Social media permits us recreational runners to glimpse into the training of elite. If you scroll through the Instagram feeds of the leading elites in America, you’ll see Jordan Hasay deadlifting and Molly Huddle performing pull-ups and box jumps. Shalane Flanagan has revealed in multiple interviews that she goes to the gym three times per week. Elite runners incorporate strength training for speed and performance into their plans.
What elite runners practice is backed by science; strength training for runners will result in performance gains. Weight training and plyometric training in particular improve running economy (how efficiently your body uses oxygen at a given pace) and velocity at VO2max while reducing your risk of injury.
Stop thinking about strength training as supplemental training or cross-training, something that you only do if you are injured or injury-prone. The structure of your body and the strength of your musculoskeletal system matters just as much as your aerobic capacity. Instead, view strength training as an essential component of your training plan, just like a long run or speed workout.
Don’t Fear Heavy Weights
A common fear amongst runners is that lifting weight will make them bulky or heavy, and therefore slow. This fear is based on a logical fallacy that strength training makes you bulky. For runners, especially female runners, it’s actually quite difficult to gain substantial amounts of weight from strength training. Running is, after all, a catabolic exercise – you can’t build large amounts of muscle when you are running dozens of miles per week.
You would need to weight train most days of the week, drastically alter your diet, and cut back on cardio to bulk up – and chances are, you won’t do any of those things. Two or three strength training sessions per week will make you a stronger, faster, more efficient runner – not transform your physique into that of a bodybuilder or even harm your endurance.
In fact, a 2017 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research spent 40 weeks studying the effects of strength training on 20 long distance runners. The runners improved their running economy and velocity at VO2max – two of the best physiological indications of performance – but did not see any significant changes in body composition.
Strength Training for Runners: What is Actually Effective?
First off, let me make this clear: any type of strength training is better than no strength training at all. That said, you likely want your strength training to be an effective use of time – chances are, you’d rather spend time running than spend hours in weight room.
However, some types of strength training will yield more rewards than others. A false assumption is that runners need endurance, so they should strength train for endurance: high reps and low weights. These exercises certainly are not a waste of time, but they are not the most effective use of your time. Runners already have high endurance because they run. Instead, runners will benefit the most in strength training for power and speed.
When you think about it, running is a series of single leg hops with enough power to propel you forward. The more power you generate, the further you hop forward on a single leg – the faster you run. By building strength and explosive power in your strength and conditioning program, you improve your running economy – body’s ability to run faster with less energy expenditure.
A 2017 study published in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examined the strength and conditioning habits of competitive distance runners. The study found that international standard runners (essentially, runners competing at an elite level) incorporated significantly more resistance training and plyometric training than recreational runners. Like many aspects of training, such as hard-easy dichotomies and proper nutrition, the principles applied by the elites will also benefit recreational runners in their training.
A strength and conditioning program focused on power and speed will include lifting heavy objects – a kettlebell, medicine ball, barbell, or even your own bodyweight – and explosive jumping movements (aka plyometrics). How heavy? Heavy enough to fatigue your muscles by the final rep (5-10 reps).
You can adapt basic functional movements to each of these, such as a kettlebell squat, medicine ball squat, barbell squat, or jump squat, and include exercises that are explosive and fun, such as medicine ball slams and kettlebell swings.
Plyometrics are an invaluable tool for runners, whether you are training for a 5K or ultra marathon. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, explosive strength training reduced the 2.4-km time trial time of highly competitive runners by almost 4%. The plyometric training was concurrent with endurance training, meaning that you can’t quite get away with taking a HIIT class instead of doing speedwork; but for runners already training hard, plyometrics can help improve your speed without adding too much intensity to your running workouts. Plyometric exercises include single leg hops, jumping lunges, jumping squats, box jumps, and any other type of jump.
Don’t neglect your upper body! A strong upper body improves your running form by strengthening your arm swing and straightening your posture. When it comes to upper body exercises, functional push and pull movements will yield more rewards than aesthetic exercises; for example, a pull-up will work more of the muscles used in running than just bicep curls.
There is a lot of room for variety here, so find what you enjoy, vary your workouts, and make strength training fun. What matters most is consistency; two to three 20-40 minute workouts per week will build power, strength, and speed. Even one 30-45 minute strength session is better than no strength training, especially if you consistently complete that one session.
Try one of these strength training workouts:
Fitting Strength Training into Your Running
Running is still your primary goal, so structure your training accordingly. If possible, strength train on your hard run days (after the run) so that your easy days are truly focused on recovery. If your schedule permits, spacing your hard run and strength workout three or more hours apart will maximize the gains of both workouts without compromising recovery. The following day should be rest or a short, easy run.
If your schedule doesn’t allow such structure, don’t worry about it. If you have to strength train on your easy days, that’s okay – just be mindful of your workout the next day and scale accordingly.
It’s okay to be sore. If you are doing the appropriate amount of strength work for your ability level and using proper form, you will not be so sore that you cannot complete a run. You can even go into a long run or a speed workout sore. You may not hit your exact paces at first, but the effort is what matters. Chances are, once your body adapts to strength training, you will not be sore after your strength workouts.
The off-season or early weeks of training are an ideal time to introduce a new strength training routine. As with running, you want to avoid sharply increasing your training load, so marathon or half marathon training may require a more gradual introduction of strength and conditioning work than base building weeks. Do not start a new strength and conditioning program within 4 weeks of a goal race, especially a long distance race such as a marathon or half marathon.
Do you strength train? How do you incorporate it into your training?
Does lifting heavier weights intimidate you, or do you enjoy it?