Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, every runner and yogi can benefit from strength training. By building strong muscles and joints, we can move better in our other hobbies. Here’s how.
Lifting weights isn’t just good for building muscle; it can also make you into a better runner. Running relies on having strong, balanced muscles, great endurance and good balance — all of which can be improved from strength training. In fact, experts tend to recommend that runners strength train at least twice a week if you want to avoid injury, run faster and move better. What you lift, however, also matters.
A new study has found that lifting heavier weights makes your muscles and joints much stronger and that can make you a faster runner who’s less injury-prone. Published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers looked at 28 studies which assessed what role weight lifting had on muscle growth. They found that it was only really when people lifted medium or heavy weights that they experienced a significant improvement in strength — and that relative newbies to strength training are the people who benefit the most from this muscle growth.
To reap those benefits, you want to lift heavier weights for between eight and 12 reps, three times round. Think deadlifts, squats and lunges — all of which work the key running muscles and movement patterns.
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But it’s not just runners who can benefit from strength training; get used to press-ups and renegade rows, and you’ll quickly find that Chaturanga becomes child’s play if yoga’s your thing. Though they might require slightly different skills overall, running and yoga both rely on a certain amount of muscular strength, and the stronger you are, the easier you’ll find certain core aspects of both. The reverse is also true: strength training practice can benefit from cross-training. If you do a lot of yoga and mobility, you’ll feel less stiff and after a heavy session, while running quickly improves your cardiovascular capacity – making it easier for the body to deal with longer sets.
Think of strength training as the béchamel sauce in a fitness lasagna. Your pasta sheets are your runs – the core activity of your week. The tomato sauce might be your mobility sessions and the creamy white sauce – arguably the stuff that brings the whole dish together – is your twice-weekly strength and conditioning that adds that extra fire to your engine. For yoga buffs, weekly strength circuits could be the missing piece in your pratice and the one that makes handstands, one-legged poses and flows that much more accessible.
Here’s how strength training benefits your other fitness hobbies:
Strength training prevents injuries
Perhaps one of the most important reasons for lifting weights if you’re into running, yoga, netball or any other sport, is injury prevention. For runners of any distance, it’s important that you’re able to utilise your glutes and core muscles efficiently so as to avoid smaller muscles, joints and ligaments further down the chain from taking all the flack.
Kate Carter is officially the fastest panda in the world (running a marathon in 3:48:32). Her non-panda 5k personal best? A mere 18 minutes and 16 seconds… which is about the time it takes most of us to get to the start line from the bag drop. She tells Stylist that “building in strength and conditioning (S&C) should reduce your risk of injury because you can really work on weaker areas and help build up strength.” She goes on to explain that when we get tired during a run, our form tends to degrade – we slump forward or to one side, our backs round, or we look at the ground. Having strong glutes and core muscles, however, can keep us upright for longer while protecting the calves and hamstrings from unnecessary pressure.
Yogis can also suffer injury – usually from overusing muscles or not having the comfortable range of motion needed for repetitive flows. Wrist injuries are quite common in yoga, and during the pandemic, Emily Harding, founder of the Yeh Yoga Co, picked up wrist tenderness and injury from overdoing her asana practice while demonstrating full classes multiple times a day. “Yoga asana is incredible but you can overdo it… you can absolutely have too much of a good thing,” she stresses, recommending that yogis mix up their practice with weight training and pulling motions that are more commonly found at the gym than on the mat.
Strength training improves balance
Being able to balance is one of the most important factors in staying mobile and healthy as we age. In fact, some experts believe that how well you can balance on one leg is indicative of how long you’ll live – and that’s not just because accidental falls can be fatal or irreversibly damaging to older people.
A large study carried out by the Medical Research Council recruited 2,760 men and women who began the study aged 53. Researchers studied three things: their grip strength, how quickly they could stand up from sitting and how long they could stand on one leg with their eyes closed. 13 years later, the researchers revisited their volunteers. 117 had died – 88 from cancer, 47 from heart disease and 42 from other causes. They also found that the leg balance test had been the strongest indicator of mortality; those who could only manage to balance for one or two seconds were three times more likely to die over the next 13 years than those who could stand for over 10 seconds.
A smaller study, this time published in the Journal of Physical Therapy Science, looked at whether strength training can improve balance in older adults (aged 65-82). 50 people were split into two groups: a training group and a control group, with the former made to do various lower body exercises for a 12-week period. Scientists found that after training, both lower limb strength and balance had “significantly improved” compared to the baseline.
Balance is important for our long-term health – when we train, we’re not just training for today but for our future wellbeing. It might feel easy to balance on one leg now but the point of strength training is to build foundations on which we can rely for years to come. More short-term, good balance is needed if you want to run, practice yoga, dance, box, and all kinds of other activities.
To improve your balance, try having a go at certain single-leg and core-carving moves such as single-leg RDLs, deadbugs and single-leg glute bridges (below).
Strength training can help us to run faster
If you find yourself at a running plateau, strength training could be the key to running faster. A 2009 study by Sato and Mokha divided 28 recreational runners with 5k PBs of just under 30 minutes into two groups. For six weeks, both groups continued their regular training but one was given an additional strength and conditioning workout while the other just continued running.
The strength and conditioning group was asked to perform a circuit of five exercises, four times a week in two to three sets of 10-15 reps each. Exercises using an exercise ball included crunches, back extensions, Russian twists and hip bridges, and the strength group was also asked to do alternating supermans (lying on the belly, while raising the opposite arm and leg). Researchers found that while the group who did these stability exercises didn’t see any improvement to their running form, they were able to shave an average of 47 seconds off their running time, compared to 17 seconds in the non-S&C group.
It’s not the only study to confirm that strength training can make us speedier runners; the fact is that running faster actually tends to make us run better. As you gain speed, you naturally run taller, more economically and with better foot control. A 2014 study on the topic published in the European Journal of Sports Science found that the reason strength training makes you faster is that it lowers the amount of energy required to hit a certain pace. Your body becomes more able to recruit fatigue-resistance muscle fibres, meaning that you’ll eventually exert less energy by moving faster.
Strength training increases overall power
It’ll come as no surprise to learn that strength training helps us become more powerful. In a sporting context, power = strength x distance / time. Take a triathlete, for example. To nail that triathlon sprint distance, they’ve got to have incredible strength to run, cycle and swim those distances in a certain amount of time, and the more powerful they are, the faster they’ll be able to complete that race. By increasing your muscular capacity, you’ll increase your strength and power – meaning that you’ll be able to lift heavier, faster and for longer, as well as go harder on your bike, swim more efficiently and run quicker.
Lifting heavy teaches the body to recruit more motor units (or individual motor neurons and the muscle fibres that they stimulate). The more motor units you’re able to recruit when doing any kind of activity, the higher the force you can exert. For boxers, that might mean being able to punch and jab with renewed strength over the course of a round while yogis may develop better control over how they move their body – whether that’s holding a wild thing (Camatkarasana), moving into a downward dog or going through a series of sun salutations.
Before you head out for your morning jog, have a go at some basic hamstring mobility. Good mornings are a great exercise for getting the backs of the legs warmed up and can be done before a run, during a mid-morning desk break or during your S&C session. Feeling brave? Have a go at a single leg version, for the ultimate test of balance and strength.
Check out the SWTC How-To video library for hundreds of exercises that’ll get you stronger for whatever activity you want to do.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.