Through the past year, my view on strength training from runners has evolved from “an unnecessary distraction” to “good but hard to justify and fit in” to “an essential starting point for being a successful runner”. And through that time, the approach I’ve wanted to take for strength training has shifted from using the typical fitness center infested with row upon row of multi-thousand-dollar weight machines to returning to the roots of using the body for resistance with minimal aides and, potentially. It may eventually move to using free weights as advocated in this thought provoking article describing the three basic strength building exercises from which all athletic success can spring forth.
This review will focus on the journey to using the body as the only resistance needed for strength training – specifically through the Steve Speirs-designed 100 Push Ups, 200 Sit Ups, and 200 Squats programs. These systems are designed to progress you from your current baseline to the ultimate goal through a six-week schedule. In essence, this takes what sounds like an impossible objective and sets you up to achieve the successful milestones needed along the path to ultimately reach the goal.
Let me first confess that I fear push ups and, to an only slightly-lesser extent, sit ups and squats. I never did well on these fitness assessments during school, so the thought of measuring myself against these standards was a bit intimidating. However, I decided to publicize my journey through dailymile posts to help create the motivation to stick to the program, and I think that was a big factor in ultimately doing so.
These programs are all designed around a 3-day-per-week system built (typically) of 5 sets per day that, including the prescribed 60, 90, or 120 second rest intervals, required maybe 10-15 minutes of dedicated time each session. I eventually figured out that the rest intervals could be used for other activities such as stretching, myrtl, lunges, or emptying the dishwasher, so the dedicated time needed is even less than 30 minutes per week until the late stages of the 200 Sit Ups and 200 Squats programs, where just the sheer volume of repetitions does take a little extra time.
I started my endeavors with 100 Push Ups back in August last year, with an initial exhaustion test yielding a result of 19 push ups. This put me into the highest “level 3″ category, with still what looked like (and turned out to be) some very achievable week 1 goals. I simply tacked the push-ups onto the end of my predawn runs three days per week – obviously on days I wasn’t already doing strength training of the “throw the weights on the machines around randomly” variety. The first three weeks progressed pretty quickly and, by the end of that time, my maximum push ups had already increased to around 42.
It is then that things grew interesting. I lost a bit of focus – frankly I found it difficult to remember to print out or look up the schedule, and the challenge of week 4 maybe gave me less motivation to do so. I was running a lot then, and it became easy enough to justify skipping the push ups due to limited time available after the run. So I gave the program up for a few weeks, then started again at week 3, then gave it up again.
And then the biggest blessing of all for focusing on these types of programs occurred – I got injured. Suddenly, I had much more free time and motivation to focus on strength and stability, and I lost the access to the weight machines as my approach in getting to the fitness center involved running there. The next-best blessing, happening around the same time, was receiving an iPad from work as a holiday gift. This allowed me to purchase the 100 Push Ups, 200 Sit Ups, and 200 Squats iPhone apps. While the websites have everything you need to execute the program, including logging applications to keep track of your results, it is far more convenient to do so on the iPhone apps, where the schedule, timers (for recovery), and log is built in.
With the renewed focus on the programs, I started the 200 Sit Ups effort and reengaged with 100 Push Ups. I blasted through week 3 of the latter again and then, hit the wall (now several times over) on week 4. Maybe I’m just not made for upper body strength, as I continue to butt my head up against trying to complete the full week. Yes, you can take longer recoveries than the minimum, but I’m a purist about this type of stuff – if I can’t do the workout on the minimum recovery, then how will I ever make 100 straight. I am still creeping asymptotically closer, just a few push ups short of moving on to week 5 – which will likely take several months as well.
200 Sit Ups has been a different matter. From an initial exhaustion test yielding 42 sit ups, I blasted right through the first five weeks and then, on the post-week-five exhaustion test, did 210 sit ups straight. Now these are curl ups or crunches if you will, not the full traditional sit ups, which are believed to put too much of a strain on your back. However, the “core burn” is still there – you can feel these when you are doing them and for a while afterward.
I would follow up the sit up workouts with more core work involving planks, side planks, leg lifts, and locust pose to balance out the over-focus on the upper abdomen that comes from the curl ups. I’m not going to claim a six-pack ab at this point – but definite progress on the path there. Even though I’ve met the goal, I’m going to keep repeating week 6 (or more) of the program as a good core workout, and may even see if I can’t use the same structure to achieve “200 Leg Lifts.”
As far as 200 Squats, my initial exhaustion test was 71 – more limited by boredom than fatigue. And, to be honest, I question how valuable squats are for this runner, at least. While squats nominally strengthen your glutes and hamstrings, it seems I felt most of the burn in my quads, which is the last muscle that needs any strengthening. In addition, the squats created a pull on my already-strained hamstring, so this program has been shelved, at least for a few months.
Does all of this make one a better runner? I fall under the philosophy that if you think something will improve your running, it probably will, as much of what is gained is mental anyway. So yes, I recommend at least the 100 Push Ups and 200 Sit Ups programs. Even if I never reach 100 straight push ups and bump along in week 4 forever, the (slightly) improved physique and strength is reward enough for having started this journey.
Updated January 2013: Over the past two years I’ve moved away from using much in the way of sit ups and squats in my strength training, favoring a broader set of strength training exercises that are more running-specific. This has helped me overcome some of the weaknesses in my core (hips/glutes/hamstrings) and calf/Achilles to remain largely injury-free for a year.