Lifting heavy things. Running really, really far. Both tasks performed by humans for thousands upon thousands of years.
We see strength in many forms but most noticeably in the sports of powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and strongman contests. From lifting 300lb rocks over ones head in ancient Greece to 1,400lb log carries in modern day Iceland. Performing feats of extraordinary cardio is no exception. The modern day distance race, the Marathon, stems from a war more than 2500 years ago. A Greek soldier, Pheidippides, ran a message from a battlefield to the city of Marathon (a 26 mile distance) to announce Greece’s victory. Shortly upon arriving, he collapsed and died. But, I digress. Today, there are foot races as long as 150 miles!
Both tasks, while different, point to the incredible capacity we have with our bodies. You may not lift weights or run but you must respect what your body’s bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and organs can do when put to the task and trained properly. Most would say both of these feats are impressive in their own right, and they are correct. But, which one holds greater value? Do we find distance runners to be superior to strongmen or vice versa? The answer can be subjective but I argue we can make it objective by looking at what our bodies were designed to do.
I’ve dabbled in both strength training and distance running and have been obsessed with both for a long period of time. Most of that time was dedicated to getting stronger. I was a football player so running long distances never really mattered. Besides, I hated running. I was never fast. Years went by and it wasn’t until I read Born to Run that my outlook on running changed…for the better.
Born to Run discussed the pose method of running and how, done correctly, could reduce injuries and enhance running ability. As I turned the pages I became infatuated with running. The more I read the more I wanted to get off the couch and run! So, I dedicated the next 6 months to mastering the pose method of running. Day by day, week by week I slowly became better and before I knew it I was running my first marathon….in Vibrams®! (aka finger shoes). My primary goals were 1) run the majority of the race with the pose method and 2) not be sore the following day.
To be completely honest I didn’t harden my feet enough to run in finger shoes but I did run more than 20 of the 26 miles (feet hurt too much lol). I performed my cool down drills and stretches that same day. The following day I performed body weight squats, lunges, etc. Two days after the race I was heavy squatting again! I was amazed at the abuse my body could endure and still work shortly after the race. I was humbled by the experience and had a newfound respect for distance runners.
As for strength training, I was always an avid lifter. Playing high school and college football, lifting was part of the curriculum; Squatting, deadlifting, and bench pressing as much weight as possible. Olympic lifts became a priority going into college because you couldn’t simply be strong; you had to be powerful! Once my years of playing were over I continued lifting. Like most gym rats I read every Men’s Fitness and FLEX magazine I could get my hands on. Through trial and error I was able to reach a 305lb front squat, 450lb back squat, 465lb deadlift, 375lb bench press, 250lb clean, and a 265lb push jerk. All of these lifts were reached without proper training! While these numbers aren’t Earth shaking they were impressive for me (I don’t put muscle on easily). It took years of training to reach these numbers. Then, it hit me; TIME could be the answer.
It took me 6 months to prep for a marathon. It took me 6 years of lifting (after high school) to reach my maxes in the weight room. Should the amount of time it takes to reach a certain goal tell us which activity deserves to be higher on the pedestal? If, for a moment, you accept time as the determining factor then it makes sense with regards to our physical and mental capacity for training. It takes your body an average of 6-8 weeks to adapt to any form of cardiovascular exercise (generally speaking). Our cardiovascular system has evolved to the point where it will rapidly overcome the stress we place upon it. Our muscles adapt but not nearly as fast. After several weeks of lifting your muscle fibers will have been destroyed and rebuilt to handle greater stress but only slightly. It may take a few months for your body to tolerate long distance runs but it will take years for your body to reach its maximal potential for strength. Turns out our bodies are designed to be endurance machines, not to be incredibly strong.
Being strong is great. I’m a huge fan of strength, but our bodies were designed to be only as strong as we needed to be (climbing, crawling, carrying, etc.). In order to get stronger we must follow a stringent program with many variables. It requires patience, dedication, and time to get strong. Our bodies are built to move far, move fast, and move for a long time. There are thousands and thousands of strength athletes but there are MILLIONS of distance runners. Our bodies are designed to run. This doesn’t take away the physical and mental toughness required to run long distances, but because our bodies our designed to adapt to this kind of activity in a short period of time I believe lifting very heavy weights is more impressive.