Social media permits recreational runners to glimpse into the training of elite runners. If you scroll through the Instagram feeds of the leading elites, you’ll see them doing deadlifts, pull-ups, and box jumps. Shalane Flanagan has revealed in multiple interviews that she goes to the gym three times per week. Elite runners incorporate strength training for speed and performance into their plans.
What elite runners practice is backed by science; strength training for runners will result in performance gains. Weight training and plyometric training in particular improve running economy (how efficiently your body uses oxygen at a given pace) and velocity at VO2max. Additionally, resistance training reduces your injury risk. Strength training improves bone density and mitigates bilateral deficits.
Stop thinking about strength training as supplemental training or cross-training, something that you only do if you are injured or injury-prone. The structure of your body and the strength of your musculoskeletal system matters just as much as your aerobic capacity. Instead, view strength training as an essential component of your training plan, just like a long run or speed workout.
Don’t Fear Heavy Weights
A common fear amongst runners is that lifting weight will make them bulky or heavy, and therefore slow. This fear is based on a logical fallacy that strength training makes you bulky. For runners, especially female runners, it’s actually quite difficult to gain substantial amounts of weight from strength training. Running is, after all, a catabolic exercise – you can’t build large amounts of muscle when you are running dozens of miles per week.
A 2017 study published in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined the strength and conditioning habits of competitive distance runners. The study found that international standard runners incorporated significantly more resistance and plyometric training than recreational runners. Like many aspects of training, the principles applied by the elites will also benefit recreational runners in their training.
You would need to weight train most days of the week, drastically alter your diet, and cut back on cardio to bulk up – and chances are, you won’t do any of those things. Two or three strength training sessions per week will make you a stronger, faster, more efficient runner – not transform your physique into that of a bodybuilder or even harm your endurance.
In fact, a 2017 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research spent 40 weeks studying the effects of strength training on 20 long distance runners. The runners improved their running economy and velocity at VO2max – two of the best physiological indications of performance – but did not see any significant changes in body composition.
Strength Training for Runners: What is Actually Effective?
First off, let me make this clear: any type of strength training is better than no strength training at all. That said, you likely want your strength training to be an effective use of time. Strength training should supplement running, not replace it.
Some types of strength training will yield more rewards than others. An erroneous assumption is that runners need endurance, so they should lift for muscular endurance: high reps and low weights. These exercises certainly are not a waste of time. However, they are not the most effective use of your time. Runners already have high muscular endurance because they run. Instead, runners will benefit the most in strength training for power and strength.
When you think about it, running is a series of single leg hops with enough power to propel you forward. The more power you generate, the further you hop forward on a single leg and the faster you run. By building strength and explosive power in your strength and conditioning program, you improve your running economy.
A strength and conditioning program focused on power and speed will include lifting heavier weights – a kettlebell, medicine ball, barbell, or even your own bodyweight. How heavy? Roughly 65-80% of their maximum effort, which is heavy enough to fatigue your muscles by the final rep (5-10 reps). You are not doing Olympic lifts, but you also aren’t using just resistance bands.
You can adapt basic functional movements to each of these, such as a kettlebell squat, medicine ball squat, barbell squat, or jump squat, and include exercises that are explosive and fun, such as medicine ball slams and kettlebell swings.
Sample Strength Training Workouts for Runners
There is a lot of room for variety here. Find what you enjoy, vary your workouts, and make strength training fun. What matters most is consistency; two to three 20-40 minute workouts per week will build power, strength, and speed. Even one 30-45 minute strength session is better than no strength training, especially if you consistently complete that one session.
Try one of these strength training workouts:
When choosing a strength workout, do not neglect your upper body! A strong upper body improves your running form by strengthening your arm swing and straightening your posture. When it comes to upper body exercises, functional push and pull movements will yield more rewards than aesthetic exercises; for example, a pull-up will work more of the muscles used in running than just bicep curls.
Plyometric training provides a valuable tool for runners, whether you are training for a 5K or ultra marathon. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, explosive strength training reduced the 2.4-km time trial time by almost 4%. The plyometric training was concurrent with endurance training, meaning that you can’t quite get away with taking a HIIT class instead of doing speedwork. For runners already training hard, plyometrics can help improve your speed without adding too much intensity to your running workouts. Plyometric exercises include single leg hops, jumping lunges, jumping squats, box jumps, and any other type of jump.
Fitting Strength Training into Your Running
Running is still your primary goal, so structure your training accordingly. If possible, strength train on your hard run days (after the run). This allows your easy days to be truly focused on recovery. If your schedule permits, spacing your hard run and strength workout four or more hours apart will maximize the gains of both workouts without compromising recovery. The following day should be rest or a short, easy run.
If your schedule doesn’t allow such a structure, don’t worry about it. This article delves into various approaches for including strength training into your running plan. If you have to strength train on your easy days, that’s okay. Just be mindful of your workout the next day and scale accordingly.
The question of if you should lift or run first depends on numerous factors. Generally, you do your most specific sport first – in this case running. This article delves into more of the nuances of if you should run before or after lifting.
It’s okay to be sore. If you are doing the appropriate amount of strength work for your ability level, you should not be so sore that you cannot complete a run. You can even go into a long run or a speed workout sore. You may not hit your exact paces at first, but the effort is what matters. Chances are, once your body adapts to strength training, you will not be sore after your strength workouts. (Read here for more on if you should run with sore legs.)
Periodization of Strength Training for Running
Periodization is the concept of different phases of training having a dedicated focus. Most runners periodize their running when they train for a race. You do different volumes and intensities when training for a marathon than for a 5K. Your training also periodizes within race training; the first few weeks of marathon training look different
Off-season or base training phases are an ideal time to introduce a new strength training routine. As with running, you want to avoid sharply increasing your training load. If you are accustomed to lifting, the base phase is the ideal time to focus on lifting more and lifting heavier, since you are generally running less and at a lower intensity.
Marathon or half marathon training may require a more gradual introduction of strength and conditioning work than base building weeks if you are new to lifting. If you are acclimated to lifting, you may either keep your load the same or slightly scale it back as your training load for running increases.
In the four weeks out from a race, you will taper down your strength training. Intensity will stay relatively the same, while volume and frequency decrease. Do not start a new strength and conditioning program within 8 weeks of a goal race. To encourage freshness on race day, completely cut out all strength workouts 7-10 days prior to your race. You could even completely remove strength training earlier in the taper. A 2020 case report in Sports found that the benefits of strength training for running were maintained for up to four weeks after cessation.
Running is the Priority
As important as strength training for running can be, lifting is not the main sport. Most runners only need to lift one to two times per week. If you are training for a race, strength training should not detract from the intensity and volume of your runs.