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“It isn’t always the fastest person that gets to the finish line first, it’s the strongest person,” says Sally McRae, a professional mountain runner for Nike. And while that’s particularly true for ultramarathons in the 50+ mile range, McRae says it applies to every athlete, whether you run 5Ks or ultras.
McRae’s evangelism for strength training was born out of personal injury. “I had to make a choice between using pain as an excuse not to race or to put extra time in at the gym,” she says. Her story is inspirational
From Soccer Star to Running Convert
McRae grew up playing soccer, a sport that mandated strength training as a key piece of her routine. But, when she traded in her cleats for running shoes, she let that piece fall by the wayside. A teacher and marathon runner at the time, she started to notice some weaknesses, like low back and IT band issues. “My journey in understanding strength training came out of pain, really,” she says.
“We hear people say they don’t run because it hurts too much, but it isn’t necessarily the running that hurts. It’s the fact that if you have weaknesses in any area of your body, you’re going to feel that when you run,” she says, noting that there’s no hiding behind a piece of equipment when you pound the pavement. “You’re not sitting on a bike or floating in the water, both places where you can compensate for areas that don’t feel great,” she says. “When you run, you’re picking up your body and slamming it onto the Earth with every single step.”
Humbled By Injury
Around the same time she left her teaching job to work for a sports PT she found (and fell in love with) the sport of ultrarunning. The PT did an assessment and told McRae that even though she looked strong, she lacked glute and hip strength. If only she had listened to him right out of the gate.
Instead, she didn’t do any of the exercises he prescribed and ended up sidelined for nine months with “the most horrific” IT band injury. “I couldn’t even run a hundred meters without falling in a heap,” she remembers. It was then that she was willing to listen and pick back up the strength training she quit when she stopped playing soccer.
Becoming Bulletproof and Going Pro
Soon, McRae realized that if she—and all athletes for that matter—would just work some strength training into their regular routine, it could be fun (!) and quick, rather than hours of “boring” PT drills. That’s why she started hitting the gym once she was fully recovered. Two years later, she signed on as a professional athlete with Nike. “What changed for me was I went from just running to running and strength training, and wanting to be able to endure for the long haul,” she says.