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Resistance Training "Bonks" in the Running World

To some, resistance training is the Rodney Dangerfield of the running community; it gets no respect. To others, it’s like Tom Cruise; runners think it might be useful, but it just doesn’t make any sense to them. And then, there are those to whom resistance training is like Abraham Lincoln; it’s freed them from being slaves to ineffective programming.  As a performance enhancement specialist who has a lot of “Abe” endurance athletes under my tutelage, I’d like to take this opportunity to bring the Rodney and Tom runners in the crowd up to speed. Discussing all training myths in the running community would take a whole school semester so I’ve narrowed it down to the five most prominent myths (“bonks”) present in with respect to resistance training.

Bonk #1: Runners don’t need to “lift weights”.

I figured I’d start with the most obvious of the bunch. There has been a ton of resistance training research over the past 20 years but why is there still a “debate” over whether or not runners needed to lift weights. Stop questioning my intelligence! Two decades of dedicated resistance training research from some of the most brilliant scientists in the world has proven unequivocally that resistance training is important for making and keeping people healthy, strong, fast, and lean. Had all their efforts been in vain?

Just to recap: we know resistance training is good for general health, as it:

1. Enhances endocrine and immune function (which are compromised by endurance training).
2. Maintains muscle mass (also negatively affected by endurance training)
3. Improves functional capacity in spite of aging by maintaining maximal strength and power (both of which decrease with prolonged endurance training)
4. Builds bone density (something many runners lack due to poor dietary practices, but desperately need in light of the high risk of stress fractures)
5. Enables us to more rapidly correct muscle imbalances, as evidenced by the fact that resistance training is the cornerstone of any good physical therapy program (and I’ve never met a runner without imbalances)

So, I think that the answer clear and obvious: runners are a superhuman race that is not subject to the normal laws of physiology like the rest of us. In case you’re not picking up on my sarcasm, please go drink some Gatorade to get some glucose to your brain. Then, reread those five points from above and ask yourself:

1. Do I have an endocrine system?
2. Do I have an immune system?
3. Will I get old? Do I do things that require strength and power?
4. Do I have bones?
5. Do I have muscle imbalances?

If you answered “no” to any of these questions, I would seriously recommend that you consult a psychologist instead of a running coach, as you’re obviously dealing with a serious case of denial. Runners are just like the rest of us. You may wear shorter shorts, but you still put them on one leg at a time. You need resistance training. By the way, those are just the general health benefits. If you want to learn more benefits, I’ll give you the results of various research finding (drop me a line via email)

The take-home message is that running is more than just VO2max, anaerobic threshold, and a good pair of sneakers; it’s also about localized muscular endurance and nervous system efficiency. And, you can’t have strength endurance unless you’ve got strength. Build a solid foundation and you’ll be a complete runner.

Bonk #2: Machines and free weights are the same.

Ask yourself “how many times you’ve been seated and moving in a fixed plane of motion while running?” If the answer isn’t a resounding “NEVER,” then you probably ought to get your head examined.

Resistance training isn’t just about “feeling the burn”; it’s about grooving connections between the muscles and the nervous system that tells them what to do. When you plop down on a machine and work through a fixed line of motion, you’re allowing your nervous system to “get lazy”. It doesn’t have to recruit any stabilizing muscles to ensure that you move efficiently. Machines turn you into a “motor moron” and ingrain muscle imbalances that can negatively affect your running efficiency and lead to injury. The table below will illustrate a good example: Lunge VS Thigh Machine

Performing a DB Lunge

Performing Abductor/Adductor in a machines

Body has to generate force in single-leg stance so to generate force optimally, you need “frontal plane stability.” With the lunge, this refers predominantly to the ability of the adductors (inner thigh muscles) and abductors (outer thigh/butt muscles) to co-contract. Working together stabilizes your thigh so that you don’t tip over. By doing a lung correctly, it teaches these muscles to balance each other out properly, and in doing so, improve running efficiency and prevent problems such as lateral knee pain, anterior hip pain, and lower back pain (just to name a few).

A look at the status quo, however, shows that most women will try to train their adductors and abductors with those inner and outer thigh machines that you’d only expect to see on a trip to the obstetrician. Unfortunately, the adductors and abductors NEVER work in isolation like this, and they never work in a fixed line of motion. The adductors and abductors don’t just move the thighs in and out; they also have subtle effects on rotation of the femur, so when we’re “stuck” into one plane of motion, we promote dysfunction.

Factor in that the lunge also trains the hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, and core stabilizers extensively at the same time, and you’ll realize that it isn’t only safer than these machines; it’s also offers more bang for your buck. Why do five different exercises when you can get even better results with just one?

Myth #3: Yoga and Pilates “count” as resistance training.

I have to say that I was really surprised when I heard: “My trainer said that I need to resistance train, but it didn’t matter if we used free weights or machines, or took Yoga or Pilates classes.” After I finished choking on the gum I was chewing, I explained the concept of progressive overload to my client. Then I contemplated on purchasing Exercise Physiology books and have it FEDex to all 24 Hour Fitness Centers (I didn’t FEDex the books so I apologize for the trainers who provides horrible advices).

When we resistance train, it’s important that we gradually increase the load that is imposed on our system; otherwise, our body doesn’t really have any reason to adapt in a manner that will be favorable to us getting stronger, faster, or leaner. How do we make a bodyweight-only class harder? I’ve never seen anyone wear a weighted vest to yoga class, so gaining weight is your only option. After all, the most overweight people always sweat the most during yoga, right? Obviously, I’m being facetious – but I’m proud to say that it’s with good reason. When you lift with free weights, you always have the option to provide progressive overload to your system; there is no “ceiling” effect when you get proficient handling your body weight.

Myth #4: Super-slow training is valuable.

I had a phone conversation with a triathlete coach who had previously worked with one of my distance training clients, Keith (completed his first Ironman a year ago). Here are Keith’s before and after stats.

Before I took over his training program

After six months of training with me

Mediocre endurance athlete in my book.   

Impressive athlete in my book.

VO2max of 48.6 ml/kg/min

VO2max of 71.1 ml/kg/min

anaerobic threshold occurring at 55% of VO2max

anaerobic threshold occurred at 75%

It’s also important to note that during this time, Keith’s max heart rate remained constant; normally, it decreases when an endurance athlete does a lot of longer duration steady-state training.


When this coach got wind of the results, he just had to know how the heck I had gotten such staggering results.

My response was: “I got him to go faster instead of longer. That meant more speed and threshold runs. I also told him he had to stop lifting like a sissy. He got a lot stronger and more explosive on compound free-weight movements, and it clearly made a big difference.”

His response: “Free weights are dangerous! Endurance athletes aren’t conditioned to handle high-speeds and heavy lifting! The sport demands endurance running, why not focus on long steady runs?”

I had to cover the mouthpiece on the phone because I was laughing out loud for the next ten minutes. Then I explained to this coach that the last time I checked, the most successful endurance athletes I’ve known are the ones who go the fastest for a set distance – not the ones who can run the longest. Anybody can go forever; just look at the people who jog at a snail’s pace for years and years and never look or perform any differently. Keith got out of his comfort zone by moving faster, desensitizing himself to zones above his normal race pace. In layman’s terms, if you train an athlete slowly, that athlete will be slow in competition; specificity of training is more important than we think.


In scientific jargon (skip this paragraph if you fell asleep in your Science class, I just want to prove scientifically that im not making this stuff up), super-slow training doesn’t work due to a phenomenon called “asynchronous recruitment.” We all have slow twitch and fast twitch muscle fibers, and it’s to our advantage to activate as many of them as possible when we resistance train in order to truly reap the benefits that our nervous system and muscles can offer. As you may already know, slow twitch fibers are always recruited first; your body won’t also call upon the fast twitch fibers in your muscles unless it really needs help with a challenging task – like the last few reps on a set of five squats. Once we’re a bit experienced with resistance training, in order to recruit fast twitch fibers (which can actually be converted to slow twitch fibers to enhance endurance performance), we need to train with at least 70% of our maximal strength on a particular exercise in order to build strength with classic “repetition work.” The more experienced one gets, the higher this percentage goes; really experienced lifters won’t get stronger below 85-90%, in fact. With super-slow, we’re stuck with a protocol that forces us to use less weights because we have to do a lot of reps – and at a very slow tempo. This load falls short of the crucial 70% mark – and definitely far short of the 85-90% mark. And, believe it or not, we don’t even getting all our slow twitch fibers contributing! Instead, through asynchronous recruitment, certain fibers simply “turn on” and “turn off” during the set; the weight is so light that they can actually take breaks while their “helpers” pick up the slack in the meantime. Don’t forget that super-slow is traditionally performed on machines, too, and we already know that machines are about as useful to an athlete as a Derek Jeter Fan Club membership would be for a Red Sox fan.

Myth #5: Runners should avoid heavy weights and dynamic lifts.

Once we get endurance athletes lifting weights, we always have to deal with the contention that because they’re endurance athletes, they should only do higher-rep sets because they just need to train muscular endurance. Originally, that works fine, as you’re really just learning the exercises and conditioning the tissues for what is ahead. Unfortunately, as the athlete gets more experienced with resistance training, it becomes readily apparent that not all reps are created equal.

There are three ways that we can develop tension in our muscles (basically the goal of any resistance training exercise): Repetition Method, Maximal Effort Method, Dynamic Effort Method.

With all this said, it should become clear that you can’t pursue the maximal or dynamic effort methods with sets of 12-15; you have to use different rep ranges and loading parameters if you want a truly effective resistance training program.

Closing Thoughts

All this information won’t be of any use if it isn’t put into action, so now is the time to either modify how you’re lifting, or start lifting in the first place. At your fingertips, you have an opportunity to dramatically improve performance, overall health, and the way your body looks and feels. There’s no time like the present to turn that opportunity into a reality.