Thursday, 10 October 2013

Hollistic Training: Why weights won't make you beefy

Leg extensions, curls, presses, abduction, adduction and a solid 15-minute session of core work followed by some deep stretches using the foam roller and I’m swimming in endorphins. And beat.

I’m lying on the floor in the corner of the gym, legs like jelly abdominals twitching a little and - contrary to what I had suspected - I feel like I’ve worked. Hard.

Yes, I only did a quick 2km run on the treadmill to warm-up but despite my session being cardio-light I feel like I burned as much energy – if not more – than during my last 10k.

Over the last few months I’ve had blinkers around my face, ignoring the fundamental physical requirements of training for a major event. Although I threw myself into marathon training with unparalleled dedication and vigour, I know now that I had become too focused on what fitness professionals call the “specialisation” element of my training, namely running, at the expense of everything else.

Fearful of not hitting my weekly mileage targets, I sidelined sessions earmarked for strength training preferring instead to hit the track, clock up the kilometres. I admit, I’m an animal of habit, but as well all know – and as my knee and hip have come to experience firsthand - too much of a good thing is never a good thing.


Upon my physiotherapist’s advice, I’m now engaging in more strength session to combat illiotibial band injuries that have been plaguing me for some weeks. His diagnosis? My quads and gluts are too weak to support the rest of my anatomy, especially during lengthy training sessions of two hours plus.

As a result, my posture’s failing, exerting harmful pressure on my hips and knee joints and ultimately leading to an inflamed and very painful illiotibial band connecting the two.

Fortunately, I’ve caught the problem early on, and before I delve into the next phase of marathon preparation, I intend nip the niggle in the bud. We all love running but for us to be able to do it pain free for years, we must take a holistic approach to training. That’s what I intend to do.


I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I’m a passionate eavesdropper and love overhearing other people’s conversations. Too often though, I get frustrated at young girls – regular gym goers - with misconceptions about the importance of muscular strength.

All too often I hear claims that weight lifting will heighten testosterone production, turning you into a hairy ogre with a flat chest, beefy limbs and a square torso; a she-male who will never find a husband and will spend the rest of her life pining for a long-lost hour glass figure, sculpted calves and dainty ankles. Bring on the jogging sessions and yoga classes to safeguard balletic physiques and elfin features!

But whenever I hear remarks of this kind, I always want to turn round and just spend a few minutes teaching them a thing or two about muscle mass, bone density, joint health and posture - all of which can be maintained through regular, moderate-intensity weight lifting.

And what’s more, a higher muscle mass-to-fat ratio will raise your base metabolic rate, meaning that you’re body becomes more efficient at burning energy even while sitting on the couch or curled up in bed. Eat your heart out Pilates!


If that’s not enough, there’s a whole spate of even more pressing reasons why us female runners particularly, should befriend dumb bells and resistance machines.

As we get older, oestrogen - the female hormone that protects bones from breaking - decreases sharply, increasing chances of us suffering from osteoporosis.

A woman's risk of breaking a hip is equal to her combined risk of getting breast, uterine and ovarian cancer, according to the American National Osteoporosis Foundation, and once we do suffer a fracture, it could take years – even decades – for our bodies to recover sufficiently for us to hit the track again. Some of us might even have to bid running farewell for good.

Caucasian women are thought to be most at risk, due to the genetic make-up of their bones, with around 20% of over 50s affected. Between the ages of 20 and 80, Caucasian women are estimated to lose an average of one-third of the bone mineral density in their hips, according to the Foundation’s website.  

The good news, though, is that strength exercises are one simply way of increasing bone density and mineralisation sustainably.

Aim for two to three sessions a week and start with fixed resistance machines to promote correct posture. Ask an exercise professional for an induction if you’re unsure, but some rules of thumb include maintaining a straight back throughout, keeping shoulders down and pulled gently towards the spine and never locking your knees. Start with lighter weights to get used to the movement at first, and then gradually increase as you become more comfortable.

Most gyms will offer free equipment induction classes when you join, so make use of it!

Once you feel comfortable with the fixed resistance machines, consider moving on to free weights. They will encourage you to activate more stabilising muscles as you strain to retain proper posture, and will also help you hone balance and agility.


After training, make sure you’re getting all the right nutrients to support recovery. Muscle growth requires plenty of protein found in lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and pulses. Couple these foods with carbohydrates to restore depleted energy supplies.

To further battle the chances of developing fractures and bone density loss, be aware of your calcium levels too. If you’re lactose intolerant, make sure you eat plant of leafy greens, beans, salmon and opt for fortified juices and cereals.

Nutritionists also recommend avoiding soft-drinks as additives and sugars can inhibit the absorption of calcium, and if you think you’re really at risk of a deficiency, get an over-the-counter supplement.

Finally, enjoy the benefits. As a stronger person you will inevitably be a more powerful runner, able maintain a neutral posture even during the latter stages of a half or full marathon, cruising ahead of your blinkered peers.

And once you’ve crossed the line, you’ll be standing tall and proud knowing that not a single session of strength training was a running session missed, but an hour spent on your well-being, your health and your future – not a hairy ogre in sight.

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