It is well established that strength training can help improve your running. A 2017 study found that runners who lifted twice per week in base building and once per week in race training improved their running economy and velocity at VO2max – two significant markers of performance. However, many runners know it’s a struggle enough to schedule all of your easy runs, long runs, and speedwork into one week. How do you add strength training into your running plan on top of all those miles? Should you run before or after lifting?
What the Research Says about If You Should Run Before or After Lifting
In exercise science studies, a combination of running and lifting is called concurrent training. Many studies explore concurrent training, especially over the past 5-10 years. A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis in Sports Medicine analyzed the data from 27 studies on concurrent training.
According to the results of the 2021 meta-analysis, trained athletes experience the most strength adaptations when they do their lift two hours or more after a run. For those trained athletes, running immediately before a lift moderately impaired lower body strength gains. Untrained or moderately trained athletes did not experience impairments if they ran and lifted in the same session.
However, moderate impairments do not mean that lifting after a run is bad. The researchers concluded the study by saying “Therefore, athletes with limited time may train for resistance and endurance within the same training session and still obtain appropriate increases in lower-body maximal dynamic strength.” Impaired strength adaptations outweigh no strength adaptations. So if the only way to fit in your lift is immediately after a run, that’s better than not lifting at all.
The Goals of Strength Training for Runners
Additionally, a majority of runners do not lift for gains in maximal strength. Runners lift weights to improve running economy and performance. Even without large gains in strength, lifting weights also preserves muscle mass with age and improves bone density. These goals give runners more flexibility in when they lift and whether they run before or after lifting.
To experience any significant adaptations from resistance training, you want to lift consistently. Whether you run before or after lifting ultimately comes down to what encourages the most consistency. (With a few exceptions, as outlined in the guidelines below.)
For many runners, shorter lifts of 20-30 minutes done twice per week can feel more realistic within a running schedule. If that is you, then do not feel like you need to do long, big lifts. Aim for what you can consistently do – and consistently recover from.
Lifting weights can make you sore. Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) occurs 24-72 hours after a workout. DOMS is a reason why many runners do not want to lift. However, consistent lifting (that also is appropriately programmed) can actually reduce DOMS. Your body adapts to consistent lifts, meaning you are less likely to experience soreness that affects your runs.
A Minimal Dose Approach Can Help
If consistency still eludes you, you may benefit from minimal dose strength training. A 2022 review in Sports Medicine concluded that short sessions of strength training (as long as just a few minutes) can improve power, strength, and muscle mass when done consistently.
These minimal dose approach to lifting can benefit runners. The 2022 review found that short lifting sessions minimize soreness and encourage adherence. This approach is also easier to fit into a full running schedule. Whether you run before or after lifting, you can squeeze in a short 10-15 minute session two to three times per week.
If you take this approach, pick functional, total body movements for your lift. Squat, hinge, push, pull, and carry exercises will give you the most work in the shortest amount of time. A sample workout can include three sets of squats, single leg deadlifts, and push-ups.
How to Schedule Your Lifts around Your Runs
Guideline 1: Avoid the lifting day before hard runs
Lifting weights creates damage to the working muscles. The body initiates cellular level repair to heal that damage and create more muscle contractile proteins in response. However, that recovery process takes time. For approximately 24-36 hours after a lift, your muscles will have diminished force output. This lower power output can translate to a slower speed workout, which is suboptimal if you have performance goals in an upcoming race. A very simplified rule of thumb: you should have two nights of sleep between a strength workout and a speed workout.
Guideline 2: Do not lift on long run days
Once your runs exceed 90 minutes, it’s best to not strength train on the same day. Lifting before a long run can cause significant fatigue. Lifting after a long run puts you at risk for injury due to poor form. Save your lift for the day after a long run instead.
Guideline 3: Do not lift if you are so tired that form is compromised
Many runners follow the principle of hard days hard, easy days easy – which means they lift on the same day of an interval or tempo run. If you take this approach, it is optimal to wait 2+ hours until your lift, especially if doing an extensive lower-body lift. Neuromuscular fatigue and metabolic interference may affect the quality of your lift if done right after a running workout.
However, if you complete your workout and your legs are so fatigued that you cannot lift with good form, delay your lift. You do not want to lift with compromised form, as this increases injury risk.
If this is the scenario, lift the day after your hard workout. Waiting to lift until the next day allows you to recover from the neuromuscular fatigue of a hard run. You are able to lift more weights with better form, which leads to enhanced strength adaptations.
Use Nutrition to Support Adaptations
Many concerns around doing a run before or after lifting are mitigated by appropriate sports nutrition practices. A few small tweaks can encourage the quality of your session and muscle protein synthesis (and recovery) after the session.
- Eat Enough! Whether you do your run and lift in one long session or two separate workouts in a day, you need to increase your carbohydrate, protein, and overall calorie needs.
- Prioritize Protein: Runners already need more protein than the general population. If you add lifting on top of running, aim for at least 1.6-2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight. If you are an ultra runner who lifts weights, you may need up to 2.4 grams/kilogram.
- Eat Between the Sessions: If you go immediately from a run to a lift (or vice versa), fuel as if it is one long training session. A small carb-based snack such as a banana or bar in between the two workouts can ensure glycogen availability. (Yes, strength training uses carbohydrates for energy also!)
When You May Want to Lift Before Running
In the field of exercise science, it is well established that concurrent training (endurance and resistance training) can produce an “interference effect.” The interference effect means that the stimuli from one mode training interfere with the physiological effects of the other. Generally, endurance training interferes with the effects of strength training, but not vice versa. This is why runners seldom become “bulky” (experience significant muscle hypertrophy).
When a runner wishes to improve lower body strength, lifting weights before a run is optimal. A 2017 meta-analysis of concurrent training studies concluded that lifting before a run promotes strength while lifting after a run hinders strength gains. The order had virtually no effect on endurance adaptations, including aerobic capacity.
Many runners will devote a deliberate training phase to building strength. If this is you, then you may want to prioritize your lift before your runs (just during this phase).
You do want the run to be an easy run, as fatigue from the strength session will cause you to experience heavy legs on the run. However, know yourself: if you are likely to cut the run short after a lift, then run first.
The converse is also true. When you are training for a race, your running is a priority. Run before lifting, even if it means lifting less.
Remember: These are guidelines, not rules
Guidelines are not strict rules. These guidelines present the optimal way to incorporate strength training into your running plan. If performance is your goal, try to follow these as best as you can. However, if your goal is simply a well-balanced training plan with both running and strength, then it is okay to deviate from the ideal. For some runners, lifting the day before a hard workout may be the only way to fit both running and strength training into their schedule. Or, it may work best for their schedule to run prior to their strength workout (especially if going to a class) rather than after.