Strength Training for Runners
The Key Points
Strength training is a key part of elite level running performance, and is beneficial for amateur runners as well.
Strength training produces performance improvements without negatively effecting body composition, running technique or VO2 max.
Focus on whole-body strength and mobility in the key movement patterns to improve running performance.
Although strength training is well established as a method of improving running performance, it is often neglected. Whether you’re a short, middle or long-distance runner, strength training will help improve your times and make you more resilient to injury.
Sure, the key part of your training will always be your running mileage, but adding strength training to your weekly program is a smart decision.
Elite level runners embrace the benefits of taking a holistic approach to training. This means paying attention not only to running, but also to recovery, nutrition and strength training…
How does Strength Training Improve Running Performance?
Strength training has been shown to improve running performance because of its effect on force production capabilities, running economy and posture.
Running involves lots and lots of sub-maximal contractions (strides). Each stride involves a take-off and a landing. For take-offs and landings to occur you have to produce, absorb and apply force to the ground — this is what keeps you moving forward.
Whole body strength training improves the ability to produce, apply and absorb forces. Increased strength and improved force production capabilities leads to improvements in running economy…
Running economy is the amount of oxygen and/or energy required for a given speed of sub-maximal running and is often cited as one of the key predictors and influencers of running performance (Barnes, K and Kilding, A, 2015).
By increasing strength, a runner uses less energy to run at a given speed, say 5 minutes per km (5:00/km), and so will be able to maintain this speed for longer.
Plus, they will now be able to run faster (say 4:55/km) at the same energy cost it previously took to run at 5:00/km — this leads to faster times.
Runners need to be able to maintain optimal running form (technique) for the duration of their event. Doing so ensures that they make the most efficient use of energy, and that energy isn’t wasted on unwanted movements caused by fatigue induced deteriorations in technique.
Strength training improves the ability to maintain good running technique by strengthening the muscles of the upper body and core.
Core, shoulder and upper back training is of particular use to runners as strength, stability and endurance in these areas can prevent common causes of wasted energy such as excessive rotation or slouching forward at the shoulders and torso.
Any Other Benefits to Strength Training for Runners?
Logging up miles takes its toll on your hips, knees and ankles. Strength training will make your tendons, ligaments and connective tissues stronger as well as making you generally more robust and mobile.
But Won’t Strength Training Make me Heavier and Slower?
Some runners fear that strength training will add extra bulk, make them slower or reduce their VO2 max.
However, this has not been my experience of training runners nor that of scientific studies; strength training has been shown to improve running performance by improving force production and running economy without any changes in V02 max or body composition.
The purpose of strength training for runners is to provide more strength and power without adding mass. Smart programming will ensure you won’t be running with extra weight.
Strength Training Programs For Runners
A variety of lower, upper and core training can be used to develop strength and power that transfers to improved running performance.
Focus on increasing strength, power and mobility in the key movement patterns:
Additional core, power and carrying work can also form part of a well rounded program.
Note that there are some points to be aware of when using strength training to improve running performance...
Volume of Lower Body Work
The volume of lower body training should be closely monitored as the legs already get a lot of work through running training: keep the volume of lower body strength training on the low side.
The aim is to stimulate an adaptation, not add more unwanted stiffness and fatigue.
Get Stronger, Not Tired
Strength sessions don’t need to challenge the metabolic systems — that’s what your running training will do. So don’t be concerned if you’re not gasping for air during or after a strength training session.
Strength training requires short bursts of maximum effort followed by a rest period. Don’t turn a strength session into a conditioning session by performing hundreds of repetitions. This will only add to an already high level of fatigue that has accumulated from your running training. Less is more!
Strength Training Exercises for Runners
A variety of bilateral (on two feet) and unilateral (single-leg) exercises can be used to strengthen the lower body.
Squats, reverse lunges and stiff leg deadlifts are a good place to start. Other exercises such as single leg hip thrusts, step ups and split squat variations can be cycled in after 4-6 weeks to provide a new stimulus and to prevent boredom.
Be careful with the volume though, the legs accumulate fatigue from running training and we don’t want to be tearing up muscle fibres and making the muscles larger.
Strength and power is the aim so don’t overdo the number of exercises or the reps. Start off by learning the movement patterns of a squat, a hinge and a single-leg exercise and then add load for 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps.
Upper Body and Core
Runners don’t need to be bench pressing hundreds of kilograms or have giant biceps but upper body and core training can definitely contribute positively to running performance.
Training your upper body and core will ensure the muscles responsible for holding your spine in place are stronger, have more endurance and are better able to keep you in a strong position. Weak and quickly fatiguing muscles will flop out of a good position and stay in this bad position for miles upon miles, which leads to wasted energy and reduced performance.
Standing 1 arm dumbbell and barbell overhead presses, chin-ups, horizontal rows such as bent over rows and inverted rows are tremendously beneficial.
As mentioned earlier, upper body strength training will develop the strength needed to maintain good running technique.
Using a combination of lower reps (4-6) with heavier weights and higher reps (15+) with lighter weights will ensure you add strength and endurance without ‘bulking up’.
Two or three sets is enough to elicit a positive adaptation.
The trunk needs to remain stable when running and avoid any unwanted movements such as unnecessary or excessive rotation. One of the key jobs of the core when running is to control and resist rotational forces. Thus, using anti-motion core exercises such as planks, side planks, bird-dogs, loaded carries and pallor presses are worthwhile.
Avoid flexion based exercises such as abdominal curls or crunches, these won’t provide any performance benefit for runners and may even exacerbate poor posture.
Lower-body power work (plyometrics) has also been shown to be useful for runners. This can be added to your program once you have a firm grasp of the key movement patterns and have developed a base level of strength and stability.
Strength training sessions provide a chance to work on your mobility and to start thinking about how you are recovering from your sessions.
Work on improving hip, shoulder, ankle and thoracic mobility to ensure your joints remain healthy and are able to move freely through full ranges of motion.
The nature of long-distance running is such that these joints aren’t moved through their full ranges. The muscles and joints can, over time, become adaptively stiff and short, which is not a good thing.
Strength training movements such as squats, overhead presses and deadlifts will help correct this but there are also specific mobility exercises that can help offset any damage done by lots of long-distance running. The warm up is a great chance to do some dynamic mobility movements and get your joints moving through full ranges of motion.
Recovery from Training
Use mobility tools such as foam rollers and lacrosse balls every day to untie any knots that may have developed through your training. Massages, ice baths and saunas are all also useful for recovering from training.
How Many Strength Training Sessions Should I do per Week?
This will depend on the volume of running training, time of season, competition schedule etc. Aim for one strength training session per week and increase or decrease accordingly.
More strength training sessions can be done during periods of lower running volume.
Distance runners need not become gym rats. However, adding a whole body strength training program to your training will make you a faster and more resilient runner.
Barnes, K and Kilding, A., Running economy: measurement, norms and determining factors, Sports Medicine-Open (2015) 1:8