Strength training for runners is often regarded as optional. But it shouldn’t be. The evidence is overwhelming that resistance training improves performance and reduces the risk of injury.
“Strength training for runners improves performance and reduces the risk of injury.”
But it’s not any weight training that is beneficial. Exercise selection and timing are crucial to get the most out of your strength workouts. And above all, it has to be time-efficient as you’re busy running already.
The Benefits of Strength Training for Runners
Complementing your running with strength training serves two purposes: Enhancing your performance and staying injury-free. People who strength train also look better naked. But that’s not the topic of this article.
Strength Training and Performance – Your runner’s body is more than a cardiovascular powerhouse attached to your legs. A professional cyclist with a high VO2max and lactate threshold will unlikely be the winner of a local running event. The muscles move your body; if they are not primed for the task, no amount of oxygen will compensate for it. Sure, fast repetitions and hill training will make you stronger, but if you really want to take your performance to the next level, strength training is a non-negotiable.
The obvious factor is increased force production, resulting in a more powerful stride. But strength training also improves running economy by enhancing neuromuscular coordination.
Strength Training and Injury-Resilience – You should do everything possible to avoid injuries to your connective tissue, such as bones, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. They usually involve a joint (mostly knee and ankle in runners), and some injuries are irreversible. Preventive strength training can drastically reduce the likelihood of that happening. While connective tissue has limited potential to get stronger, fortifying your surrounding muscles helps protect your joints.
For runners, specific core and leg exercises are of primary importance. But more on that later.
Does Strength Training Make You Bulky?
In our minds, we somehow still equate weightlifting with the image of a bodybuilder. Invariably, the question arises whether strength training will cause you to gain weight and slow your running performance. The short answer is no!
First, if you run at least 4 times a week – as you should as a runner with performance goals – then gaining significant muscle mass would be near impossible. That’s not because of a calorie deficit. Endurance training triggers AMPK (AMP-activated protein kinase), which inhibits anabolic pathways (mTOR). In other words, the catabolic nature of endurance training will keep your weight in check.
That doesn’t mean you can’t sport a beach body. The running and strength training combination will have you ripped and toned like a fitness model. But I promise you won’t be a heavyweight.
Secondly, strength training for runners is different from a bodybuilding routine. Bodybuilders are primarily concerned with hypertrophy (muscle growth). As an athlete, you focus on improving your strength-to-weight ratio and functional muscles. That means compound exercises with a limited number of sets instead of isolating muscles with a high volume of sets.
How Often Should Runners Do Strength Training?
My recommendation is 2 strength training sessions per week, ideally 72 hours apart. Less than that will limit your progress; more will likely get in the way of your running. But this is just a guideline. Much depends on the exercise routine, your training level, and your ability to recover. One session is better than none, and three sessions may be the right choice for younger, advanced runners.
If a running and strength session is scheduled on the same day, it’s better to run first. Ideally, a few hours apart. For instance, you could run in the morning and schedule a strength session in the afternoon or evening. But if you are time-pressed and your routine comprises only a few bodyweight exercises, you may do them right after your run.
If you run only 4 or 5 times a week, doing strength training on the non-running days makes sense. But try to avoid strength training a day before hard workouts as the resulting nervous system fatigue can hinder your performance.
Running-Specific Strength Training
The goal of running-specific strength training is more muscular power, injury prevention, and improved neuromuscular coordination. With that in mind, your strength training routine should be specific to achieve those outcomes. That means compound exercises that target multiple joints and muscle groups, as used in running.
If you are pressed for time, some home equipment like dumbbells and a resistance band are enough to perform basic strength training. But a gym membership increases your options. There you have a proper setup for all exercises, adjustable loads, and certified coaches who can advise on proper technique.
Strength training for runners is not meant to be a metabolic workout. Keep the number of sets low and allow for sufficient rest between repetitions to avoid nervous system fatigue.
Core Workouts for Runners
The Plank: Begin in a push-up postural position with body weight supported by your feet and hands or elbows. Your torso remains in a straight line with the hip level for the duration of the exercise. Maintain this isometric hold position with proper body alignment. Don’t allow your hips to drop too low or rise too high during fatigue.
Glute Bridge: Lie supine on the floor with arms at the side (or across the chest) and knees/hips flexed with feet flat on the floor. Rise your chest, hips, buttocks, and spine off the floor to a linear elevated body position (with shoulders supporting upper body weight) and return to the starting position. Focus on pushing through the heels. A progression is to work from 2 legs to 1 leg. A popular alternative is the barbell hip thrust.
Bird Dog: Assume a prone position on all fours with hips and knees flexed, arms vertical to the ground, neutral spine, and torso near parallel to the floor. Extend the hip (with knee extended) so that it is aligned with the torso. Do the same with your opposite arm. Hold this position briefly, return to the starting position, and repeat with the opposite limbs.
Bent Knee Twists: Lie supine on the floor with knees flexed, heels close to buttocks, and hands placed on the side of the head with elbows pointed forward. Torso is flexed and rotated during ascent off the floor as the elbow approaches the opposite knee (right elbow to left knee) and then returns in control to the starting position. Next repetition is performed using the the opposite elbow to knee.
Lying Leg Raise: Lie supine on the floor with hips and knees extended in front. The trunk is kept tight, legs are raised with knees slightly bent until they are perpendicular to the floor, and returned in control to the starting position.
Leg Workouts for Runners
Forward Lunge: Place your feet close to or slightly wider than shoulder width. A step forward is taken with a larger-than-normal step with toes pointing straight ahead or slightly inward. During the step, the lead knee is flexed under control directly above the lead foot while the trailing knee is lowered to the floor without making contact. The torso remains upright. Push off with the lead leg and return to the starting position. Perform the same movement with the opposite leg.
Step-Up: Stand 30- 45 cm from a box or bench that 30-45 cm high (or a height that will create a 90-degree angle at the knee joint when the foot is on the box). Step up with the lead leg onto the top of the bench, placing the foot in the center. Without leaning forward, shift your body weight to the lead leg and raise your body into a standing position on top of the bench. The trailing leg is not used to push off. It just follows to the top of the bench. Step off the bench with the lead leg and return to the starting position.
Squat: Place your feet parallel and shoulder width apart or wider with toes pointing slightly outward. Tilt your head upward with the eyes focused directly ahead at or above eye level. Hips and knees are flexed during a controlled descent while keeping an erect and braced torso. Continue until the top of the thighs are parallel to the ground. Push back up via extension of the hips, knees, and ankles. If you use a barbell with a challenging weight, make sure you have a spotter on each side. Pay attention that your knees are not too far ahead relative to your toes. A great alternative is the half squats, where you only lower yourself to a 45-degree angle.
Calf Raise: Find an edge and a post or wall to lean against. Stand with the balls of your feet on the edge with a stance hip-to-shoulder width apart and knees fully extended. Push up (plantar flexion), keep the plantarflexed position briefly, and lower yourself with 1 leg going through the full range of motion. Pointing the toes inward, outward, or maintaining a neutral position shifts the emphasis to different regions of the muscle.