Can you be a fast runner and also be strong?

The changing physique of Ryan Hall is instructive.

The changing physique of Ryan Hall is instructive.

I saw an article in Outside Magazine recently that attracted a bit of ire from readers. In it, the writer checks out the case of American endurance athlete Ryan Hall, and how being so good at long-distance running made him, physically speaking, weak.

Hall has retired from a prolific and successful career as an elite runner, and has since taken up weight training to go alongside a less intense regimen of running. Since his retirement, he’s packed on some muscle and become noticeably stronger. The conclusion: Elite distance runners are fast on the course, but that speed comes at a cost. Namely, strength.

This is where a bunch of online readers collectively lost their minds. They attacked the article, the writer and the publication. You can read it here.

But what they failed to objectively conclude was that the premise is the article was right.

If you’ve read this blog much, you might be surprised to hear me say that. I’m a committed runner, regularly racing in 15k, half marathon and 25k events. Mostly, I run for fun. How can I dare to say that runners are weak?

Let’s step back a moment. There are some things we have to square away before I can defend the article in question, and my agreement with it.

We need to define “strength.” From the outset, let me say that it takes a mentally strong person to run big distances, and to run those distances fast. Running long distance at higher speeds is grueling. Pain is constant. The body is telling you to stop. You can’t be a sub-1:30 half marathoner or a 3-hour marathoner and not be mentally and emotionally tough, not to mention well-conditioned.

But it’s important to distinguish between being “well-conditioned,” “mentally strong,” and “emotionally strong” and what qualifies as “strength.”

Strength is quantifiable. You can objectively measure it. The easiest way to do that can be found in how much mass you can move. Can you pick that thing up off the floor? How much weight can you lift above your head? These types of questions can be answered — and usually are — in different weight lifting moves. Someone who can deadlift 500 pounds is stronger than someone who can’t. It’s that simple.

At the elite level of long-distance running (or even at distances like the 5k), efficiency is key. The heart and lungs are going to be taxed at the highest levels, so any mass (muscle or otherwise) that is not essential to the goal is either going to slow you down or be pared off your frame. There are muscley people who can do a 5K 21 minutes, but you won’t see anyone who looks jacked running 15-minute 5ks or 80-minute half marathons. The extra muscle competes too much with the rest of the body when the pace approaches that of runners like Hall, or Meb Keflezighi, or even college scholarship athletes involved in endurance sports.

On the other end, it’s extremely unlikely you’re going to see high-level distance runners who can squat or deadlift twice their body weight. The training that goes into running really fast, or really far, or both forces the body to adapt, and when it comes to running, the sacrifice comes at the cost of muscle, and ultimately, strength.

This is even true of fast-but-not-elite runners. The 1:30 half-marathoners, or the 3:30 marathoners, for example. Or most people who run ultras on a regular basis, regardless of pace. Similarly, you won’t find any power lifters running 24-minute 5ks or any bodybuilders breaking four hours in a marathon. They might be strong, but they won’t be fast or be able to go very far.

(I might add for beginning runners and exercisers, you can gain strength and speed for awhile, but those goals will eventually collide.)

I’d look at my own history here. When I run less, I gain strength. When the miles pile up, I lean up. But I also lose strength. Right now, I weigh about 190 pounds. During marathon training, I dipped to 172. I can deadlift probably 80 more pounds now than I could then. But I doubt very seriously I could come within an hour of the time I hit for those 26.2 miles, and my current 5k is a couple of minutes off my PR. (As a matter of disclosure, I have tried to be both, but the results have been predictable: At my best, I’m moderately strong and not very fast.)

What I’d conclude is this: When you see articles like the one mentioned above, don’t freak out. Don’t get offended by a headline that tells you endurance running will make you “weak.” Understand that strength is objectively quantifiable, and being really fast while also being really strong are competing goals that, for most people, won’t happen simultaneously. Go ahead and train hard for the goal you want, and embrace your own “strength.”

Bob Doucette

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