If there’s anything that all runners share in common, it’s our desire to improve our performance and run injury-free. Our downfall, however, is our reluctance to do anything but run!!
Although I often lack the motivation to add additional exercise (other than distance running) to my weekly routine, there is no doubt that strength training (also referred to as resistance training or weight lifting) has numerous benefits for all runners. These benefits include what we are all striving for; improving performance and reducing the risk for injury.
A majority of distance runners are afraid of starting resistance training for many different reasons including the fear of “bulking” on too much muscle and/or not wanting to be too sore for the following day’s run. Many common fears and myths have been debunked by strength training professionals and recent studies. If you find yourself fearful of adding strength training to your routine, this great article debunks the top 5 myths about strength training for runners.
If you’re still not convinced, look to the professionals in the sport. Almost every professional and elite distance runner has added strength training to their overall training plans, including marathon runners. Here is a great insight on how the professional team NAZ elite utilize strength training in their programs.
How Exactly Does Strength Training Improve Distance Running?
As I mentioned previously, strength training has numerous benefits for runners. By definition, strength training involves contracting your muscles against an external resistance such as resistance bands, weights, machines, etc. In response to this type of exercise, the body will increase muscle fiber size, muscle and tendon fiber strength, improve bone density, and neuromuscular activation of the targeted muscles.
For runners, these adaptations will help improve a person’s running economy (the energy needed to run at a certain pace for a certain distance). Simply put, improving your muscular strength will allow you to use less energy to run at the speeds that you are currently running now. Distance runners have shown up to an 8% improvement in running economy following a period of resistance training. Other literature has even shown improvements in 5k times following a period of resistance training.
Even more, improving the tensile strength of your muscles, tendons, and even bones can lead to reduced rates of injury. A 2014 study showed that strength training was effective in reducing overuse injuries by almost a third! It has even been shown that women with “runners knee” have weaker hips when compared to healthy counterparts.
It is believed that stronger muscles and tendons are better able to tolerate the repetitive forces of distance running before breaking down. Less soft-tissue breakdown = less injuries.
How much resistance training is needed and what to do?
A common mistake most runners make when strength training is simply not lifting heavy enough. Most individuals tend to lift lighter weights for higher repetitions. This type of stimulus will improve the body’s muscular endurance and will promote an increase in muscle fiber size- not necessarily muscle fiber strength.
In order to promote proper muscle strength adaptations, resistance exercises should be completed at much higher weight and lower repetition. The National Strength and Conditioning Association recommends performing exercises at 3-5 sets for 4-8 repetitions at 80-90% of your 1 repetition maximum. However, if you are brand new into the world of weight lifting, it is recommended to start with lighter weights in order to focus on form and technique.
It is recommended that individuals perform resistance training 2-3 per week in order to improve and maintain muscle strength. You want to also make sure to vary up the style of external resistance frequently in order to promote further improvement. This can be as simple as switching from machine resistance to dumbbell resistance for a given workout.
Plyometrics can also be used to improve muscle strength and power. Plyometrics are exercises in which muscles exert almost maximal force at fast speeds. For example, these exercises can include box jumps, hopping, and broad jumps. These can be used during resistance training sessions to maximize your muscle strength gains. A 2002 study showed that plyometric training improved 3K times in distance runners.
We teamed up again with Dave Welsh (owner of the Haddonfield Running Co. and former US indoor masters mile champion) to show our top 4 favorite strength exercises for runners. Check out the video below!
Mark and Dave’s Top 4 Strengthening Exercises for Runners:
- Barbell Squat:
- Set up the barbell rack with the bar at shoulder height. Stand facing the bar with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and with your toes slightly pointed out. Next, place your hands slightly wider than shoulder width, step under the bar and bring your head under the bar, and position the bar on your upper back. Begin the squat by bending at your knees and hips while bringing your bottom down and back. Remember to keep your chest up tall during the movement. Descend until your thighs are about parallel to the ground and make sure your knees are aligned over your feet. Push through the ground and extend your legs to return to the starting position.
- Barbell Deadlift:
- Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the barbell on the ground in front of you. Bend down and grip the bar with your hands shoulder width apart. Brace your core and make sure to keep your lower back flat. Push through the ground and extend your legs to stand up tall. The bar should stay close to your body and your arms straight throughout the entire movement. Lower the bar back to the ground making sure to keep your core engaged and lower back flat during the entire movement.
- Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats:
- Start by placing one foot forward and the opposite foot on a chair behind you. Keep your chest up tall and bend your front knee and hip allowing your body to slowly descend towards the ground until your front thigh is parallel to the ground. Make sure to not allow your knee to cave inward. Straighten your leg and return to the starting position.
- Start by laying on the ground. Engage your core and flatten your lower back against the ground. Bring both of your arms straight upwards facing the ceiling along with both of your legs bent at the hips and knees. Slowly lower one arm and the opposite leg to just above the ground and then return to the starting position. Remember to keep your core engaged and lower back pressed against the floor during the entire movement!
Jung AP 2003; The impact of resistance training on distance running performance.
Suc A, et al. 2022. Resistance Exercise for Improving Running Economy and Running Biomechanics and Decreasing Running-Related Injury Risk: A Narrative Review
Spurrs RW et. al. 2002. The effect of plyometric training on distance running performance. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12627298/
Balsalobre-Fernández C et. al. 2016. Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials
Baechle, T. (1989). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (4th ed.). Human Kinetics.
Paavolainen et. al. 1999. Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power
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