Strength training for runners used to be an optional part of the plan. You’d see a cross training day and think ehh maybe I’ll ride my bike or go for a swim. While those are fantastic ways to cross train, they’ll never come close to the benefits a runner gets from working on strength.
Now, all of our athletes are required to incorporate strength training.
We put it in the plan and we follow up to make sure it’s happening! I’ve found two things really help us stick with a runner strength training plan:
- Knowing exactly how it’s going to make us a better runner.
- It needs to be quick, so we can keep getting in our miles.
- Understand where we can use bodyweight and when we benefit from dumbbells.
I’m the first to admit that if weight training leaves me so sore I can’t get in my miles, I’m unlikely to want to do it again. Running is my primary goal, my strength training needs to enhance the speed, distance or feel of those runs!
What is Strength Training for Runners?
Strength training for runners is just strength training. Period.
There is no special way that women should train or that taller or shorter people should train. What we are usually referring to is a program that helps to focus on the most common areas of weakness for runners.
In addition to that, we’re focused on creating plans that allow the runner to build strength without sacrificing the quality of their runs.
We know that in order to complete a long run or distance race, you need the energy to put in enough miles.
This is why our strength training needs to follow a periodization, just like our running.
- Base building – a time where we are lifting more often and heavier
- Race Training – a time where we are lifting fewer days with more focused intent
- Race Week – a time where we are cutting strength and running volume to improve performance
Just like running, strength is use it or lose it. So you can’t do a great base period of weight lifting and then stop because you start training for a race.
Now it’s time to start diving in to why strength training for runners is becoming a required piece of training. It’s so much more than how running tones your legs!
“the addition of resistance training to an ongoing endurance exercise regimen, including running or cycling, increases both short and long term endurance capacity in sedentary and trained individuals.
Resistance training also appears to improve lactate threshold in untrained individuals…“
6 Reasons Strength Training is Important for Runners
Why is strength training important for runners? The benefits really are vast and I admit that even as a running coach it took me seeing a lot of the data to finally get consistent with my own routine about 5 years ago.
We now know that it’s about so much more than light weights high reps. You’re going to need to work up to increasing the weights you can pick up to get maximum gains from your training schedule.
#1 Reduce Muscle Imbalances
Running is inherently a single leg sport. With each stride we are leaping from one leg to the other, which means that if we have one side that’s weaker it will start to create a lot of issues.
Our running form will deteriorate. We will have less power in our stride and we start to compensate with other muscles, which simple creates a new set of issues.
#2 Reducing Injury Risk
Our biggest struggle as distance runners is to train consistently. Strength training is a key tool to ensure that happens! 90% of the injuries my Physical Therapist friends see in runners are a result of weak hips, glutes and core.
Weak muscles prevent us from maintaining good form. We start to see a lot of overpronation from hips that can’t hold our knee or ankles in a straight line.
If even a small amount of time strength training will prevent injuries, then it means you can continue to run. And the more you run, the better you’re able to get.
To make sure I fairly show all sides…
A 2020 study showed NO reduction in injuries for a first time marathon training group doing just 10 minutes of bodyweight moves, 3 times per week. What most coaches have taken from this is we need training plans specific to the ability of that runner, we need to add weights and make sure they are actually doing the workouts.
These 10 minute sessions sound like perfect pre-run workouts, but need supplemental weight lifting sessions.
#3 Improve Running Economy
Would you like to run farther with less effort? Sounds like a winning scenario to me. Strength training for runners will help that to happen.
A 2016 meta-analysis study, showed that 2-3 sessions per week resulted in a reduction of oxygen use of 3-4% at the same intensity (others have shown up to 8%). In other words, the body didn’t need to work as hard to maintain the original level of effort.
It can also improve race performance by 2%-5%, which could mean taking minutes off a half marathon.
We aren’t looking to increase your endurance with weights. Running does that. But we are doing things that will help you maintain better form as you fatigue because the muscles are now stronger and more stable.
#4 Increase Running Speed
Finally, one of the reasons that will catch most runners eye…speed. There’s a reason that short distance track superstars have such big well defined muscles; they create power and speed.
Distance runners are unlikely to ever develop that kind of muscle.But we can absolutely benefit from the power created in our stride through lifting heavy weights.
Running requires a TON of balance and stability. Constantly shifting weight from one side of the body to the other requires so many muscles to be firing at once.
Running by itself – won’t necessarily recruit those muscles.
Muscles need to be turned on and engaged, otherwise they’re just along for the ride. And I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to let any muscles free load during my runs. That sh*t ain’t easy and I need all the help I can get.
It’s why you’ll often hear people talking about activating their glutes, which are turned off from sitting all day.
#5 Maintain Lean Muscle Mass
Want to lose weight while running? Then you better make sure your body doesn’t start using muscle for fuel! Part of that is eating enough, but secondary is spending time doing things to encourage muscle growth.
It’s very, very hard to build muscle in general. And even harder for distance runners, so don’t fret about getting too big.
2015 study by Beattie et al. found that over a 40-week period, distance runners following a strength-training program were able to improve their leg strength without creating “unwanted” muscle mass.
This is known as the concurrent effect. It basically stunts the ability of the muscles to really grow when doing high volumes of aerobic work.
#6 Total Health
This is an area that too often gets overlooked. Running should make you healthier and often we see the opposite happen as people try fad diets or don’t listen to their body when it says “give me rest” or we push through to “never miss a Monday”.
Strength training for runners will help with our total health.
- Improved bone density
- Preventing muscle loss as we age
- Maintaining better balance and stability as we age
- Better joint flexibility
What Strength Exercises Should Runners Do?
The tendency for many years was to focus on high reps and low weight, which works to increase muscular endurance. This is absolutely a piece of the puzzle, but just one piece.
Studies have shown to improve running economy, heavy/low rep and explosive exercises are the most beneficial.
Running works a ton of muscles! You’ll quickly see it’s about so much more than just your legs. In fact, if I had to force you to pick one area to start with it would be the core.
Your training should have a focus on three things:
A strong core is defined entire torso, so the hips, glutes and abs. These muscles are going to not only create power, but are the prime driver in injury prevention.
They will help to keep your knee in alignment, prevent your hips from dropping with each step and ensure weaker muscles aren’t doing the work your glutes should.
Anti-rotational exercises build stability and strength to prevent rotation of the lower back in harmful ways, which can easily happen as you fatigue during a run.
These are movements that require you to contract the obliques, transverse abdominals and full rectus abdominis. Keeping your trunk still while other portions of your body move. This is going to build stability and help ensure you aren’t twisting your body while running.
A few example core movements:
- Dumbbell slide through (plank position, pick up dumbbell from one side and move to the other)
- Hip Bridges
- Planks with alternating arm raises
- Lateral banded walks
All movements mentioned are detailed in the strength training programs.
👉Get a full core workout video here >>
Lower Body Workouts
The focus here is building strength which will encourage your glutes to do their load of the work. They are your biggest muscle and the more power they provide, the faster and more efficient you’ll be while running.
Unilateral movements are something you’ll see a lot of here. That means training one side at a time. This allows us to see if one side is weaker than the other, to address balance issues and increases use of our core for stability. All of which we need to run better.
Remember you might start with body weight only, but want to progress to lifting heavier at times for maximum benefits. You’ll also notice we kept mentioning explosive movements.
That could mean progressing to jump squats holding weights. Adding box jumps and other plyometric moves for runners.
A few key lower body moves for runners:
- Weighted squats
- Single leg deadlifts (combo of anit-rotation and unilateral)
- Weighted lunges
- Weighted calf raises
👉See three full body workouts for runners >>
Upper Body Workouts
We often think that the upper body isn’t used during running, but that’s absolutely not true.
While running, your arms are a driving force. The quicker they swing, often the quicker your running cadence. Additionally, the right powerful arm swing helps to move you up hills. (think of it like an upper cut).
As your shoulders being to fatigue, you stop swinging your arms as fast, which tells your legs to slow down, which tells your brain your getting tired.
As your back gets tired you start to slouch, which closes off your lungs, which reduces your oxygen, which tells your legs they need to stop. We want to keep those shoulder blades back, but remain relaxed so you aren’t holding extra neck tension.
You might run mostly with your legs, but it’s still all connected! A fully aligned spine from muscle that can hold position means running with ease.
- Single arm shoulder press
- Single arm row
- Push ups
- Bent over flys
👉See an upper body workout for runners >>
Should I Run Before or After Lifting?
This is probably the biggest question for all runners. There are some scientific based answers and some real world answers!
Let’s start with what the studies show. In an ideal world we need a minimum of 6 hours between the run and the strength workout for maximum effectiveness of both. But studies like one by Robert Hickson in 1980 say 8-10 hours.
When we do our run and strength back to back, muscles are obviously fatigued. This means we’re unable to lift as heavy or often run as far. That leads to diminished effectiveness.
HOWEVER, getting the workout done over skipping it because you can’t make that 8 hours happen is worth it. Let’s look at the three main ways you’ll likely incorporate strength training in to a marathon program.
For those who are only running 3 days per week, you could easily alternate run and strength days.
Train Twice In One Day
When you have a flexible schedule, the ideal scenario tends to be doing your running workout in the morning. Completing your normal day and then finishing with strength training.
This provides that 8 hour window and gives you plenty of time to refuel, re-hydrate and complete both workouts feeling strong.
We usually prescribe this on days where you are doing a hard interval or tempo workout for your run. This allows you to keep hard days hard and easy days easy. Meaning the following day should be a recovery run or easy run, allowing your body to adapt to the work from a double day.
Strength Train After the Run
If you are currently focused on training for a race, then you’ll want to ensure you complete the run workout before lifting weights.
This ensures that your legs are fresh to go hard or that your perceived exertion level isn’t skewed by the fatigue from strength training.
**Caveat: Doing an upper body workout directly after the run will likely have less diminished results because those muscles aren’t as fatigued as say your glutes from running hills.
- Many coaches prefer this method to ensure workouts are completed
- Remember to grab a protein shake or some EAA’s. This is going to help ensure your muscles have enough fuel for the workout and will increase the benefits.
- Focusing on core and upper body is easy to do even on harder run days
- Don’t neglect the lower body movements, but reduce reps if form is breaking down.
Strength Train Before the Run
If you are in a phase of base building or currently focused on strength as your priority, then you will want to do the strength portion of your workout first.
You want to be freshest for whatever is the higher priority.
*Caveat: There are days where I will intentionally lift legs and then do a short 3 mile very easy run. The goal of this run is to practice running on tired legs. It’s absolutely going to happen at some point during a long distance race and this gives me that sensation with no pressure.
- Our runners almost always do 5-10 minutes of core work prior to running
- Doing deadbugs, banded walks and movements that don’t exhaust, but activate muscles is ideal
- If doing a full body workout or heavy leg day, then plan for it to be a recovery run
Strength Training Plans for Runners
If you’d like a complete plan to follow, you’re in luck. Over years of coaching thousands of athletes we have created a lot of custom plans for our 1-1 athletes.
That has lead to a few video courses that will provide you with specific training guides and videos to follow based on your current level of fitness.
Base Building Runner Strength Training Program
This plan is designed for that off season of running. The time where you can devote a little more to your strength and are willing to do at least 3 workouts per week.
All workouts include a demo and follow along video. Most workouts are 20-30 minutes because even with more time, you’re still busy! It’s designed for the beginner to intermediate runner and can be done at home.
Marathon Training Strength Plan
This program is designed to be done during race training. It takes in to account that you may have less time and need to be more aware of your energy for long runs.
It includes demo and follow along videos for all workouts. This plan can be done entirely at home using dumbbells. It’s designed for the beginner to intermediate runner who has some knowledge of lifting, but keeps everything fairly simple!
You can and should repeat the plan to increase the weights you’re able to use and measure progress.
Heavy Lifting for Runners Program
This is a very detailed phased training program that covers 12 weeks. It’s going to provide you with 3 strength workouts per week that are about 45 minutes, 1 mobility workout and for a limited time access to Coach Kaitlyn to answer questions about your heavy lifting.
As always our team also provides strength training as part of any 1-1 Online Run Coaching. So if you’re looking for something customized to your life and your situation, that’s the way to go!
Free Runner Strength Training Workouts
But if you’re just not sure what you need, here are a few other workouts you can try!
- Best Strength Training Moves for Runners (if I had to pick 10 quick ones)
- Hip Exercises for Runners
- Best Glute Activation Exercises
- 5 Knee Strengthening Exercises
- 10 Free Online Strength Training Resources
- 3 ITB Strength Exercises
- Hip Exercises with Stability Ball
- 27 Body Weight Workouts for Runners
- 3 Full Body Workouts for Runners
- Upper Body Workout
Hopefully this gave you some great places to start with your own workouts whether you have access to a gym or need to do everything at home. It’s entirely doable and you’ll find that even 20 minutes is going to net you big results.
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