Throw away your preconceived notions of strength. We are not talking about heavy lifting, drifting between exercises at the gym, or fighting for space in Monday morning’s sculpt or cross-fit class. These all serve a purpose for a variety of personal reasons, but I challenge you to think differently about what a strong body should be for you as a runner. Remember, the Tarahumara Indians are not only great runners, but they’re also great athletes.
For me, strength is the ability to use stored-up energy in our muscles, to create power, to propel and stabilize movement as efficiently as possible. It is the ability to use energy to accomplish a task through time. As runners, we want to cover a distance, often a long one, with enduring speed. We don’t want to fatigue, and we don’t want to break down and lose form. All that requires strength.
Integral to this idea of strength is equilibrium. We want the whole body to act and perform as a single unit, developing efficiency by using the body “well” and training it to be balanced.
Developing muscle equilibrium eliminates what I call big-muscle dominance (think of your quads or chest) by fostering those small, supporting muscles (think of the muscles in your ankles, hips, and spine) that often go underutilized. Equilibrium promotes movement, stability, endurance, and power.
In my experience as a coach, I have too often seen runners, those who work on strength at all, focus on building these bigger, prime mover muscles. This only accentuates their dominance, pushes others to grow weak or dormant, and furthers an imbalance in the body that might have already been developed over time from poor form and other issues. Disequilibrium causes tightness and leads to those all too familiar running troubles: tight hip flexors, hamstrings, IT band pain, Achilles trouble, low-back pain, poor breathing, runner’s knees, stiff upper body, rounded shoulders, and poor biomechanics.
Speaking of tightness, let me say again: Chronically tight muscles come from muscle dominance and unequal muscle activation. If you have equilibrium, you should not be chronically tight. Therefore (and this may surprise you, because it goes against popular wisdom), we should not need to stretch excessively. Excessive tightness is telling you something, and stretching may help it feel better, but will not take care of the problem.
Remember, there’s a certain part of tightness in muscles that is required to be fast and powerful, to have strength. The classic analogy is a rubber band. If you stretch a rubber band too far, it loses its elasticity and becomes useless. We want the rubber band taut and snappy. It’s the same with how we want our muscles. They store energy and act as springs to release energy. That’s power and speed. That’s healthy.
Once and for all, we need to stop thinking of strength in terms of how much we can lift, how hard we can work, how quickly we can get through this circuit, or working so hard we lose form. Instead, we need to focus on equilibrium by activating dormant muscles, and creating neuromuscular pathways to help fire more muscles. Stop thinking that a strong core is an end in and of itself. Instead, think about how we activate our core during movement and running. The same can be said of our feet, calves, hamstrings, quads, and arms.
Athleticism is many things that come together at once. It’s about moving well and efficiently. It is about controlling this movement through an awareness of what your body is doing in space and action, and how its individual parts are working together. Through strength training, we create stability and equilibrium among these individual parts, allowing them to work seamlessly, powerfully, with one another, to achieve your goals as an athlete and as a healthy runner.
Now, you want to see athleticism, true strength. Take a look at a climbers. Watch how they use leverage, balancing from one side of their body to the other, always aware of where they are, where they’re going. They’re precise in their movements, yet still at ease, actively realizing that perfect balance of power and relaxation. Pound for pound, inch for inch, climbers can boast of being the strongest, most efficient, and most balanced athletes on the planet. They are pure, lean power incarnate, able to harness anaerobic capabilities with aerobic endurance. That’s what we want to build for you from the ground up, and I mean that literally.
- The Cool Impossible: Chapter 3 - True Strength