The total body workout for runners

The total body workout for runners

Keeping it real

You have heard me talk about doing ‘a total body workout’ (and if you’re close enough you may actually hear me grunting while doing said total body workout – but that’s another story altogether).  I’m going to take this opportunity to talk about it in a bit more detail and a little about strength training for endurance athletes in general.

I have had episodes of strength training throughout my life.  I was on the wrestling team and anyone who is familiar with that particular psychosis knows all about strength training.  We used to do ladder sets of 50-40-30-20, pushups, situps, squat thrusts and all those other popular exercises just to warm up before we started practice.

I also weight trained for strength and bulk at one point in my 20’s before I was a serious runner.

When I started training for marathons and qualifying for Boston I stopped doing any, except for the bare minimum of strength exercises.  It’s that old-school headset about specificity that we all had.  The best training was more miles and more effort and everything else was a nice to have.

I did notice that in a couple marathons I’d get lower back and shoulder fatigue in the high miles.  For this I found the minimum core training I could get away with was a set of 20 pushups, crunches and leg lifts, 3 times a week, before or after my run – if I remembered and if I felt like doing it.

I knew I should be doing more core work, but I also knew that I didn’t have time to do it.  Basically, if it took more than 10 minutes away from my running I couldn’t keep it up.

This minimum core work kept me from pitching into the ditch at the 16 mile mark of a marathon but did not keep me from losing muscle mass, or from losing form when tired or from feeling fragile most of the time during a training cycle.  Heaven forbid my wife would ask me to carry something or rake the lawn within 3 weeks of a marathon!

When I got injured and started doing triathlons I found that having a solid core, from swimming was a real asset.  I also liked the way it made me feel.

This year while training with Coach Jeff at PRSfit, he had me doing his total body workout on rest days and I really like it.  I’m not going to give away Jeff’s trade secrets, but I’ll give you the overview.

This workout is meant to be aerobic – meaning your go from one exercise to the next and keep your heart rate up the whole time.  It takes me around 30 minutes to do 3 sets and a really feel like I’ve done some work.  This is important because by keeping the heart rate up it qualifies as a cross training workout.  The big knock against strength training has traditionally been that it is non-aerobic, but it doesn’t have to be.

This workout uses weights but they are light weights so that the focus is not on building bulk or brute strength but on building lean muscle.  This is important to endurance athletes because lean muscle is what we use for our running form and for all our endurance sports.

The other interesting thing is that by building and maintaining this lean muscle you create a nice calorie sink. The lean muscle burns calories, helping you lose weight if that’s your goal.

The sequence of the workout is predominately core, but cycles through each of the major muscle groups in one fast workout for a very nice balance.

Like I said – you can get the workout from Jeff and he has a video as well but this is the sequence.

Warm up.

Legs – 2 or 3 running related leg exercises up to 15 repetitions each.

Chest – 3 rapid chest exercises up to 15 reps each.

Core 1 – 3 rapid ab exercises – 15 reps each.

Shoulders and back – 3 rapid shoulder and back exercises 15 reps each.

Core 2 – 3 more different ab exercise – 15 reps each.

Arms – 4 rapid arm exercises – 15 reps each.

Core 3 – 3 more different ab exercise – 15 reps each.

That’s it – one set, take a drink and do 3 sets total.

The other key ingredient that I really like is pushups.  What I have worked up to is a set of 20 pushups after each core set.  This means I get in a total of 180 pushups in the workouts.  And, even though my skin is working with gravity to slide off my body on to the floor, I love the way those pushups make me feel tight and strong.

I’m doing this workout with 2 15-lb dumbbells and an exercise ball.  Most of the hotel gyms I’m in will have a simple dumbbell set and many will have exercise balls.  You can do the ball exercises on a bench, chair or bed if you are forced to improvise.  In a pinch you can do 75% of the exercises with nothing but the floor – it is extremely portable.

It’s very low tech.  No machines, no special stuff.  I’ll often do it in bare feet, or sandals and any old shorts I happen to be wearing.

I bought a pair of 15-lb dumbbells and an exercise ball – so I can do this anytime at home.  All I need is enough room to lie down and I can do it.  I particularly like doing it in the living room while my wife is trying to watch TV.   The problem is that once I start sweating I pick up the dog hair from the rug.  I’ll end up looking like a Yeti.

Like anything else it takes 2 or 3 weeks to get to the point where you are comfortable with the form and can pull off 3 full sets.  If you can do 2-3 sets of this, 2 or 3 times a week you’ll have plenty of core muscle to keep nice and strong in your endurance sports.

Does this help in you endurance sports?  Does it help your running?  Absolutely.  Especially as you get older.  As you age you start to lose body mass.  Running accelerates this muscle mass loss.  It’s one of those use it or lose it things.

When racing in my target marathons this year I definitely felt the positive influence of having a strong core.  It enabled me to hold a clean form late in the race and essentially run from my core when my legs got fatigued.

In my mountain bike ultras I can testify that having the core strength allowed me to perform with more technique and less suffering deep into the race.  I especially noticed the lower back and shoulder strength.

If you’re interested in the exact blueprint give a Jeff a shout out at PRSfit.  Otherwise you can just fashion your own total body workout based on the same principles.  It’s definitely something I’m going to hang onto as I ramp my training back up again.


  • Paula Kiger

    Reply Reply September 2, 2011

    I agree, Chris! I am so relieved b/c when I saw the title I was afraid this was going to be a nay-sayer position against integrating strength training into running. I should have anticipated you’d be pro-strength training! I have a looooong way to go toward achieving more speed in my running but I am convinced core work is getting my body better prepared and much less prone to injury. Like Jessi Stensland said (paraphrasing here) the core is the engine and if it’s weak how is it going to drive the legs and arms?

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