Strength Training for Runners: A Comprehensive Guide

Strength Training for Runners: A Comprehensive Guide

Runners are notoriously hesitant to pick up the weights and engage in strength training. The fear of getting heavy, bulky, and muscle-bound (whatever that really means) prevents many runners from looking at the gym for more than, possibly, a place to spend some time on the treadmill during harsh weather. Also, many runners don’t enjoy lifting. Runners want to run, not mess around in the weight room.

Research suggests that avoiding strength training might be a mistake if you want to be the best runner you can be.

Sure, the specificity principle still applies: you get good at what you do. As a runner, you want to dedicate most of your training to running. However, a workout plan that includes heavy resistance training could be your best approach to becoming a better runner.

Benefits of Strength Training for Runners

As a runner, your performance is primarily limited by how much oxygen you supply to your muscles and your heart. That’s the hallmark of aerobic exercise.

Strength training offers several key benefits for improving your running. These include:

Running Economy

Running economy is the amount of oxygen or energy your body uses to maintain your running pace. Several reviews and meta-analyses show that you improve your running economy by up to 8% if you add weight training to your training program.1 2 3

In a practical setting, on the track, trail, or road, an improved running economy should allow you to run at a lower relative intensity, leading to meaningful performance improvements during a workout or a race. Regardless of your training status, if you are moderately-trained, well-trained, or highly-trained, you can expect to improve your running economy and your running performance by hitting the weights in addition to your running.

Sprinting Speed

As a distance runner, you might not consider your sprinting speed crucial for your performance.  

It’s true that your maximal oxygen consumption is probably the single most important measurement of your running capacity and potential. Maximal oxygen consumption, or VO2 max, is the maximum rate at which your body can utilize oxygen and get it to your muscles during exercise. The higher your VO2 max, the faster you run a certain distance.

If you improve your maximum sprinting speed, you also up your performance over a longer distance. While that mainly applies to middle-distance running up to 1,500 meters, some studies suggest benefits even if you run 10 kilometers or longer.

Early research demonstrated that strength training improves sprinting performance in short-distance runners. More recent research shows that strength training improves your capacity to sprint 20–30 meters as fast as possible during longer races as well.

Time Trial Benefits

Time trials are an excellent way to measure your progressive improvements in running performance. You simply run a certain distance against the clock, making it very easy to measure progress.

According to research, adding resistance exercise to your training program boosts your time trial performance.1 Expect performance increases of 3–5% in middle-distance races and 2–4% in long-distance events.

These aren’t theoretical benefits, either. In most studies, the time trials took place in real-life scenarios, using similar conditions and environments as a race. That means that the results are likely to be highly relevant to your own training and performance.

Let’s say your best 10-kilometer run is 60 minutes. If you add lifting to your training program and improve your time trial performance by 3%, you’d cut almost two minutes off your personal best time.

Strength Training Doesn’t Make You Bulky

Lifting weights is the definite way to build muscle. That’s why bodybuilders and athletes who benefit from increased muscle mass focus on strength training.

It’s also one of the main reasons why runners avoid strength training. A heavier body requires more energy and effort to move. Running 10 kilometers requires around 12,500 steps, and considering you leave the ground with every step, even a slight increase in body mass could be detrimental to your performance.

If you worry about getting big and bulky if you take up lifting, fear not.

Perhaps surprisingly, adding strength training does not lead to changes in body composition, body mass, or lean muscle mass in runners. Virtually all studies show that combining resistance training and running improves running economy and performance without adding muscle and making you heavier.1

The reason you don’t get big and bulky by lifting weights as a runner is likely, at least in part, explained by the interference effect. When you engage in strength training, you activate specific genes that tell your body to make your muscle fibers grow.5 Prolonged running, on the other hand, activates genes that interfere with the effects of strength training on muscle protein synthesis.6 Best of all, while running might impede your muscle gains, strength training does not interfere with your endurance development. As a runner, you only get the benefits, not the drawbacks.

In addition, a calorie surplus makes gaining muscle mass much more effortless.7 As a runner, you probably avoid long-term overfeeding as weight gain makes you heavier and slower.

As a result, you don’t have to worry about strength training making you bulky. An overwhelming number of studies show that strength training for runners does not lead to changes in body composition, body mass, or lean muscle mass.

Strength Training for Runners: Consistency Is Key

To improve as a runner, you need to run consistently. Similarly, strength training must be a long-term commitment.

While you notice the benefits of strength training after only weeks of lifting, you also lose them within a matter of weeks.8 If you quit lifting, the benefits largely disappear within six weeks. Therefore, aim to keep resistance exercise in your training arsenal consistently, and you’ll reap the long-term benefits. Of course, if you’re a competitive runner, you have to periodize your strength training appropriately so as not to overwhelm you during periods of intensified running and racing.

How Often Should a Runner Lift Weights?

In most studies that report improvements in running economy and performance from strength training, participants spend 2–3 times per week in the gym. That’s a great training frequency for getting stronger, giving you the best results for the time spent.9 Three strength training sessions per week leads to better strength gains than two sessions per week in non-strength individuals in general.10 However, if you’re already engaging in running, two weight-training sessions are likely enough.2

What if you can only get to the gym one day per week? Don’t worry; you still benefit from lifting.11 While you might not gain as much strength as with two or three workouts per week, you’ll still make meaningful improvements.

As a runner, running is your primary form of training. Lifting weights 4–5 times per week is one thing if that’s your focus, but you can only recover from so much training. If you’re a high-level runner, maybe training ten or more times per week, you can’t overdo the lifting or risk overtraining and possible injury.

For the recreational runner, time is also an important aspect. Most of us can only spend so much time exercising.  As a runner, you probably want to spend most of your training time on running. Adding many days of strength training to your schedule could take up too much of your valuable leisure time you’d rather spend running.

Regardless of your training level, working out with weights two or three days per week is ideal. Two days per week probably offers optimal performance benefits for the time invested for most runners. And, even if you can only engage in strength training once per week, it’s still way better than no weight training at all.

How to Schedule Your Running and Strength Sessions

To maximize the benefits you get from your training, you want to feel fresh and recovered when you work out. After a heavy session with the weights, especially lower-body training, your muscles might be tired enough to compromise your running performance for some hours.12

Consider allowing at least 24 hours between a strength-training workout and a run. As for running and then lifting weights, a 3-hour recovery window should be enough.1

If you’re on a tight schedule and can only fit strength training into it if you combine both types of activity in the same workout, it’s not optimal but doable. In that case, schedule your run first, followed by the weights. If you’ve ever tried running after a high-intensity lower-body session in the gym, you know that your legs feel like cooked noodles, and your performance suffers. Again, combining running and strength training in the same workout is not optimal, but it won’t hurt on occasion if you only have a little time.

Progress Gradually

When adding strength training to your running, it’s essential that you start easy and gradually increase training volume and load. If you go gung-ho with high-volume lifting right off the bat, you might add more stress to your body than it can handle. Not only do you risk overtraining and injury, but also burn-out and mental fatigue.

As with running, you can’t go all-out from the start if you want to reach the finish line.

Start carefully with low-volume strength training and gradually go from there. Most studies with successful outcomes initially use 1–2 sets per muscle group and progress to 3–6 sets per muscle group throughout a handful of weeks. Such a progression system is appropriate to reap the benefits of strength training without giving your body a sudden training load it can’t handle.

Failure or Not?

When lifting weights for muscle growth, a common practice is training to muscular failure during a set. That means performing a set with maximal effort until you’re not capable of completing another repetition due to fatigue.

Regularly training to failure might benefit lifters looking to build as much muscle as possible. However, as a runner, you should avoid training to failure.

Training to muscular failure places a lot of stress on your muscles and nervous system and delays recovery. It’s a possible tool to maximize muscle hypertrophy but unnecessary if you’re looking for strength gains.13

As a runner, you want to maximize strength gains without adding body mass while allowing proper recovery to perform your best when running. Therefore, training to failure is unnecessary and possibly even detrimental and better left to the bodybuilders.

How Heavy Should You Lift?

It’s easy to think that strength training for runners should focus on high-rep training with light weights to improve muscle endurance.

Don’t make that mistake. You should move moderate-heavy to heavy weights to benefit the most from strength training. You already perform the best exercise for muscle endurance: running. It’s a far better way to improve your muscle endurance than high-rep weight training. When you hit the weights, train for strength and power.

Low reps using more than 80% of your 1RM (the amount of weight with which you’re able to perform a single repetition) for 3–5 reps and using moderate weights (60–80% of your 1RM) for 5–15 reps are equally effective and offer similar benefits.1

However, high-rep training using lighter loads and more than 20 repetitions per set is less effective if you’re looking to improve your running performance. Make your time in the gym count by lifting heavier weights and challenging your muscles.

Rest Intervals

Don’t make your strength workouts cardio sessions. Your running, not your weight training, is your cardio. You don’t have to leave the gym covered in sweat with your heart racing. 

Rushing from one exercise to the next and minimizing your rest intervals between sets is not only unnecessary but detrimental. Resting 3–5 minutes between sets leads to better results in strength gains than taking a 1-minute breather.14

Strength Training for Runners: Injury Prevention

While running is an excellent exercise for your health, it also comes with significant injury risks. Research shows that between 37 and 56% of runners suffer an injury each year.15

Preventing an injury is much better than having to treat it. But is regular strength training helpful for injury prevention in runners?

While very few studies focus on running specifically, many demonstrate that strength training is one of the best ways to prevent sport injuries in general.16 17

Lifting weights is associated with fewer injuries, and one review concluded that strength training reduces sports injuries to less than 1/3 and cuts the number of overuse injuries in half.

By regularly engaging in strength training, not only do you become a better and faster runner, but you also reduce your risk of getting injured in the process.

Which Exercises Are Best for Improving Running Performance?

When selecting exercises, go for the ones giving you the most bang for the buck. Don’t spend your limited gym time doing biceps machine curls. Instead, perform exercises that involve several muscle groups, preferably using free weights rather than machines.1

Exercises like barbell back squats, lunges, and deadlifts, which require you to generate the maximum amount of force from your leg muscles, directly benefit your running performance the most.

Runners primarily focus on lower-body exercises in the gym, which makes sense since the muscles in your lower body do most of the work when you’re running. However, making sure your upper body training gets its fair share of the weight training also benefits your running.

For example, strong core, upper back, and shoulder muscles make sure you’re able to keep a good posture even when fatigue sets in during a run or a race. And strong arms and shoulders help you keep your arm swing controlled and powerful.

Basic exercises like the barbell row, the bench press, and the overhead press strengthen all the major muscle groups in your upper body. Add some core work like the plank, leg raises, and crunches, and you’re good to go.

Sample Beginner Strength-Training Program for Runners

Here’s a two-day-a-week, basic full-body training plan for strengthening your whole body, focusing on the muscles you use when running. Compound movements that activate large muscles give you the most bang for the buck, and that’s what you get with this program.

While research shows that anything from 3 to 15 reps gives similar results, I still feel a medium-high number of reps is preferable. Going too heavy can tax the joints, and high reps are uncomfortable and mentally challenging without clear benefits.

Day 1

Day 2

You’ll find this program and many more in the StrengthLog app.  Both the program and the app are completely free, forever, with no ads. We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which offers additional benefits and which you can activate in the app.

Download StrengthLog using the nifty buttons below:

The Best Strength-Training Exercises for Runners

Let’s go through the exercises of the sample routine and look at their benefits. There are many more advanced exercises that are beneficial for runners on an individual basis, but these are the basic compound movements that will make everyone a better runner.

Squat

Often referred to as the king of all exercises, the squat is one of the best, if not the best, exercises to improve athletic performance, including running.

Muscles Worked in Squats

How to Squat

  1. Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
  2. Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
  3. Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
  4. With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
  5. Exhale on the way up or exchange air in the top position.
  6. Inhale and repeat for reps.

Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift strengthens the back of your entire body, the posterior chain muscles, including your glutes, your hamstrings, and your lower back.

Muscles Worked in Romanian Deadlifts

How to Do Romanian Deadlifts

  1. Get into the starting position by deadlifting a barbell off the floor, or by unracking it from a barbell rack.
  2. Inhale, brace your core slightly, and lean forward by hinging in your hips. Keep your knees almost completely extended.
  3. Lean forward as far as possible without rounding your back. You don’t have to touch the barbell to the floor, although it is OK if you do.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Exhale on the way up.
  5. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

Commentary

You can stand on an elevation (for example a weight plate) if you want to extend the range of motion without hitting the floor.

Calf Raise

Your Achilles tendon stores and releases energy during every step and your calf muscles are attached to your Achilles tendon. Strong calf muscles make sure you have a spring in your step when you need it.

Muscles Worked in Standing Calf Raises

How to Do Standing Calf Raises

  • Place your toes and the ball of your feet on the foot support. Place the shoulder pads against your shoulders, and stand upright in the starting position.
  • Lower yourself down by bending your ankles in a controlled movement.
  • Push yourself up by extending your ankles.

Commentary

Standing calf raises train both the inner (solues) and outer (gastrocnemius) calf muscles simultaneously.

A variant of the exercise is seated calf raises, in which the gastrocnemius is shortened and therefore somewhat disengaged, thus isolating the work to soleus.

Bench Press

The bench press is one of the best upper-body exercises and strengthens your pecs, delts, and triceps. A strong upper body is essential for maintaining posture even when fatigue sets in during long runs.

Muscles Worked in the Bench Press

How to Bench Press with Proper Form

  1. Lie on the bench, pull your shoulder blades together and down, and keep a proud chest.
  2. Grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Inhale, hold your breath, and unrack the bar.
  4. Lower the bar with control, until it touches your chest somewhere close to your sternum.
  5. Push the bar up while exhaling.
  6. Take another breath in the top position, and repeat for reps.

Barbell Row

The barbell row works your back and biceps, ensuring you have the strength to maintain your posture and stability while running. Strengthening your biceps is also a great way to maintain a powerful arm drive.

Muscles Worked in Barbell Rows

How to Do Barbell Rows

  • Grip the bar with an overhand grip, and lean forward with the bar hanging from straight arms.
  • Breathe in and pull the bar towards you.
  • Pull the bar as high as you can, so that it touches your abs or chest if possible.
  • With control, lower the bar back to the starting position.

Plank

A strong and stable core is essential for any runner. You’ll maintain good form and improve your running efficiency by incorporating planks into your routine.

Muscles Worked in the Plank

How to Do the Plank

  • Stand on your elbows and feet.
  • Brace your abs, and try to form and hold a straight line from your head to feet.

Deadlift

If you had to pick a single exercise for your strength program, you wouldn’t be wrong to choose the deadlift. Deadlifts strengthen most of your body, especially your back, legs, and glutes, muscles that help you apply more force during a run.

Muscles Worked in Deadlifts

How to Deadlift

  1. Step up close to the bar so that it is about over the middle of your foot.
  2. Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

Lunge

Lunges strengthen your primary running muscles: your glutes, hamstrings, and quads. They can also help you improve the mobility of your hips. Being a unilateral exercise, meaning you train one side of your body at a time, lunges also improve your balance and stability.

Muscles Worked in Barbell Lunges

How to Do Barbell Lunges

  • Take a big step forward and sink as deep as possible in a lunge position, without hitting the knee of the back leg in the floor.
  • Return to the starting position by pushing yourself back with the front leg.

Commentary

The lunge is an exercise that not only strengthens your leg muscles, but it can also be used to train your balance, coordination and control. An alternative to using a barbell for external load, is the dumbbell lunge.

Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown, true to its name, is a great exercise for working your lats but also your biceps. When you run, you create a twisting motion in your upper body, and having strong lats allows you to keep it going without fatigue setting in.

Muscles Worked in Lat Pulldowns

How to Do Lat Pulldowns

  • Grip the bar with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you), slightly wider than shoulder width.
  • Sit down with your thighs under the leg support, keep your chest up, and look up at the bar.
  • Inhale and pull the bar towards you.
  • Pull the bar down until it is below your chin or touches your upper chest.
  • Exhale and slowly return the bar until your arms are fully extended.

Overhead Press

Running is a whole-body exercise, and strong shoulder muscles help you keep your posture and support your forward momentum. The overhead press is a fantastic exercise for strengthening your shoulder muscles and triceps. In addition, the overhead press engages your core musculature to stabilize your body during the movement.

Muscles Worked in the Overhead Press

How to Overhead Press

  • Grip a bar slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Take a breath, lightly brace your core, and unrack the bar.
  • Let the bar rest against your front delts while you take a step back from the rack.
  • Press the bar up to straight arms, while exhaling.
  • Inhale at the top, or while lowering the bar with control back to your shoulders.
  • Repeat for reps.

Hip Thrust

Hip thrusts give your glutes a thrashing. Your glutes are the hub of your running movements, from top to bottom, involving your back, hips, pelvis, knees, feet, and ankles. Strong glutes make for a strong runner.

Muscles Worked in Hip Thrusts

How to Hip Thrust

  • Sit on the floor with your back against a sturdy bench.
  • Roll the barbell up over your thighs, until it is placed over your hips.
  • Place your feet on the floor, about shoulder width apart, with bent knees.
  • Place your hands on the bar to stabilize it.
  • Push the bar towards the ceiling by extending your hips. Your knees should form a ~90 degree angle at the top.
  • Lower the weight and repeat for reps.

Hanging Leg Raise

Directly targeting your abdominal muscles while also working your hip flexors, the hanging leg raise is an excellent exercise for runners. It’s a challenging one, though, so if you find yourself struggling, go for the hanging knee raise instead.

Muscles Worked in Hanging Leg Raise

How to Do Hanging Leg Raises

  • Jump up and grab a bar, placed high enough that you can hang from it with straight legs.
  • Without swinging, lift your legs as high as you can in front of you.
  • Lower your legs again, with control.

Commentary

This is a challenging exercise, so feel free to do hanging knee raises instead.

Don’t want to go to a gym or don’t have access to one? No problem! You can substitute the weights with quality resistance bands for most of the above exercises. A resistance band workout lets you train your entire body in the comfort of your own home.

Strength Training for Runners: Summary

Want to become a better runner? Add strength training to your routine! From sprinters to marathon runners, all runners benefit from a stronger body. Lifting weights is not just for bodybuilders and strength athletes but a scientifically proven way to improve your running as well. 

You improve your neuromuscular coordination, build stronger muscles, and become able to run faster for longer. As a bonus, you also reduce your risk of injury and muscle imbalances.

Hit the weights running, and your running will hit new heights.

References

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