How Runners Can Optimize a Strength Workout

Strength training is essential for runners – but it can also be difficult to fit in long strength training sessions into your training plan. For most runners, quality matters more than quantity. You will benefit from even one or two 15-30 minute sessions per week if you are focusing on the quality of your strength workout. These tips will help you optimize a strength workout so that even a short one yields high dividends.

It’s vital to remember that more is not always better. More reps and more exercises are not necessarily more effective. More weight is not better if you lose the ability to maintain good form. Going faster throughout your reps is certainly not effective. HIIT workouts might be popular, but they will not necessarily yield better progress for runners. Instead, deliberate actions to improve the quality of your strength workout will yield better results.

These strength training hacks (for lack of a better term) will improve the quality and therefore the effectiveness of your strength workout. I generally dislike the term “hack” because there are no shortcuts to progress in running. You have to put in the hard work. However, there are small but effective measures you can employ in your strength training to maximize the efficacy of a workout for the time available. Even if you can only fit in one strength session per week, these tips will help you optimize the benefits of it. 

How Runners Can Optimize a Strength Workout

Wear Low Drop Shoes

Running shoes are for running – not lifting! Your daily trainers are probably too cushioned for lifting. A high heel to toe drop and lots of cushioning can affect your form when lifting and negate some of the strength gains for your feet and ankles. 

Weak feet can cause numerous running injuries, including plantar fasciitis and even stress reactions or fractures. One simple way to strengthen your feet is to use them for stability during strength training. Thick, cushioned shoes (especially running shoes) might offer too much support during a strength workout. Wearing lower drop, less cushioned shoes during a lift trains you to utilize your feet for balance.

Think of your foot like a tripod, with your big toe, heel, and ball of the little toe. Wearing less cushioned shoes for strength training will force you to stabilize that tripod and strengthen all the muscles and tendons in your feet and ankles.

Work in Multiple Planes of Motion

There are three planes of motion: sagittal (front to back), frontal (side to side), and transverse (horizontal). Running occurs primarily in the sagittal plane. However, that does not mean you should neglect the other two! Small amounts of transverse and frontal plane action occur when running. Being able to stabilize against lateral and transverse forces will make you a stronger, less injury-prone runner.

A well-rounded strength plan includes exercises in all of these planes. You do not need many exercises! A sample workout could include single leg deadlifts (sagittal), lateral lunges (frontal), push ups (transverse), bent over rows (sagittal), and side planks (frontal).

Any lateral exercise occurs in the frontal plane:

  • Side plank variations
  • Side lying leg lifts
  • Lateral lunges
  • Flyes
  • Lateral raises
  • Cossack squats

Transverse plane exercises are often rotational at a joint, such as the thoracic spine or the hips. These include:

  • Push-ups
  • Bench press
  • Any core exercise with rotation, such as side plank with thoracic spine twist
  • Woodchops
  • Clamshells

Try one of these workouts for multiplane, functional exercises:
Total Body Medicine Ball Workout for Runners
Functional Kettlebell Workout for Runners
20 Minute Kettlebell Workout for Runners

Offset Your Weight

Core stability is important for runners. When you run, your core must resist rotation against external forces- and this only increases if you are running hills, into the wind, or doing a hard workout. Anti-rotational core work improves core stability and therefore your running form.

 If you are short on time, offsetting the weight in other exercises will add an element of anti-rotational core work. For example, you can hold a weight in only one hand when doing lunges, single leg deadlifts, or squats or place a medicine ball under one hand while doing push-ups.  Focus on keeping your core engaged and stable during the entire exercise – don’t slouch or accidentally rotate. Just be sure to switch sides halfway through to avoid imbalances. 

Add in Plyometrics

Plyometrics are exercises that require explosive force: jump squats, box jumps, jumping lunges, and bounds. Plyometrics require maximum force for a short interval of time, thus increasing your explosive strength and power output. For runners, plyometrics improve running economy and even overall speed. 

According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, plyometric training resulted in a 4% improvement in 2.4-km time in highly trained runners, when done concurrently with endurance training. 4% improvement is significant, especially in highly trained runners (the more trained you are, the harder you have to work for improvements). 

You want to be mindful not to overdo plyometrics. There is no need for an entire plyometric workout or a HIIT circuit; running is already a high-intensity and high-impact workout. However, one or two plyometric exercises as part of your strength training routine will improve your running. Jump squats, jumping lunges, box jumps, tuck jumps, and single leg hops are all beneficial plyometric exercises. Aim for 2-3 sets of ~30 seconds of work or 10 reps, and allow for at least 60 seconds to recover between sets.

Plyometrics can increase injury risk, so be mindful of good form and soft landing. If you are doing box jumps, do not jump down from the box – you want to treat these more like a power exercise and step down. 

How Runners Can Optimize a Strength Workout

Mindfully Engage Your Muscles

The simplest way to optimize a strength workout? Consciously engage your muscles and use good form! Even a short strength workout will be far more effective if you properly engage your muscles. Mindfully pull your navel to your spine, engage your shoulder blades down and back (think sockets in their pockets!), and engage your glutes. Focus on total body tension; for example, think of ripping apart a kettlebell when holding it for a goblet squat, rather than letting your shoulders and arms go slack. Move deliberately through the exercises, rather than relying on momentum. Even if you end up doing fewer reps within your time constraints, you will work more muscles more effectively. 

Incorporate Eccentric Movements

The eccentric action of an exercise is the lengthening/lowering phase: the lowering down into a squat, lowering down for a deadlift, lowering a weight in a row or press. One simple way to optimize a strength workout is to prolong the eccentric phase.

A review published in BioMed Research International concluded that eccentric muscle actions developed greater maximum force than concentric or isometric, therefore increasing muscle tension, recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers, and increasing force production. When this translates into running, this means that eccentric actions improve running economy and speed. You can generate more force with each step, which means you can run faster at lower consumption of oxygen. 

Research also shows that eccentric movements both prevent injury and aid in injury rehabilitation (Lorenz, International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy)

You can increase eccentric muscle actions into your strength training by slowing down the pace of the lowering phase of an exercise. For example, you can slowly lower down (~5 seconds) into a squat or Romanian deadlift, pause, and then return to standing at a normal rate. 

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How do you optimize a strength workout?
Do you prefer shorter or longer strength sessions?

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11 Responses

  1. A good point about wearing lower drop and less cushioned shoes to strengthen the feet. I usually do my strength training barefoot – which of course has the risk of injury if I drop a weight, ha.
    I also like the point of thinking about the muscle you are training. It makes such a difference!

  2. What a great, comprehensive post about strength training! I loved what you covered on shoe selection. Before I bought CrossFit shoes, my coach would have me lift shoeless, stating that my running shoes were too cushioned and wouldn’t give me a stable base. Focusing on the muscle you are working on is helpful as well, especially when working small muscle groups.

  3. I do agree that more is not always better and I have learned that the hard way a few times. I love my strength training days and they definitely help me to be a better runner. I enjoy doing lots of one legged moves to make sure I challenge both sides equally. Thanks for the informative post

  4. These are all great tips! I usually do my strength work barefoot, to get my feet a workout. Of course I’m doing this at home- can’t do that in the gym.

  5. These are all such great tip. I love anti-rotation movements and I try to work in multiple planes. I like multi-functional exercises which really help get in a lot of benefits in a shorter workut.

  6. Great info! Since I lift at home, I do my workouts barefoot or in just socks. Its so important to focus on quality and engage the proper muscles, or you’re really not going to get as much benefit from the workout!

  7. I love these tips about how to incorporate strength training effectively as a runner! I will definitely. I really like to focus on exercises like clamshells to strengthen my hips.

  8. I have been doing ST shoeless for years. Of course you do have to be careful with that! And even if you’re careful, there is a larger chance of injury but so far so good.

    I’m with you on diminishing returns from HIIT for runners — especially from runners my age!

    Love your “hacks”, Laura, and great suggestions for types of exercises.

  9. I actually do more strength training than running at the moment and I’m really enjoying it! I do other types of cardio workouts as well so I don’t feel like my running or cardio is suffering at all. And it probably has a role in keeping me uninjured as I tend to be injury prone!

  10. These are all incredible nuggets of info. It’s very easy to neglect strength training, but it’s nice to have some ideas on how to squeeze it in!

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