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Why Strength Training for Runners Matters

Reading Time: 5 minutes 15 seconds

By: ISSA

Date: 2022-07-28


Strength workouts are bread-and-butter for some athletes, but others balk at the idea of spending time in the gym. File many runners under that latter category. Runners want to be outside. They want to save their strength and energy for a track workout or a long weekend run. 

But strength matters, for everyone, including runners. If you work with running clients, help them understand why they need to make time for weights. Then help them plan a schedule and routine that will maximize results while saving them plenty of time for running. 

Why Is Strength Training for Runners Important? 

Strength training is important for everyone. We lose muscle mass when sedentary and as we age, so continually building and maintaining it is a must. Training for strength helps with the following: 

  • Weight management

  • Improving balance

  • Managing chronic illnesses

  • Increasing bone density

  • Improving quality of life overall 

What Resistance Training Does for Runners

For runners, the need to hit the weight room includes all of the above, and more: 

  • Injury prevention. Weight training strengthens muscles, connective tissues, and joints. It corrects imbalances in the body. Together, these factors reduce the risk of injuries from running. 

  • Increased speed. Everyone runs at their own pace, but every runner wants to go as fast as they can. Strength exercises can help you get faster by making your movements more powerful and improving the coordination between firing neurons and resulting muscle contractions. 

  • Improved efficiency. Running economy is especially important for distance runners. Strength training helps you run more efficiently so that you can run longer. 

  • Reduced fatigue. With greater strength, you can run farther but also fatigue less quickly. This is great for performance but also simply for enjoying running. 

  • Better recovery. Your body can better tolerate the blows and stresses of a run when it is strong. You’ll recover faster from each run and be able to do more and go farther with strong, balanced muscles and joints. 

Flexibility is important for runners too, but don’t overdo it. Try these stretching tips. 

What the Research Says About Strength Training for Runners

All these benefits of strength training are backed by sports science research. One study looked at two of the most important performance indicators for distance runners, VO2 max and running economy. They tested the indicators before, during, and after a 40-week strength training program.

Compared to a control group that only did the running workouts, the strength training group had significant improvement in their performance measures. The weight-training runners did not see any real hypertrophy gains—an increase in muscle size. This is important because many runners fear to strength train too hard because they don’t want to “bulk up.”

Another study found that six to 20 weeks of strength training improves running economy in distance runners by 2% to 8%. They also had faster performances in time trials after the training program as well as faster sprint speeds. 

The study also busted a commonly held myth that runners should only do high-repetition, low-weight resistance training, not heavy lifting. The researchers found benefits to runners doing high-intensity, explosive strength training. 

So many elements go into running, including diet and nutrition. Here is a guide on fueling for endurance

The Best Strength Training Exercises for Runners

Strength training might be important for everyone, but it also looks different for everyone. Ideally, a program will hit every muscle in the body, but for runners, some are more important than others. A strong core, for instance, helps runners maintain balance and form. 

Of course, the lower body is the primary focus for runners. Strong hamstrings and quads allow runners to move with power and speed. Strong glutes are essential for stride power and injury prevention. The hips hinge every movement runners make and need to be strong. 

And don’t forget the upper body. It might not be as big a part of the running motion as leg and core muscles, but it plays a role. Especially when sprinting, runners use their upper body strength to drive forward. 

All strength training will help, but for runners with limited time, focus on these moves to hit all the most important muscles: 

  • Squats. Squats are absolutely essential for building running strength. They work the quads, glutes, and hamstrings, as well as the often-overlooked but important calf muscles. Single-leg squats are particularly good for targeting the glutes. 

  • Deadlifts. These are great for building the hamstrings, which act like a strong elastic band with each running stride, propelling the body forward. Use the single-leg variation for the extra benefit of working the glutes and core. 

  • Lateral lunges. All variations of lunges are great for running strength, but lateral lunges are a must. Lunging to the side still gets your glutes and quads, but they also require balance, which works the core. In terms of the glutes, side lunges target the smaller gluteus minimus and medius muscles, which are essential for running form and preventing knee pain. 

  • Planks and mountain climbers. These combo moves are great for core strength and help you sneak in arm and shoulder strength as well. 

  • Pushups. This is one of the best overall strength training moves for anyone. For limited time, a pushup gives you a lot of bang for your buck, working arms, shoulders, back, and abs. 

Tips for Building a Strength Plan for Runners

With the right reasons to strength train, and the best exercises, now you have the challenge of creating a routine for clients. Follow these tips to maximize the limited time they are likely to put into lifting: 

  • Use fewer reps with heavier weights for faster, more significant strength gains. 

  • Focus on compound, functional movements. Runners don’t need anything too fancy or complicated. 

  • Add power to these moves to make them more fun, dynamic, and beneficial. For instance, do jumping squats or box jumps instead of strict squats. 

  • Consider planning routines that fit into a run. For instance, your client can run intervals at the track with bodyweight strength moves in between each one. This is more appealing to many runners than a strength session in the gym. 

How to Balance Weights and Running

If you have ever attempted to run after a tough gym weight workout, you know it’s not ideal. One reason runners hesitate to spend much time on weights is because they want to reserve energy for running. It’s possible to balance the two and still get all the benefits of a strength program. 

Limit strength training to two, or at most three, days per week. If you need to run on the same day as a strength training session, schedule an easy run. Space tough strength workouts and challenging runs as much as possible, preferably with one full day or more in between. Here is a good example of a balanced week for a runner fitting in strength workouts: 

  • Monday – Light, full-body resistance training

  • Tuesday – Short, but fast tempo run

  • Wednesday – Easy run in the morning and a heavy resistance, lower-body workout in the afternoon

  • Thursday – Rest day, or do an easy core strength workout

  • Friday – Speed workout

  • Saturday – Easy run

  • Sunday – Easy pace long run

Strength training matters for everyone, but runners tend to be more resistant to it than other athletes, especially distance runners. Get your runner clients to strength train twice a week to show them what a difference it makes for endurance, speed, power, and efficiency. 

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References

Strength training: Get stronger, leaner, healthier. Mayo Clinic. (2021). Retrieved 19 July 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/fitness/in-depth/strength-training/art-20046670.

Beattie, K., Carson, B., Lyons, M., Rossiter, A., & Kenny, I. (2017). The Effect of Strength Training on Performance Indicators in Distance Runners. Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, 31(1), 9-23. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000001464

Alexander, J., Barton, C., & Willy, R. (2019). Infographic. Running myth: strength training should be high repetition low load to improve running performance. British Journal Of Sports Medicine, 54(13), 813-814. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2019-101168

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