Lift to Run: How Deadlifting Made Me A Faster Runner
Despite playing both soccer and lacrosse in high school, I was never that interested in lifting weights. I started to visit my high school’s weight room when one of my best friends was getting into weight lifting. “It helps me hit the golf ball further,” he shared with me. Never the biggest or strongest guy on the field, I thought I could perhaps use the strength to help maintain ball possession, particularly in soccer. We would do some upper body exercises. I ran a lot, both on the soccer field and as conditioning for soccer, so I figured my legs did not need to be worked out at the gym.
A brief stint as a walk-on for my university’s varsity soccer team during my freshman year had me logging three trips to the weight room per week as part of our training requirements. This too, however, was self-directed, and I never had any formal training. Self-directed meant some combination and variation of bench press, shoulder press, biceps curls, triceps extension and some sort of deltoid exercise. After transitioning to club soccer as a sophomore, this program (if you can call it that) continued, though less regularly. It became more of a cosmetic endeavor than a performance or training concern. And it was decidedly not goal directed, other than trying to lift a little more weight than the last remembered lift.
In graduate school, my main sport was rowing (boat club as it was called in the United Kingdom). Resistance training was mainly in the form of working out on the ergometer (rowing machine) and body weight circuit exercises.
In medical school, I reverted to the upper body cosmetic program, at least until I met my wife. Two factors then conspired to lead me to give up resistance training. (1) I had found a mate, and was less concerned with cosmesis. (2) I was training to become an orthopedic surgeon, and started to see a lot of heavy lifters with nasty looking shoulders and elbows. At this point, I was convinced that I didn’t need to do lower body resistance training (instead I continued to run), and that upper body resistance training was not healthy for the joints. I certainly did not want to put a bunch of weight on my back.
I would carry on without so much as picking up a dumbbell for the next ten years. Running would become my main activity as my recreational soccer career was curtailed by life responsibilities and a nagging injury (sports hernia). When the sports hernia kept me out of running, I was at a loss. When I finally overcame it, I was determined to come back more injury resistant than before.
The more I learned about weight training, the more I had to admit that it was beneficial, indeed quite beneficial. This benefit extended not just to almost every sport but also to longevity, metabolism, endocrine function and mental health. I was running regularly and had even set a PR in the 2019 Cherry Blossom 10 Miler (68:06). A recurrence of the sports hernia sidelined me again in the summer of 2019. Once I had overcome that, I finally decided to work with a personal trainer. Perhaps learning proper technique would remove some of my reluctance to weight train. Shortly thereafter, the spring of 2020 brought a moratorium on gyms and personal training. I went back to doing body weight exercises at home. By late 2021, though, I decided to give it another chance. I did some more sessions with the trainer to sure up my form. I set another PR in the 2021 Cherry Blossom (held in the fall) at 66:39. It wasn’t until after this that I really got serious about lifting (i.e. did it more than once a week) and truly awoke to its power.
I had started lifting with a buddy from work in his garage. He had recently purchased a subscription to an ‘Old School Iron’ program from AthleanX. “Want to do it?” he asked me. “Let’s get strong!” The program consisted of classic barbell training and called for six days per week of lifting. That was a lot for me, but winter was setting in, so I went with it. I tried to continue running regularly, but I found that my legs were leaden any time I tried. Huge effort was required to run a nine-minute mile, whereas I previously used to go out at a seven minute pace with minimal effort. After a couple months, I had to drop off of the program. Planning on a spring race (again the Cherry Blossom), I would need to be able to actually run. But the magic of the barbell training had been instilled. Far from being injurious, it felt great to put weight on my back and push it away from the ground in a squat. The full-body power recruited to deadlift was bracing and invigorating. After each session I felt as if power was surging through my body. It was awesome.
Scaling back the resistance work to a couple times a week, I was able to resume running. I had been able to secure spots in both the Cherry Blossom and Broad Street 10 milers. Though they were only a month apart, I couldn’t resist the appeal of these two classic races. In April of 2022, I ran the Cherry Blossom, setting my goal pace to just under what I needed for a PR. It’s a fast course, often with ideal weather. I knew after two miles that I would easily set a PR, it was only a question of how much better my time would be. That race has a fairly strong field, and runners are often surging in the last two miles. I picked up the pace after mile 8 and began passing other runners. I felt the strength in my glutes propel me past even runners who were finishing strong. I could feel the squats I did in the winter propelling me forward. Another PR in the books at 62:44 and I was left wondering, like David Goggins, “What am I capable of?” A month later, I was determined to find out. I set out at what for me was a fairly blistering pace of 5:45 per mile. I wasn't able to hold on to it for ten miles, but even after falling off, I set another PR at 61:15. I was fully converted to the benefits of resistance training.
Resistance training, specifically including a lower body program heavy on deadlift and squat, but including Romanian deadlift and Bulgarian split squats, has taken my running to the next level. I will never again shun the weight room as superfluous to a complete runner’s program. Sure, doing clam shell exercises with a resistance band will help you avoid injury, but powerlifting will make you faster.