple of times a week, and not trashing yourself in the weights room, then it is unlikely you’re going to end up looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Let’s not say it too loudly, but sometimes, running all the time can be hard work and perhaps (whisper it) even a little boring. Rather than wear yourself down and lose your mojo, it can be beneficial to add some variety to your training routine.
If you enjoy going to the gym, then go to the gym. Whether that’s churning out kilometres on a rowing machine, beasting yourself on the weights, doing a class, or something else – if you enjoy it, then why not do it?
Yes, your choice of exercise might not be a ‘perfect’ fit for your running training, but it is far more important to stay happy. Then, if you’re able to run with smile on your face, you’re more likely to find the motivation to achieve your goals.
One size doesn’t fit all
This article hasn’t given you a singular, perfect plan to follow for when you get in the gym. That’s because we’re not sure such a plan exists. As said above, each runner is different and has different goals.
It can be easy to lump all manner of activities together under the banners of ‘cross training’ or ‘strength and conditioning’ and look for the one magic bullet that is going to help our running.
But, just as there are a practically-endless variety of ways to go for a run, there’s a huge range of different activities we can do to replace, or help our running. You can even do a hard sprint interval session on a stepper, or a long endurance session with a barbell! The choices are endless and all could be the perfect choice, depending on what it is you need.
The first step is to ask yourself what it is you want to achieve, and then go from there. Enjoy!