Strength, Variety, and Getting Out of Your Comfort Zone

Are you a creature of habit?

Training Variations

I definitely am. My training is predictable even though I know the serious benefits of variety in any program. I run the same trails, do similar workouts from training cycle to training cycle, and always stick to the same core routines. This needs to change if I want to continue improving.

In one particular area I need a lot more variety: strength exercises. Unfortunately, my gym workout almost always looks like this:

  • Dead lifts
  • Chest Press
  • Pistol Squats (one-legged squats)
  • Pull ups
  • Dips

It’s not bad: these are compound movements and I know the dead lifts and pistol squats address some of my own personal weaknesses. But is it the best it can be? Absolutely not. And even more important: it never changes from week to week.

Over the last six months, I’ve fallen into the trap of never deviating from my own comfortable routine in the gym. I kept my gym time to about 15 minutes and only two sets of these exercises. If you listened to a recent podcast I did, you know that I hate lifting – but I realize how powerful it can be to transform you into a stronger, less injury-prone runner.

Just like running, there needs to be a well thought-out progression of gym exercises that help you safely build strength and recovery. This is one of the reasons why I use the Strength Training for Runners program. A new routine will get me out of my comfort zone, doing a variety of lift exercises that will stimulate strength gains that you just can’t get from the same few exercises every week.

The principle at work here is the stress-adaptation cycle, expertly illustrated by Meaghan below:

Stress Adaptation Cycle

This cycle isn’t true for just mileage and hard workouts. You can also include the types of workouts you’re doing and a host of other stresses – like gym workouts. If you do the same track or gym workout every week, you’ll gain less fitness as time goes on.

Instead, it’s best to vary your workouts, gym routines, mobility exercises, shoes, terrain, paces, effort, and everything else to ensure your body is constantly adapting.

Consistent Variation in Rigid Training

Recently I announced the Building a Better Runner giveaway (Edit: this giveaway is now over). The DVD series includes two volumes of two discs each – so four DVDs of  mobility, strength, and warm-up exercises. As I watched the routines and the rationale behind why distance runners should do them, it made me realize that I can do a lot to improve my own athleticism.

Jay Johnson recently posted something that stuck with me:

For many high school and college athletes, you can’t get enough strength and mobility work done in 15 minutes, so you need more time. I want to make sure that coaches and athletes who are trying to maximize their potential are honest about the fact that the more ancillary work you can do, the more running you can safely handle.

I’m not a college runner any longer – but I do run at a (somewhat) high level. My recent marathon training block had me running over 340 monthly miles with 22 milers and tough workouts. Is 15 minutes of strength and mobility work enough for someone running at my effort level? And for that matter, are the same exercises done every day for 15 minutes sufficient?

I don’t think so. The routines I do include Cannonball, Myrtl, Standard Warm-up, ITB Rehab Routine, Lunge Matrix, and the Standard Core Routine. Most of these are done in about 10 minutes – which is great – but I need more volume and more variety.

I’ve started a great yoga routine for my hips and I think the Building a Better Runner DVDs will provide the running-specific strength that’s necessary for continued improvement. Doing new exercises and new routines can help correct imbalances and prevent injury.

The title of this section might seem confusing but it’s actually simple: within a consistent training plan, there should be a lot of variation. No, you’re not doing random workouts or exercises all the time. Everything’s planned – even the variation.

Let’s look at a few examples of how variation can be included in your plan without it being arbitrary:

  • Rotate 3 pairs of shoes instead of none at all
  • Instead of that typical 5k tempo you do every Tuesday, run a 100m surge every kilometer to break up the pace
  • Replace a short interval workout with a similar hill workout
  • Run more trails instead of the roads – the terrain changes are excellent for your supporting muscles
  • Don’t finish your easy runs slow – run a slight negative split or add strides or surges at the end (they won’t make you tired!)
  • Use different exercises in the gym to target the same muscle group (bench press vs. chest press vs. incline/decline bench press)

Are you stuck in your ways? Break out of the rut and reinvigorate your training! 

As I make these changes in my own training, Building a Better Runner is going to be incredibly valuable to help me explore new movement patterns and develop more skill in moving in three planes of motion.

It’s important to always try new things and I can’t wait to get started. With over 100 different exercises, my wife is going to have to upgrade my nickname of “core whore” to something even more explicit.

Recommended reading:

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  1. Interesting… Maybe I’m already in that boat somewhat? Perhaps by accident (or maybe instinct) more than design. For 18 months I focused on road running, specifically marathon distance. During that time I completed 3 and reduced my initial time by 99 minutes.
    Currently I have transitioned to trail specific training in preparation for a 2012 full of trail races at the 50k distance and longer. Little speed work and more mileage with back to back long runs. And the race goals are less time bound and more about being epic.
    After a break over next summer I plan on switching yet again to shorter distance training for 5k to 10k stuff. I anticipate lots of speed work. Changing it up just seemed like a good way to stay interested, meet new people and become a more well rounded runner.
    Never did much strength work but recently began incorporating some of your core stuff and have dabbled in the Rebel Fitness routine here and there. I think the holidays will be a good time to focus on doing more of that. This post is a good reminder.
    Variety is the spice of life for me. If I keep doing what I’ve always done then I’ll always get what I always got. Thanks for the push Jason.


  2. I’m glad to know that you are always working on improving all aspects. It is encouraging. I really like Steve Kamb. He has a great outlook. I’m glad you two are teaming up.

    Good post…thanks!

  3. Hi Jason,

    People are different, this article shows. I somehow never really like to lift weights with my legs, I really want to keep them for running. Uphill or stair sessions can give a lot of power to the quads. There is amazing how many things you can do with 10-30 steps high stairs. Also if you have access to longer stairs instead of the short ones, you change again the goal of the workout. If I throw on a hydration pack with some food and 2 liter of water it is again a challenge. I also do downhill training, that works a lot on the harmstrings and the stabilisers due to the high cadence. Long runs, sprints, long short medium intervals, tempo intervals down hill.
    If I am really stuck inside and needs some stuff, the good old kettlebells are my best friends, full body workout, and it is fun, you are smiling while you are doing it. Indian clubs and power clubs are great tools as well, they are like a game and have such a huge effect.

    I hope the gym works for you, I am more like and outdoor person. I never take my clients to the gym either, keep them out in rain and snow too 😀

    Great Post Btw. Keep on wrinting, it is always good to read from running from someone who is actually doing it.

  4. I was just thinking about doing a post on this very topic, there was an HBR post the other day that stated how businesses need to “leave what they know behind”, and your thoughts here are pretty similar. I too am getting into a rut (granted, they are around the routines YOU have suggested), so need to play a bit. Had hoped to do so in Asia but the running itself was just too much fun – and I guess running while traveling technically does count as doing something different. Maybe on our upcoming vacation, when running will be difficult.

    • Agreed. Any time you can’t run as much or are taking some down time, it’s a perfect opportunity to experiment with new routines or “weird” exercises. Let me know what you start doing, I’d love to take a look (I started doing the hip opening yoga per your suggestion!).

  5. It’s not only god for your body to do something different but good for your mind and spirit. Sometimes it is hard to try something different, but well worth the effort. I had been putting off running with a friend for a while but finally did it this week. While I still prefer to run alone, it is fun to run with others. And since she is a much more advanced runner, even though I thought I was working hard on my own, it sure has pushed me to a higher level and made me realize I was leaving something on the table with my own training!

    • The mental aspect of variety and doing things can’t be overlooked! It’s a mental sport just as much as it’s a physical one.


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