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Strength Training

Please have a complete physical before attempting this. You may have limitations on how much you can read.

In the mid-80s when I was living and running in Edmonton, I noticed the physique on one of Canada's budding ultramarathoners, Stefan Fekner, and how it seemed a bit underdeveloped above the waist. When I commented on this fact, (based on my own perceived need for 'balance' in my physiology never mind lifestyle), he replied, "I never do upper body stuff, I've never needed to". Two months later he put out his back, remained so for a month, and had to quit running for almost a year. This was the worst case scenario I'm aware of but it was a striking example of feast and famine - he had legs the size of hydro poles and little muscular development up top. I knew how much I had to rely on upper body strength to get me through long distances and wondered how much Stefan would have improved had he balanced his body too. The first order of his physio was back strengthening exercises, and later his whole upper body. I saw him a few years ago and noticed a different physique on him from what I'd remembered. Finding his 'balance' probably contributed to his being amongst the top ultramarathoners in the world for the past few years.

So what do people say when they look at your upper body? Is there definition of pecs and lats, biceps and triceps? Do you have definable stomach muscles?

You'll know you're missing out on upper body balance when you:
  • Wear a singlet at races and people say, "Hey, look, a washboard rib cage".
  • Buy manly-sized underwear and need help pulling them on.
  • Sprain your finger with one click of the TV remote.
  • Can't wear that new Timex Indiglo because of your toothpick wrist.
  • Put power steering on your mountain bike.

Resistance training is certainly not new, but in the past it was the domain of sprinters, not long distance runners. Those of you who have dabbled in triathlons know the importance of upper body strength for swimming. Pure runners, it seems, are slower to grasp the strength benefits of cross-training. Yet you can see and feel marked improvements in your overall strength and performance with one or two brief workouts a week. "And it doesn't have to be done in a fitness club", says Fitness Consultant, Tim Thompson, whose Total Fitness Systems' clients include runners, amateur and semi-pro athletes and fire departments. "I regularly see clients who prefer working out at home, and with just a few workout items and the floor they can get all the upper body work they need."

I've incorporated the strengthening suggestions Tim has given me into the running clinics I conduct because they work. Too many runners only run, they don't balance upper with lower body strength. This statement is even truer for veteran runners who managed to shirk balance when younger but have had to add strength and stretching in their middle years.

The following program strengthens areas that will help you run better and faster. This is not some Arnold-like athlete writing, it's a regular runner like you who has learned the value of balanced strength. Crosstraining like swimming, cycling, skating, weights, aerobics, walking and more all offer complementary strengthening, but these simple exercises work muscles that oppose the major running muscle groups. Strengthening them creates balance, which means you run stronger.

If you have a club to work out in, ask the staff about adapting these exercises to machines. Otherwise, don't leave home without them done. All you need is a pair of dumbbells (2.5lb-10lb), ankle weights (approximately 5 lbs.) and a mat or rug. The four factors to consider are frequency, intensity, time and type of workout. You may need a physical prior to starting this kind of training so ask your doctor about it. The worst injury from this usually is dropping the dumbbell on one's foot. Do the program at least once a week, twice if you have time.

Warm-up: stair step-ups for 5 minutes or short, easy run of 20 minutes (unless you've just come back from a run). Then do slow controlled stretching of major muscle groups: calves, quads, glutei, shoulders for total of 5 minutes. Next, the workout, and this should have you exhaling with your effort and moving in a slow, controlled way.
  1. Shoulder shrugs (works trapezius): 2 sets of 12 reps each
  2. Bent over flys (works posterior deltoid): 2 sets of 12 reps each [sit on a chair bending forward, use dumbbells in an open arm, open chest movement]
  3. Lying abdominal curlups (works abs): 2 sets of 12 reps each [lie on back, knees in air, hands either behind head or on stomach, and pull your upper body forward so that upper back & shoulders lift off floor]
  4. Low back extensions (works sensitive lower back): 2 sets of 12 reps each [lie on stomach, arms at sides or stretched out to the side, and lift your upper torso off floor]
  5. Lying leg lifts (works hip flexors): 2 sets of 12 reps each [lying on back, lift one leg in air, drop it back; when one set done, do other leg; repeat]. Another version of this is to lie on your stomach and lift one leg in the air, drop it down, 12 times, do the other leg the same; repeat set] It works the hip flexors both ways. When you get good at this, add ankle weights.
  6. Standing leg curls (works hamstrings): 2 sets of 12 reps each [with ankle weights on, stand upright and lift one foot behind you until it's parallel to floor, drop it down; 12 times; change legs; repeat set]
  7. Seated toe lifts (works shins): 2 sets of 12 reps each [sit elevated so that feet dangle free; curl toes upwards, drop down, 12 times; do both feet at once or separately; repeat set.

The bottom line is, resistance training adds power to your running. So does crosstraining. And life really gets interesting when you crossDRESS during your training!

Michael is a 'balanced' runner because his shrink tells him so! You can email Tim Thompson at
Michael Brennan 

Coaches Corner  

The articles, tips and comments here are the opinions of the authors who have years of running and coaching experience. Our comments are based on sound, sensible training principles recommended by top coaches and serious runners.

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