Monday, June 22, 2009

Weight Training for Runners

I'm reading a great little book called Running Fast and Injury Free by an all but forgotten English runner named Gordon Pirie. It was published after his death in 1991 by his friend John S. Gilbody. Pirie was an excellent runner in the 1950s; a 3 time Olympian and world record holder in two distances. This authoritative little book, grounded in the thoughtful (and often strongly opinionated) reflections of an elite athlete and running coach provides an extremely interesting and valuable look back on the history and development of running technique and the training of runners.

It is kind of shocking at how "new"much of the book seems, actually, because Pirie's ideas about correct running were formed some 50 years ago. And the writing of the book itself was over 20 years ago. Recent running "fads," (or maybe better"movements") like Pose and Chi (and the new minimalist shoes like the Nike Free and the Vibram Five Finger) viewed through the lens of Pirie's writing show up less as innovations and more as hairshirt, reactionary throwbacks to how running was done in the days before the high tech running shoe industry was born. If runners weren't by a large such a reticent could say Pose is to Runner's World as the Sex Pistols were to Neil Diamond: it's back to basics. Clearly though (and I've been thinking this for awhile now) anyone that thinks the current barefoot running trend or the "natural running" techniques offered by Pose and Chi are new will be disabused of that after reading Pirie's thoughts on proper running technique and appropriate running shoes. (When I started running in the late 70's at the advent of the high tech running shoe industry, their were voices urging "less is more" in foot wear: Osler, Fixx, and others...voices also largely forgotten now) Fans of the new book Born to Run by Christopher McDougall should note before going native and strapping radial tire scraps onto the feet: the Turahumara of Mexico have very little if anything on Mr. Pirie in the technical purity department. Indeed in his prime (and from what I gather even in later life) Mr. Pirie would have run the "inventors" of Pose and Chi (and no doubt Mr. McDougall) off their nearly bare feet...and given (at least some of) the Turuhumara a run for their money also...with nary a heel strike.

Pirie's chapter on weight training, to get to the actual topic of this blog, seems equally to be the product of a time warp. Mr. Pirie was either ahead of his time here too or iron heads are just as forgetful about their training roots as runners are about theirs. (Or maybe Nautilus and Arthur Jones are to blame for this amnesia...just as Phil Knight and Nike marketing hypnotized runners into buying the latest improved but planned obsolescence footwear) This isn't some watered down light weight program either: Pirie has high standards of relative strength for runners. Well actually, forget running for a second, there are many contemporary gym rats who wouldn't be able to keep up with Pirie standards in the weight room either. "I have a chuckle everytime I go into a health club. There are runners and triathletes playing silly games with puny weights instead of getting 'stuck in' and doing something that would be really beneficial for them. We go into the gym and smash away for 45 minutes to an hour, breathing like rhinoceroses, and then get out," Pirie writes.

Example from the book of Pirie's workout and recommended loads:

Barbell High Pulls (warmup) 1/3 bodyweight 10 reps
Barbell Rows: 2/3 bodyweight 3 sets of 6-10 reps
1 Arm Dumbbell Presses - 1/3 to 1/2 bodyweight for 3 sets of 6-10 reps each arm
Dumbell curls- 1/3 -1/2 bodyweight for 3 sets of 6-10 reps each arm
Deadlift - bodyweight plus for 3 sets of 6-10 reps
One hand swings - 1/3 to 1/2 bodyweight 3 sets of 6-10 reps each arm
Barbell Cleans - 3 sets of 6-10 reps (no weight suggested, R.H.)

The weights were followed by chinups, push ups, leg lifts and situps.

Runners don't want or need extra size and Pirie was clear about what makes one bulky and what doesn't.

"Weight training does not go hand-in-hand with muscle bulge, unless you eithermunch a lot of steroids, or do a lot of slow, easy pumping. When we do maniac, highspeed, all-out maximum weights, we get very fast and strong without putting on any bulkat all (you will not begin to bulge all over the place, girls). Most truly super-fit peopledon't look the part; fitness is a hidden quality. But when they “operate”, however, theirperformances reveal those “hidden” talents. The opposite of this case is The IncredibleHulk, who can't even jog across a room to visit his girlfriend without needing a rest when he arrives."

Writing about his personal performance improvements , "Before I began weight training I was a long distance and cross country runner who could grind it out with anyone, but a constant loser in a sprint. A diet of hard weights, however, turned me into a complete competitor, one who could pour on the pace and still sprint madly at the finish."

If you are interested in running (or training runners) and want to check it out, this book is available as a free PDF download from Scribd. (Registration required, but it is free too)

What's old is new again.


  1. Randy,
    Why do you have such a "bone to pick" with Born to Run and barefoot running etc...
    To make a comment that they have..."very little if anything on Mr. Pirie in the technical purity department."
    Their entire culture has been running for centuries and would have to rank pretty high on the "purity" scale.
    Is this a matter of having your opinion and not being open to other information?
    Being the Contrarian has it's useful moments but only moments - contributing positive things has a place as well.


  2. Plimstoll anyone...
    He recommends the forefoot/midfoot strike and dislikes the big heel running shoes and blames them for injuries etc... - how is that different from Born to Run (assuming you have read it)

  3. Brett...regarding both your comments...

    I think you are misreading me entirely. I don't have a bone to pick with Born to Run or barefoot running...I have a bone to pick with the marketing that both are contributing anything really new or innovative .

    My point is that both Pirie and McDougall are saying roughly the same thing about technique and technology. McDougall seems to think it is something we have to go tribal/primal to find: that this old running culture has the real goods on running technique and we never have. When in fact, contemporary history (via Pirie) shows that this style of of running was considered proper running technique in the "civilized" world for some time. (I'm making an assumption that Mr Pirie's coaches in Great Britain weren't Tarahumara )

    It's just fascinating to me that 50 years this is how we were coached to run. Then Nike happened. And then we forgot.

    Frankly, I'm blown away by the similarities. I'm not being a contrarian at all about the benefits of learning to run properly. McDougall's book may be new, but it's not new anthropology on the Tarahumara and the running information is demonstrably not new. It's being marketed as new, useful information because new sells.

    My one concern is that adults will read this book and think they can go Tarahumara and immediatly go for a run in home made huaraches and not hurt themselves. McDougall is right that no running shoe has been designed that prevents injuries. I include the minimalist, barefoot shoes in that category. It's not running (and not always the shoe) that causes injuries, it's how you run that causes injuries.

  4. If you are reflecting on your experiences and able to say - hey BTW I was coached like this and agree with many of the points in Book A and look here is a book from 50 years ago that says the same thing - it has a very different message.
    You are not coming across as you are intending.

    As someone who is only 37 and not a running researcher - the stats on injuries and running shoes is new information to me and useful information as I try to work with runners and other clients.
    You could be sharing information and become a reference source instead of some guy sitting back and saying "oh you kids are so slow and behind the times- we were saying this 35 years ago etc...".

    If people clean up their movement patterns and use a progression like the ballet heel raise exercises and progress from walking in "barefoot" shoes etc... and then on to jogging in minimal shoes or barefoot then we would have much greater success but to simply say No don't do that because it is too much for you etc... will not move people in the right direction.