How do you mix running and weightlifting? It’s a question that’s grown in popularity over the last 5 years as more runners realize the benefits of strength training and more weightlifters understand that cardio is still necessary! If you want the best results for your fitness and health, that’s where the idea of being a hybrid athlete has come in to play.
This is a topic near and dear to my heart as someone who started running in 2002 when NO ONE even thought about strength training.
And especially didn’t talk about how heavy lifting for runners is beneficial. AND how heavy lifting for masters runners is massive. AND how for body builders, cardio remains a necessary component.
Previously we have talked in-depth about the benefits of strength training for runners. From speed, to endurance, to injury prevention, to body fat loss goals it’s all part of a smart plan that includes weights and cardio.
Bodyweight exercises are a great way to get started and still extremely hard when you look at things like push-ups and pull ups. Here we’re looking at gym strength training sessions to build muscle mass as an endurance athlete.
Today we’re going to dive in to some of the most common questions about how to combine running and weightlifting. I’ll also provide you with ideas for how to structure your week and specific weightlifting for runner plans.
Combing Running and Weight Lifting
Hopefully if you’re here I don’t need to convince you of all the reasons that this is the most ideal way to train. Instead, I want to spend time really focusing on how to make running and weight training fit together easily.
Whether your goal is weight loss, improved fitness, running faster or to decrease the risk of injury, making weights part of your routine is going to pay off.
Start Where You Are
In order to build muscle, you need a plan with progressive overload.
That does not mean if you haven’t been strength training that on day one you should start with heavy weights. Instead, you need to start where you are which could mean doing bodyweight only movements.
This is going to teach you the foundation of how to brace your core and how to do movements properly. Without those two things, it’s hard to progress and you’re often not targeting the correct muscles through rushed or incorrect movements.
Super Sore is Not the Goal
If you haven’t be lifting then you are going to experience some soreness. If you haven’t been running, then you’re going to be like THIS IS HARD and things are sore.
But if you are so sore that you can’t complete the next days workout with good form or you’re hobbling around like you ran a marathon then you went too hard.
- More is the not the goal. Minimum effective dose.
- A little sore is ok, if you are super sore then the program was too hard and you need to back off next time.
- Remember that duration can be as little as 20 minutes 2 days a week (run or lift)
- During base building you may do 3 days a week of lifting for up to 45 minutes, while your mileage is lower.
- Those doing 4-5 days of heavy lifting, may still build up to 3-4 days of running if distance training is the goal.
Running And Weightlifting Schedules
I’ve actually put together a few different training schedules as examples.
Here is one potential way that you could combine the two when training for an endurance event.
When you are focused on heavier lifts, our goal is to ensure that you don’t do a hard lower body session the day (or even two days before) a hard run session. We know that DOMS often appears two days later and we don’t want to compromise your speed workout or long run.
When your focus is more on lifting for muscle gains, than training for a race the schedule might shift to look something like this:
Monday – Back and Biceps
Tuesday – Chest and Triceps + interval run
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – Lower Body Day
Friday – Shoulders and traps + optional easy run
Saturday – Cross training (hiking, biking, fun with friends)
Sunday – Longer steady state easy run
This effectively means you’re running and lifting 6 days a week. There are a lot of ways to massage this so that you’re doing say 3 hard full body days and 3 days of running.
Should Run Or Lift First?
It’s not unusual to need to combine running and lifting on the same day. When you’re putting in higher mileage and running 5-6 days a week, it’s the only way to get everything done.
You should do whichever workout first is your priority goal.
Race training – do the run.
Muscle building focus – do the lift.
You want to be freshest for the most important workout.
Studies have actually shown that if you have the option to do one in the morning and one later in the day (6 hours between), you’ll get the most out of both workouts. Understandably that’s just not always possible, so make whatever time you have work.
Should You Run on the Days You Lift Weights?
Yes and no. Honestly, every training schedule is a little different.
Some runners prefer to lift and do speed workouts on the same day, which then ensures that their easy run day remains a fully easy day. Or that their rest day remains a complete rest day.
Should Runners Lift Weights for Legs?
Yes. I think one of the early mistakes many runners make is assuming that because we work our legs so much we don’t need to also strength train legs.
In reality, I think it’s because lifting legs means then they’re fatigued and that next run doesn’t fell as good.
This is where timing becomes extremely important.
You want at least two days between a lower body session and an interval workout or long run.
This is why some runners need to lift on the same day as their speed session.
Ideally you want to do one in the morning and one in the evening to get the most muscle recruitment and ensure fatigue doesn’t reduce your ability to go heavy.
Do Professional Runners Lift Weights?
A 2007 study in the Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance showed that few of the US marathon olympic qualifiers lifted weights. Which seems like my answer is wrong…but now it’s 15 years later and they know more. Coaches know more.
We care more about longevity. We know that total health requires maintaining muscle.
Which is why even the Team USA website now shares an overview of a weightlifting program for distance runners. In the off-seasons they may be doing 3 days a week that are a bit longer and much shorter 2 days a week of lifting during the season.
One of my favorite running authors, Matt Fitzgerald also shared his experience training with the HOKA NAZ elite in 2017. Most of us aren’t coming close to the intensity or volume of strength those high level runners are doing.
“The other factor that made pro-style strength training tough for me was the intensity of the sessions. Virtually every exercise was done until it hurt.
For example, when I saw side planks listed on the workout sheet I was given at the start of my first team strength workout, I celebrated, because I did this exercise at home—one 30-second hold per side, three times per week.
I was forced to do three 75-second holds per side, and it was the single most painful thing I did in Flagstaff, including all of my run workouts.”
While I don’t always recommend mimicking their entire schedule as 100 miles are excessive for the average runner, they have a ton of knowledge we can use.
- 80/20 rule of easy to hard days
- Always warming up
- Fueling well
- Resting to recover
- And lifting weights
Will Running Kill Your Gains?
One of the biggest bro science myths is that you shouldn’t do any cardio because it’s going to “kill your gains”.
Here’s what we know. To build muscle you need a surplus of calories, which is I agree hard to do when marathon training. However, not a lot of people doing two weekly runs for cardio are putting 50 miles.
Studies have generally seemed to point to lack of recovery for any reduction in gains. Which is both the fueling and the time the body needs to rebuild from heavy lifting, hard runs, or long runs.
And we also know that if you want those muscles to show through, you need to include things like HIIT running workout and sprints to amp up the metabolism, teach your body how to efficiently use carbohydrates and help reduce that top layer of body fat.
It’s a necessity to include cardio in your training for total health and longevity. You don’t have to run, but if you want to, absolutely don’t let this idea hinder you.
You can do both.
You need to focus on eating enough high quality protein after all workouts. You need to focus on total quality calorie consumption. You likely need to rotate your focus at times from muscle building to endurance building.
Some protein ideas to help you build and maintain muscle:
- 17 High Protein Post Workout Smoothies
- 97 High Protein Breakfast Ideas
- High Protein Power Bowl Meal Ideas
- High Protein Cookie Dough
Do I Need a Runner-Specific Strength Training Plan?
Not really. Women don’t need women specific strength training either.
BUT that being said, when a running coach (like us) plans your strength during marathon training it is with a different focus in mind than the 4 day muscle building split above. We are looking at the whole picture to balance your energy needs, your breakdown and recovery.
Heavy Weight Training for Runners Plan
The key to seeing progress in your running from strength is lifting heavy.
We know that for health and total fitness, all strength training matters. But for performance, you need to build up to heavier weights, particularly during the base building phase of training.
In addition to lifting heavy, we also want to see some plyometrics in the plan. This is going to work on both your power and speed.
According to a 2018 study that analyzed a number of research results for middle to long distance runners there are some specific benefits:
- reduction in energy cost (meaning less energy needed to perform the same activities)
- increase in maximal force and power (meaning more energy pushed in to the ground for a powerful stride)
- it does not impact your VO2 Max or cardiovascular system (meaning the impacts are entirely due to muscle conditioning)
Additionally we know that higher loads are good for bone density.
Let’s look at how that might come together in a plan.
12 Week Heavy Lifting for Runners Program
Here is a fully designed heavy lifting program from Running Coach Kaitlyn Faist of Run To The Finish. She has been a coach on our team since 2018 and a personal trainer in gyms since 2016.
She’s helped many of our athletes who wanted to combine running and weightlifting to hit their goals, so I asked her to create something people could follow on their own.
This program is designed with a 3 phase approach to ensure that you have good form and build progressively over each phase. Because you can progress the movements based on the amount of weight used, it’s easy to apply to those with some lifting experience and those ready to build muscle.
She will guide you through the specific exercises with a downloadable plan you can take to the gym and demonstration videos for every movement from deadlifts, squats, to all upper body exercises to ensure good form.
Without good form you’re missing the benefit of the movement.
What Does Heavy Heavy Lifting Mean?
Muscular endurance resistance training is often described as lifting a weight for 12-15 reps. Where a heavy weight is one that you can only lift for 4-8 reps.
When lifting heavier weights that also means you need to take more rest between sets to maximize the recovery and amount you can lift.
- Start by finding your 1 rep max
- Focus on maintaining good form, lower your weight if you can’t maintain that form
- Then start with 3 sets of 4-8 reps per move
- You may build up to 6 sets over time
- Rest at least 2 minutes between sets – there is actually science about what’s happening in your muscles that requires this amount of time
Hopefully this answers a lot of your big questions around running and lifting weights! I love seeing more runners incorporating the gym workouts and reaping the benefits.
If you aren’t quite ready for heavy lifting, here are some other things to check out.
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