Running with Weights: Everything you Need to Know

Every runner hits a point where they want to challenge themselves. Some people increase their distance or their speed. Other runners want to increase the resistance of their runs, which means they add extra weight to their run. A few people carry hand weights while running, but this disrupts stride length and is not recommended. The majority of runners who want to add weight to their routine go about it with ankle weights or weighted vests.

Each option has its advantages and disadvantages. And, it must be noted, research on the effects of weighted running has yielded mixed results. Some studies indicate that adding weight to a run does not help. Other studies show that the weights help, but only if used correctly. In this article, we will cover the two most common methods of adding weight to a run. We cover their advantages and disadvantages as well as the proper (and improper) ways to add them to an exercise routine. As with all fitness-related choices, runners should consult a doctor and/or trainer prior to making changes or starting anything new.

Ankle Weights

Ankle weights are the first thing most runners think of when they want to start running with weights. They are, unfortunately, also the most dangerous method. The danger of ankle weights while running with weights lies in the very same qualities that made them so popular. Runners would strap weights to their ankles using adjustable straps. Runners can change the amount of weight to suit their fitness level. This, unfortunately, puts all of the weight on the runner’s ankles. Ankles are already sensitive joints and additional weight focused right on top of them can quickly lead to injury. The weights also had a tendency to shift and spin on the runner’s leg as they moved, which would throw off a runner’s stride, balance, and form.

Runners who still want to use ankle weights should do so very carefully. They should consult a doctor or trainer prior to involving ankle weights. As with all weight training, it is best to start at a low weight and slowly work up to the desired weight so as to avoid injury. Ankle weights are only truly safe to use in resistance training. Even then, athletes must be careful to maintain their usual work pace when wearing ankle weights. Research has shown that many athletes have a tendency to slow down their workload when wearing ankle weights to compensate for the increased energy they burn.

Weighted Vests

A newer addition to the running with weights scene is the weighted vest. They work under the same principle as ankle weights, but with the added strain centered on a person’s core rather than their ankles. This is not to say that weighted vests can be used without precaution. They are, however, a safer alternative to ankle weights. Studies on the efficacy of weighted vests have returned mixed results and this is largely due to the number of variables that affect the outcome.

Weighted vests are ideal for a few specific groups of athletes. These athletes are those who focus on explosive power and bodyweight exercises in their training. Whether or not the athletes find weighted vests useful depends on the weight of the vest itself, how often it is used, and how long it is worn. Most trainers suggest that people start training with a vest that is 5% of their body weight and work up from there. The specific training methods vary depending on the athlete’s goals.

Weight Vest Risks

Before an athlete uses a vest, they need to be aware of the risks involved. The most obvious risk is that an athlete with poor form will hurt themselves when they add extra weight to their routine. Bad fitness posture – such as a curved back during pushups or weak knees in a squat – can strain muscles and potentially even cause stress fractures under the added weight of the vest. Athletes must ensure that they can maintain perfect form through 3 sets of 10 reps for any exercise they will perform with a vest.

Once an athlete is ready to involve a vest, they have to be sure their cardio health can bear the load. Vests put a lot of strain on the cardio muscles as well as the surrounding core muscles. This results in the athlete struggling to breathe, which can cause a panicked “fight or flight” response. Proponents of vests are adamant that this is part of the training. Once an athlete learns to control that response, they gain better control over their general heart rate and cardio health. If athletes cannot develop this control, weighted vests are discouraged.

The final major risk is a vest’s impact on the nervous system. Everyone has a unique nervous system response based on the amount of weight and strain the body deals with. When an athlete wears a vest it causes the body to react differently than it normally would. More energy is directed to the weighted muscles and this can affect a person’s balance, power availability, and energy use. This is useful in small doses. In large doses, it can create chaos in the nervous system’s response pattern. A trainer or doctor can help athletes find the right balance of training with and without the vest to avoid issues.

Training with a Weight Vest

An excellent test for cardio health is to bike all-out for 5 minutes, then sit still and track one’s heart rate for one minute. After one minute it should drop 40 beats per minute. At the end of a second minute, it should drop another 20-30 beats per minute. If an athlete cannot reach this response level, they should improve their cardio health before adding a weighted vest to their workout.

Cardio and Speed Conditioning

If an athlete wants to improve their cardio or speed conditioning through a weighted vest, they should start slow. Ideally, vests start out at 5% of the athlete’s total body weight. The athlete can wear the vest throughout a long walk to determine if they are to increase their cardio load. Over time, they can increase the weight to a max of 10% of their body weight. So long as they stick to low or moderate-intensity cardio, athletes can wear their vests through a complete workout. If they want to reach a high-intensity workload, athletes should only wear their vests for ten or twenty minutes at a time and finish the workout without it.

Runners get the most out of weighted vests by using them on treadmills. This ensures the runner’s speed remains consistent. It also gives them the chance to focus on their breathing. Weighted vests will make breathing more difficult, even for those with strong cardio health. Runners must learn to breathe with the additional weight on their chest and it is safest to do this in a controlled environment.

Strength and Body Weight

Athletes focused on their explosive speed or strength conditioning are those for whom perfect form is key. If an athlete cannot complete 3 sets of 10 reps for an exercise, they should not add a vest to their routine. Once they perfect their form, they can add a vest with 5-10% of their body weight. Over time the athlete can increase the weight to 20-25% of their overall body weight.

Final Notes

Weighted vests are not tools for beginners. They are not going to help anyone see quick gains or sudden weight loss. These products are best left to people who have perfected their form and technique. Even experienced athletes should be careful, however. They must increase their rest times while wearing a weighted vest. And, if they feel their form or technique changing, they must take off the vest and finish the workout without it.

Sources

  1. GQ, Do Ankle Weights Make You a Stronger Runner?
  2. Runners World, Ask the Coaches: Running With Hand or Ankle Weights
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