Often times, we have skewed vision when it comes to hallowing sports athletes as the ultimate pinnacle of athleticism and health.
Are they athletic? Of course. Are they healthy? That's debatable. Here's why.
The demands of most sports involve stops and starts, plenty of impact, aggressive explosiveness, possibly one-sided dominance (think of a ball sport) and a measure of strength. As a result, the joints have to take a beating on a regular basis in some way or another for as long as the sport is being participated in. The condition the actual playing of the sport leaves on major load baring joints like the ankles, knees, and hips can be poor. The same holds true if you're a running enthusiast -- especially one of middle age. Not only are your joints a tad older, but they're also being repeatedly used for the same motion -- and for a long period of time, not in a shorter burst. This can create overuse syndromes to muscles, and ultimately wreak havoc on joints.
Other than resting to recover, we can lower our susceptibility to injury or chronic pain by using strength training with weights as resistance. I'm a huge believer that it belongs in your weekly program as an addition to your weekly mileage. As a runner, training for strength with weights can help improve bone density, preserve and develop muscle tissue (this is a big one -- too much long endurance cardio can lead to the body using protein as its energy source, meaning the body will feed off of muscle for energy. That's a big no-no), improve posture and spinal health, and promote structural balance to avoid chronic injuries.
The Key Exercises
If you don't lift weights currently, it doesn't take a giant change in your routine to benefit from their effects. There are four main exercises to view as "musts" in the gym.
Squats -- This exercise can be performed with a bar loaded on the upper back. Pull the shoulders back tight so that the bar has a comfortable "shelf" to sit on once you take it out of the rack. Assume a foot position slightly outside shoulder width, and remember to keep your heels flat on the floor at all times. Slowly descend by spreading the knees and lowering the hips until your upper thigh runs parallel with the floor. Remember to stay tight!
Bentover Rows -- Use an underhand grip on the bar, and from a standing position, lower your torso until it's parallel to the floor. Keep a nice, tight arch in the lower back by "squeezing the ribcage up". Remember not to look upwards - keep the face down. Pull your shoulder blades back tight, and pull the bar right up into the stomach. Really squeeze your upper back on every rep to make it work more than your arms.
Overhead Press -- Hold the bar at shoulder level, with the elbows tucked directly under the bar. Keep a tall body and keep your abdominal muscles tight. Breathe in, and while exhaling, push the bar up over the spine. Make sure your head goes "through the window" you create with your arms overhead. Lower the bar to your collarbone and repeat.
Deadlift -- Grab hold of the barbell with an overhand grip while it lays on the floor (A barbell with weights on it will be easier in this case, since it will sit higher off the ground) and move the bar as close to the shins as possible. Arch your back by tightening the back muscles and "squeezing the chest out". Lower your hips slightly, so your shoulders are slightly higher than the level of your hips. Keeping the bar close to you the whole way through, drive with your heels into the ground, to pull the bar up. In the finishing position, you should be standing tall. Remember to squeeze your butt as you pull!
For each of these exercises, a good place to start would be to focus on 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps. Incorporating 2 to 3 workouts weekly which involve these movements will set you off on the right foot to being a stronger, healthier, injury-free you. Not to mention, you'll clean up at the next local 10K!