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Should female runners lift heavy weights?

We know strength training is important for all runners, but do women need to lift heavy?

weightlifting

Strength training is important for all runners. It can decrease your risk of injuries, correct muscle imbalances leading to improvements in running form, and make you a more efficient, faster runner. But when lifting weights, how heavy do you need to go? Many runners, particularly female runners, opt for lighter weights and higher reps, but is this the best strategy? Ottawa-based physiotherapist Richelle Weeks believes lifting heavy weights is essential for female runners, and gave us advice on how all runners can ramp up their strength training. 

Why lift heavy?

Weeks says that, while starting with lighter weights and higher reps may initially be less intimidating, it’s crucial to eventually focus on lowering repetitions and increasing weight, to effectively build muscle and strength. She argues lifting heavy weights is essential for women, especially as they get older, since we all lose both muscle mass and bone density as we get older. 

woman lifting kettlebell

But what does “lifting heavy” really mean? It varies from runner to runner and will change over time as you become stronger through regular strength training. Some like to use the concept of “relative strength” to guide their lifting-heavy efforts. Relative strength refers to the amount of weight an individual can lift in proportion to their body weight. Generally, 75-85 per cent of one’s maximum weight capacity constitutes lifting heavy in this context, but it’s important to remember that it takes time to build up to that level. If you weigh 150 pounds, for example, it’s unwise (and potentially dangerous) to immediately jump into squatting with 115 pounds on your back.

 

But… won’t I get too bulky?

“The most common misconception I see is women fearing they will get big and bulky if they lift too heavy,” says Weeks. “It’s a conversation I have regularly with my patients.”

This fear is compounded for female runners, who may be concerned that getting “big and bulky” will decrease their running performance. In reality, it is very difficult for women to develop large, bulky muscles, thanks to their lower levels of testosterone. Achieving a bulky appearance also requires a specific combination of training, nutrition and genetic factors. Heavy lifting alone is not enough to create bulky muscles. 

It is true that female runners may put on a couple of pounds of muscle after following a regular strength training routine, but that increase in muscle mass will only help your running, not hinder it.

person strength training
Photo: Unsplash/john-arano

How to build up to lifting heavy

To transition to lifting heavier weights, Weeks suggests starting with three sets of 10 repetitions and gradually building weight until hitting two RIR (reps in reserve). “This means when they finish their 10th rep, they could do two more if they needed to, but that’s it,” she says. “If they can continue on and do 13+ reps, they need to go heavier.” 

Once you reach the “two RIR” threshold with 10 reps, Weeks suggests dropping down to three sets of eight reps using the same concept. Once you’ve hit two RIR there, you can drop down to five sets of five reps. “Doing just 5 repetitions allows the experienced lifter to go quite heavy,” she says. “Especially if they take a minimum of two minutes between sets, which is what I recommend.” 

weightlifting

Can I use a Smith machine?

Some runners may be familiar with the Smith machine, which consists of a fixed barbell attached to vertical guide rails, allowing for controlled and guided movements. Weeks recommends using equipment that allows for challenging weights, such as dumbbells, kettlebells, squat racks with plates, or Smith machines. Of course, the type of equipment you use comes down to preference and availability.

“One benefit of the Smith machine is the fact that the bar is fixed between the rails,” says Weeks. “This can allow a runner to go quite heavy without having to use stabilizers or worry about positioning.”

If your gym offers personal training, you’d be well advised to sign up for a session or two to familiarize yourself with how to use the machines and how to figure out how much weight to lift.

strength training with weights for running

The bottom line

All runners should be lifting heavy weights to decrease their risk of injury and improve their form and efficiency. Female runners in particular should not shy away from lifting heavy weights, and in fact, lifting heavy comes with a list of health and performance benefits. The important thing to remember is to start slowly and build your weight up gradually, to avoid hurting yourself.

Richelle Weeks has been practicing as a physiotherapist for 14 years and currently works at Ottawa’s Holistic Wellness Health. She primarily treats runners with a focus on exercise prescription and strength training. She’s also a marathon runner and is currently training for her first Boston Marathon.

 

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