Absolutely! Runners should definitely incorporate strength training into their running schedule.
But why? And how?
Well, first let me give you a little background on how this post came to be.
I didn’t understand the importance of strength work (most especially it’s impact on injury prevention) until I encountered my first overuse injury about 6 months into running consistently. Prior to that, I would run very occasionally, spending a few weeks “training” for a 5k, only to then stop running altogether for several months or longer before starting the cycle over again.
So when I started running more frequently and began increasing mileage to prepare for my first 10 mile race, my body rebelled. I ended up with a frustrating and painful case of Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS).
Thankfully, it was that injury that led me to begin researching injury prevention strategies. As it turns out, one of those strategies was strength training.
I began to include runner-specific body weight and resistance band exercises in my weekly routine and started going to a local CrossFit-type gym. As much as I enjoyed the gym setting, I had a hard time balancing that with running 5 days a week during the stage of life I was in (with two young boys).
As time has gone by, I’ve discovered that I enjoy the convenience of working out at home and the schedule flexibility it allows. It lacks the equipment and depth of training that the gym provided, but resistance bands, dumbbells, a kettlebell, and a weekly Pilates class has certainly been better than nothing over the years.
I can say, from experience, that whenever I begin to slack off on the strength work (especially when ramping up mileage), I end up with niggles and pains or a full-blown overuse injury. I’ve learned the hard way that I’ve got to find a way to make time to complement my running with strength training if I want to stay healthy.
Now that I’m coming off of a season of spending a lot of time putting in a lot of miles and seeing the toll running two 50k races in one month has taken on my legs, I’m ready to take my strength training up a notch. I want to be stronger so I can run faster and be more injury-resistant than before. Because, hey, I want to be a more well-rounded runner.
And really, doesn’t that sound like something you desire as well?
I’ve often read about the impact strength training has on running, but I wanted to know more.
What exactly does the research say about the effects of strength training on running performance? How should runners schedule strength training sessions with their runs? Should runners be lifting high reps with light weight or low reps with heavy weight? What kind of exercises are best?
I’ve truly enjoyed doing a deep dive into this topic and some of what I learned surprised me. If this is a subject that interests you and you’d like answers to some of the questions I posed 👆, then I encourage you to keep reading. I hope you’ll find some valuable information that you can integrate into your own running.
Why should runners do strength training?
Improve running economy
Numerous studies have shown beneficial effects on running economy and other performance indicators when middle to long-distance runners add strength training to their running routine. Strength training improves running economy by building neuromuscular coordination.
But what exactly is running economy?
In its simplest form, running economy describes the relationship between oxygen consumption and running speed (source). It’s a measure of how much energy (oxygen) your body needs to run at a particular pace. The better your running economy, the less oxygen your body requires to power your running because you’re utilizing that oxygen more efficiently.
Thanks to an increase in muscular power, faster speeds become more accessible.
Engaging in strength-building exercises toughens connective tissues and strengthens muscles, which improves injury resilience.
Ultimately, the goal with strength training is to make progress and see gains without negatively affecting running performance.
How often should runners lift?
You don’t need to be in the gym 5-6 days per week to get the benefits strength training provides for runners. Lifting moderate to heavy weight even just 2 days per week has been shown to produce significant, beneficial effects on performance indicators in distance runners. If you have the time and as you progress, you may choose to add a third session. Remember, you want to positively impact your running performance, so if you see it going downhill as you ramp up the weight training, you may want to reassess your plan.
How should runners incorporate strength training into their running routine?
While there are differing schools of thought on this, a general rule of thumb in the running world is, “Keep your hard days hard, and your easy days easy.” This is less important if you’re in a base or maintenance phase where all of your runs are easy runs. But, if you’re training for a specific goal and have higher-intensity and long runs on your running schedule, you should commonly follow this principle.
A few guidelines for incorporating strength training into your week…
- Lift on hard running days, but…
- Run first, lift after. Studies have shown 3 hours of recovery time between efforts to be ideal, although this isn’t always feasible with our busy lifestyles. If your schedule allows, you can run in the morning and lift later in the day.
- Never lift heavy the day before a run workout (speedwork, threshold run, etc.). Research has shown the body needs 24-48 hours to recover from a weightlifting session before attempting a high-intensity run.
- Unless in a base or maintenance phase, don’t lift on easy running days. You can do core or bodyweight exercises here. Just don’t lift heavy on easy run days. Remember, keep your hard days hard, and your easy days easy.
Practically (and ideally), what might this look like on a runner’s schedule?
Here’s an example:
Monday: Rest day.
Tuesday: Hard day. Medium distance run with hill repetitions + heavy lifting session (30-60 min) at least 3 hours later
Wednesday: Easy day. Easy run + Pilates or bodyweight core exercises (10-60 min)
Thursday: Hard day. Threshold run + heavy lifting session + plyometrics (30-60 min) at least 3 hours later
Friday: Easy day. Easy trail run
Saturday: Easy day. Short, easy run + runner-specific bodyweight and core exercises (10-30 min)
Sunday: Hard day. Progression long run
How much weight should runners lift?
A common misconception amongst runners is that they’ll “bulk up” if they start lifting heavy weights. Experts and researchers agree that this is not the case. Running is a catabolic activity, which involves the breaking down of something. In the case of running, that’s muscle tissue. If you’re running multiple days per week, you’re not going to start looking like a body builder just because you start lifting weights.
But really – how heavy should you be lifting? How many reps?
Even if you’re doing bodyweight exercises, you’re going to improve your body’s resistance to injury. But if you want to improve your running economy, gain power, and improve speed, heavy lifting is where it’s at.
Based on the research that’s currently available (which is a good amount), runners should aim to perform low reps (volume) with moderate to heavy weight (intensity). That looks like 1-3 sets of 4-10 reps, using weight that’s about 75%-85% of your one-rep max for each particular exercise. Read about how to find your one-rep max depending on your experience level.
Don’t forget to rest for 30 seconds to 1 minute between each set. Or, to save time, you can alternate exercises for each set.
Studies also point to the benefits of incorporating unloaded plyometric exercises (box jumps, jumping squats, etc.) into an endurance athlete’s strength routine.
What exercises should runners do?
If you’re new to strength training, start with bodyweight exercises. It’s also fine (and beneficial) to use resistance bands and light weights. As you get stronger, you can begin to add more resistance in the form of heavier weight.
You might even want to consider hiring a coach or a trainer to make sure you’re using correct form as you progress to using heavy weight. If you’re doing exercises with improper form, you risk injuring yourself. And that sure ain’t gonna help your running!
Exercises to include:
The Big 6 Functional Movement Patterns
Squat. Start with air squats and progress to goblet squats using a kettlebell or dumbbell, then to a weighted back squat or overhead squat using a bar. Other variations include single-leg squats (pistol squats) and figure-four squats.
Lunge. Traditional lunges, side lunges, reverse lunges, walking lunges, overhead lunges, curtsy lunges, Bulgarian split squats…There are SO. MANY. VARIATIONS on the traditional lunge. Almost all can be done with body weight or with added weight via dumbbells, kettlebells, and plates. *link
Hinge. Deadlifts – this is one of those exercises you really need to master the form of before throwing on a bunch of weight. Variations on the conventional deadlift include the Romanian deadlift (RDL), Sumo deadlift, single-leg deadlift, walking deadlift (similar to single-leg), and kettlebell deadlift, to name a few. Kettlebell swings and the dumbbell glute bridge are also hinge exercises.
Push. As the name implies, “push” exercises involve pushing. Think push-ups (elevated or traditional), military press, bench press (dumbbell or barbell), shoulder press, and tricep dips.
Pull. Kinda like Push’s opposite cousin, “pull” exercises are ones which require you to pull something towards yourself or to pull yourself towards something. The classic pull-up is a perfect example of a pull activity. Other exercises that would benefit runners from this category are lat pull-downs, bent over rows, and the reverse fly.
*Many strength gurus also include twist as a 7th functional movement pattern, but I’ve listed some of those exercises in the core section below.
The following exercises can be done any day of the week (no need to worry about easy/hard days) since most of them are typically bodyweight exercises (although you can add weight to some of them). Core strength should definitely not be neglected if your main focus is injury prevention.
What equipment do I need to get started?
If you’re adding strength training to your running routine for the first time, you can totally get by with just your body weight. But if you’re ready to challenge yourself, here are some items (listed progressively from beginner to advanced) you can begin to collect.
As you progress
For the more hardcore (or those who want to set up a home/garage gym)
- Wall-mount or free-standing rack/rig
- Olympic barbell
- Set of bumper plates
- Spring collars
- Non-slip floor tiles or rubber flooring
Strength training for runners: What are the key takeaways?
- Strength training (lifting moderate to heavy weight, in particular) has been shown to improve running economy, build power and increase speed, and prevent injuries.
- The goal with strength training is to positively impact the above-mentioned areas without sacrificing quality running.
- Keep your hard days hard and your easy days easy.
- Start with body weight and resistance bands and build up to lifting moderate to heavy weight 2-3 times per week.
- For weightlifting exercises, perform 1-3 sets of 4-10 reps each. If you can bust out 20 reps, the weight is too light.
- Include a combination of the Big 6 Functional Movement Patterns along with plyometrics and core exercises.
- Have fun!
So what do you think? Are you ready to become a stronger, faster, more well-rounded runner? Then join me in making strength training a priority. I’d love to hear how it goes!
Disclaimer: You should understand that when participating in any exercise or exercise program, there is the possibility of physical injury. If you engage in exercise or training I recommend, you agree that you do so at your own risk, are voluntarily participating in these activities, assume all risk of injury to yourself, and agree to release and discharge Running With Roots from any and all claims or causes of action, known or unknown, arising out of Running With Roots. Please speak with a medical professional before making any changes to your diet or exercise. I am not a doctor or registered dietitian. The views expressed are based on my own experiences, and should not be taken as medical, nutrition or training advice.