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Gyms - To Join or Not to Join?
 That is the Question...

A question I am often asked is whether or not there is any value for an endurance runner in joining a gym.

Initially - if I don’t know the background of the athlete - I have to ask how serious they take their running, as the monthly cost of joining a gym is usually about £30 - £40 with some of the more plush establishments charging much more.  This cost is usually the determining factor in deciding whether you join or not - plus of course having a gym within a reasonable distance.  For those that I personally coach gym work and circuits are all part of the training program, with several athletes doing their weight training at home with their own equipment.

If money is no object then I can unreservedly say ‘yes’, joining a gym can definitely benefit an endurance runner.  But like all things, there is a right way and a wrong way, and gym work for endurance runners has to be event specific, it’s no use building up your leg strength to run faster if your overall body weight increases.

Every runner can improve their leg strength to enhance their running and climbing ability - miles on the fells normally does a pretty good job of it - but unfortunately not everyone has the facility of the fells on their doorstep and the occasional weekend trip and races may be the only quality climb time they have.  So, if you have the cash and the availability what’s the plan?

Like all things new it pays to start easy - and have the right program, most gyms have good quality instructors who will initially set you off on the right path - when you have explained why you have joined and what your running discipline is, plus what you hope to achieve.  Alternatively if you have a coach at your club who is qualified in ‘Strength Conditioning’ then most gyms will allow them in to set up your program.

To achieve good results it’s not necessary to spend every spare minute of your time at the gym, twice a week for about an hour each time is a good starting point.  The range of equipment is now extensive with specific machines for each muscle group.  Starting with these machines is initially the best way forward; they are much safer than free weights and they allow you to progress slowly in a safe environment, until you learn just what you are capable of lifting.

In time, possibly after a year or so the transition to free weights can begin.

The advantages of using free weights has to be balanced in the early days against the higher risk of injury, so until a background of lifting has been acquired it’s wise to stay on the frame machines.

Initially, and in general terms, event specific exercises for runners is about high reps and light to intermediate weights.  Heavy weights can be used in time but the practice and techniques involved do require instruction.  Each athlete has to be assessed individually to ascertain if there are any muscle imbalances and where any weaknesses are.  Only when this assessment is complete can a weight program be devised.

It’s not sufficient just to work the leg muscles; upper body strength and good core stability are also required.  Areas that have in the past caused concern like ankles, knees and backs, may require specific attention, with exercises to correct any weakness.  Certainly for the majority of veteran athletes maintaining good body conditioning and eliminating any weak spots keeps you on the road to continued racing, right through the age groups.

Further advantages of attending a gym are numerous; the array of treadmills, cross-trainers, cycling and rowing machines can provide an excellent aerobic workout for those times when the weather prevents a good quality session.  They are also advantageous when one injury or another prevents full impact running.  Most gyms also run group sessions like circuit sessions and spin classes which in some cases are free.  A combination of weights Monday/Friday with a good aerobic circuit session on a Wednesday would be the perfect set up.

Going with a fellow runner can usually provide for a more enjoyable workout, occasionally enhanced by that old competitive element!

One of the hidden advantages of gym work is the metered psychological adaptation to stress and effort, if you are using the right weight and are working regularly on a 3 x 10/15 rep/set system to a last rep max, the lactic burn can be quite intimidating, but regular exposure to this type of exercise can prepare you mentally for tough racing situations.  In fact in my experience regular attendance at a gym also promotes a more general acceptance of an overall training program with the off shoot that maintaining an ‘at home’ top up with stretching and bodyweight exercises is not always the bind it once was.

There is also the motivational aspect of paying a gym membership, in most cases once you have signed the agreement you are in for a year even if you find out later it was a fad, so the pressure is on from a financial standpoint to get your money’s worth.

Gyms are very conducive for working hard and with beat music usually ringing in your ears a sweat can easily be attained.  The further facility of steam rooms, saunas and in some cases swimming pools can all add to a comprehensive work out and cool down.  There is usually an area of matting for stretching purposes which gives you the opportunity and space to do all those stretches that you know you should do but seldom get round to.  They even have a quality weighing machine which takes away all the guesswork!

In Conclusion:
If for what ever reason your aim is to increase your mileage and go for it this year then regular attendance at a gym will provide you with all the necessary equipment to develop a well-conditioned body hopefully free of imbalances and well-prepared to take on the rigors of a tough racing season.

Norman Matthews © 2001-2004
Head Senior Coach
Horwich RMI Harriers