Deadlifting for Faster Running

The book, Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss, brings me new insight all the time. After implementing the details on pre-running prep, I started into the chapter on increasing strength for better running. This led me to Underground Secrets to Faster Running by Barry Ross which further describes what to do.
It is a melding of strength training techniques pioneered by the Russians and it’s effect on running performance. It basically uses the deadlift as the primary method for increasing strength, but you don’t train to failure like I was taught way back when I was really into weightlifting.
So many misconceptions about how to weightlift and why we are doing it. I used to lift weights religiously on the hopes that I would increase muscle and size. I would train to failure and be into that “no pain, no gain” mentality. It would work for a while, but I would often plateau or I would injure myself. Reading the concepts in 4 Hour Body and then Underground Secrets to Faster Running, I finally understood how weightlifting can benefit running.
The idea is to gain strength without increasing your size. Bodybuilders want to look good on stage and on the beach, so they want to increase size and lose fat to increase definition. But that doesn’t necessarily make them strong. And often you gain weight while your muscle size increases. Training to failure can make you bigger, but it doesn’t necessarily make you stronger. It does increase your chance for injury as your support structures also fatigue during the last few reps.
But us runners want to remain light so that we’re not dragging around extra pounds during a race. That’s a waste! However, we can get strong without extra weight. With more strength, we can endure the energy sapping conditions of a race better. We can also increase our cycle rate as our legs/feet can rebound off the ground with more energy and do it longer without fatiguing.
I dug into this further in Power to the People by Pavel Tsatsouline. Really interesting concepts into how the Russians have trained for strength for the Olympics. But the focus of this training is more for maximal strength for powerlifting. I needed maximal strength that also didn’t leave me fatigued or wiped out for run training afterwards. This was also a problem with training to failure; it would leave me sore and tight on the next day that I could not run effectively.
The plan described in 4 Hour Body and Underground Secrets involved a combination of pressing motions and plyometrics. In this case, the two main movements would be the bench press and deadlift, with plyometrics. The plan called for 2 reps at 95% 1RM (1 Rep Maximum) and then 5 reps at 85% 1RM. This was both for bench press and deadlift. Then after each set, I would immediately do a set of plyometrics and hit my stopwatch to do nothing for 5 minutes of rest. The 5 minutes of rest was crucial for me to return to a nearly fully recovered state. This would enable me to gain strength by activating the right aspects of my muscles but not stimulate growth in size and weight. Also, given that I was almost fully recovered, my support structures would not be fatigued and thus I would be less prone to injury.
The typical workout would eventually look like this:
Warmup w/ dynamic stretching, not static
Bench Press
1 set 2x 95% 1RM weight
push up plyometrics (or 10 pushups)
rest 5 minutes
1 set 5x 85% 1RM weight
push up plyometrics (or 10 pushups)
rest 5 minutes
1 set 2x 95% 1RM weight
jumping plyometrics
rest 5 minutes
1 set 5x 85% 1RM weight
jumping plyometrics
rest 5 minutes
Other Exercises
Core Exercises
Cool down with static stretching
Note the addition of Other Exercises and Core Exercises to round out the workout.
Other Exercises I do are some combination of:
Reverse Hyperextension using exercise ball and bench
Glute Ham Raise, assisted
Supine Hip Raises
Single Leg, Stiff Legged Dumbbell Deadlift, with 1 or 2 dumbbells
For Core Exercises, I keep it simple and use what is suggested in 4 Hour Body which is the Torture Twist. You lay on a sideways bench and hook your feet under a bar or similar. Then lay back and turn to one side to hold for 3 seconds, then turn to the other side and hold for 3 seconds, then repeat for 3 times and then sit up for rest of 30 seconds. Do up to 3 Torture Twists, and then start increasing the hold time from 3 seconds to longer.
As I mentioned, I was into weightlifting back many years ago. However, I knew that I could not jump back into weightlifting without starting out slow. I had to start out slowly and see what my current limits were and build from there. Way back, I knew what my 1RM for bench press was and that was 215 lbs at a body weight of 150. Still, I was out of shape to attempt even close to that now. As for deadlift, I had no idea what my 1RM was at all.
The other complicating factor was that I had never deadlifted at all in the past. I had tried it a few times, but never worked on it. I had no idea how my core and back muscles would take heavy deadlifting.
For the upper body movement, I would just start with pushups for a few workout days and then add in plyometrics for chest, and then go to bench press with plyometrics. For deadlift, Underground Secrets gave a workout sequence for determining my 1RM and I thought I would give it a try. I picked the sumo style of deadlifting versus traditional as it would put my hips closer to the bar and hopefully not stress my back as much as the traditional form.
The workout sequence they gave was to start with some % of your body weight and deadlift for 3 times. Do the plyometrics, rest for 5 minutes after. Then increase weight and deadlift for 2 times and repeat plyometrics and rest. Then increase weight and deadlift for 1 times, repeating plyometrics and rest. The next workout day, you would start with more weight and repeat. Repeat this sequence over a period of many days until you fail on a lift attempt. This would be your 1RM.
I got up to about 155 lbs when I felt like my shoulders were starting to drag forward due to the weight. I had a feeling this would be a problem but I decided to keep going just to see what would happen. I got up to 195 lbs for 2 reps and totally failed at 215 lbs. But after the workout, my lower back was pretty sore since by then shoulders were totally dragging down and my back was beginning to round due to the load of the weight. This was bad!
One problem with all these programs is that they never talk about how to start out. They pre-suppose you having some level of fitness or ability beforehand. They just jump you into the workouts and don’t talk much about preparation, which could take months beforehand.
At least 4 Hour Body had a small chapter on pre-run preparation. I do those exercises religiously even though I’m not really starting out as I find they have benefits. The big problem with the strength training is that lifting heavy weights is kind of dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. This is why I started getting afraid when my shoulders started dragging downward and my back started to curl under the heavy weights, and I was right: a sore lower back was not a good thing.
Querying my sports medicine guy, he showed me proper deadlift form. Here is a great video on proper deadlifting form:

He also told me that a lot of it has to do with a super strong upper body and being able to lock it in position even under super heavy load. My upper body was totally unprepared for even a relatively wimpy 200 lbs or so which is not even 1.5x my body weight. I have to be able to pull my shoulders back and down and hold it there while I lift upwards. So proper form, and the strength to hold form, are crucial. I started rowing now to increase my upper back/lat strength for heavier lifting.
For a while I will still deadlift lower weights in/around my weight until I feel that my upper body is starting to get the knack of holding proper form. Then I will increase gradually.
The other thing I changed was the negative/downward motion of the lift. In both 4 Hour Body and Underground Secrets, they prescribe dropping the weight at the top of the lift. Well, the problem with this is that most gyms, especially consumer gyms, hate it when you drop heavy weights. The floors and weights aren’t rubberized enough and the other people are too wimpy to like the loud thumping noise of the weights dropping onto the floor. Only true muscle gyms like Gold’s or World Gym let you drop the weight like that.
I tried racking the weight on low hooks on a squat cage after lifting to max height which works after a fashion because you lift up and then you shuffle forward slightly to rack the weight. But I was unsure that if I could rack the weight if I was nearing my max weight lifted. I then tried adding the negative/lowering portion of the lift. This definitely put added stress on my legs (because I was more sore afterwards) but at least I could get through my sets faster.
So far, so good. My running times on the track are getting faster and it’s unclear whether or not a month of deadlifting was the cause of this speed increase, but I intend to experiment for the better part of this year as I await the lottery drawing to the NYC Marathon later this year.