The Benefits of Strength Training for Distance Runners

A step-by-step guide on how to add weightlifting to your run routine.

a runner doing a lunge with dumbbells

Lakota Gambill

Many of us don’t spend enough time in the weight room and that can come at a disadvantage. The faster you realise strength training and running go hand in hand, the sooner you’ll boost your performance. In fact, many coaches argue that strength training for distance runners is essential for running strong and scoring race day PRs, because this form of exercise helps build and protect your muscles so you can maximise your potential.

Science backs this up, too. According to a review in the journal Sports Medicine, resistance training improves a trained runner’s economy, or the amount of energy a runner needs to perform, by up to 8 percent. And that’s just one of the many positive outcomes.

Here’s why strength training for distance runners is a must and the best tips for adding weight lifting to your run schedule.

The Benefits of Strength Training for Distance Runners

When it comes to building muscular strength—the amount of weight or the load that you’re able to lift—the perks are undeniable for distance runners. Those advantages boil down to two main research-backed benefits: injury prevention and improved performance.

Before you improve your run speed, you need a solid base of endurance, which you build through mostly easy kilometerage. But increasing your kilometerage also poses injury risks, explains Jason Fitzgerald, a USATF-certified running coach and the founder of Strength Running in Denver.

“The solution is to strength train regularly for stronger muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and joints that will help protect the runner’s body from the impact forces of running,” he says. Research supports the idea of strength training to sidestep injury. For example, one 2018 study in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy found that strengthening the hips and knees helps to decrease pain associated with runner’s knee.

“Because the key ingredient to any training program is consistency, the runner who can stay healthy enough to put in more weeks, months, or years of training will be fitter than their injury-prone counterparts,” says Blake Dircksen, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a physical therapist with Bespoke Treatments in New York City. Strength training supports both consistency and longevity by training tissues to withstand the workload that running puts on them. “Strength training makes muscles more robust and able to handle more repetitions and more kilometres before breakdown occurs,” Dircksen says.

Time spent in the weight room does more than just stave off injury. It also helps with execution. According to a systematic review also in the journal Sports Medicine, weightlifting improves speed, running economy, and muscle power. The athlete who can continue to put the necessary force into the ground to move forward—at the necessary velocity over the given distance—will have the best performance, explains Dircksen.

Strength training gives a huge boost in an athlete’s ability to generate force and decreases ground contact time,” he adds. It also helps your body act like a spring. “Running is essentially a series of plyometric hops from one leg to the next, and we rely heavily on muscular, fascial, and tendon tension in our lower and upper body to produce that ‘spring’ effect,” Dircksen says. Strength training builds that tension.

How to Start Strength Training if You Haven’t Done It Before

Just like with running when you gradually increase kilometerage, you also need to slowly build your strength. “You need to put in the requisite amount of base strength training before you increase the intensity and volume demands of heavier lifts,” says Dircksen. “Heavier lifts obviously come with more force to the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joints, so having that underlying strength adaptation is important to make sure you don’t injure yourself.”

To build your strength base, focus on five major movement patterns, plus a core exercise. That includes a squat, deadlift (or another hinge move), lunge, chest press (or another push move), rows (or another pull move), and planks (or another core move). Fitzgerald recommends starting with five to 10 reps and three to four sets.

Brand new to strength training? Master those movements with bodyweight first, then slowly add weight, starting with a load that feels challenging but doesn’t break your form.

How to Program Your Strength Workout

“Strength sessions should be effective over efficient, and I always want runners to focus on good form and adequate recovery, so I prefer not to use circuits or supersets in the weight room,” Fitzgerald says. Instead, he recommends focusing on one exercise at a time, completing all reps and sets, and then going on to the next move.

To get the most bang for your buck in terms of those exercises, though, compound movements should make up the bulk of your strength work. Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups working at the same time, generally require higher force production, and help to promote healthy movement. That means fundamental lifts like squats, deadlifts, and bent-over rows (all key exercises for runners) are much better options than moves like biceps curls or triceps extensions that isolate muscles, Fitzgerald says.

How to Progress Your Strength Training

“Any good weight lifting program should be periodized, meaning the goals of the program change over time—just like a running plan will have a base phase, a competition phase, and finally a taper phase,” Fitzgerald says. That means the intensity, volume, or amount of weight a runner lifts will change over time.

“At the beginning, focus on technique and mastering the motor pattern of the lifts you’d like to do later in the training cycle,” says Dircksen. Once you feel you’ve adapted to the muscular endurance phase and feel comfortable with the movements—after about four to six weeks—start to increase the weight first, then the speed of the movement.

Every four to six weeks after that, make a change by focusing on a weight, speed, or volume increase. This progressive overload approach will keep you crushing your strength (and run!) goals.

When to Add Strength Training to Your Distance Running Schedule

How often an athlete strength trains will all depend on the type of resistance training they’re doing, their experience level, and whether it’s racing season. During the off-season, focus on performing heavy, multi-joint lifts (such as barbell deadlifts and push presses) that are more taxing to the nervous system. Dircksen suggests doing those one to three times a week.

It’s good practice to continue doing the heavier multi-joint lifts through a racing phase of training if you’ve already been doing so. But you’ll want to lower the intensity, volume, and frequency to allow for peak performance, go for just once or twice a week and lower the reps and sets on these heavy lifts as you get closer to race day.

You can also focus on maintenance at any time, going for lighter weights and higher reps for more endurance-type work. Schedule these workouts two to four days a week in the off-season and two to three in-season, Dircksen says. Less intense but still effective moves you could swap in for maintenance mode: banded glute bridges and push-ups.

When it comes to strength training, something is better than nothing, and your sessions can be short and sweet, Dircksen says. “If you’re new, get started with a simple at-home bodyweight routine,” says Fitzgerald. “If you’re advanced, it might be time to incorporate explosive lifts in the gym, like cleans and snatches. But no matter where a runner is in their strength journey, the best time to start was yesterday.”

How to Manage Lifting When You’re Sore

Strength training does breakdown muscle fibres, so it’s expected that runners will feel sore after lifting. Don’t let soreness stop you from continuing with a strength program, though, unless it’s affecting your form. “We don’t want any runner lifting with improper form, which happens when we’re super tired,” Fitzgerald says. “If an athlete doesn’t need to adjust their form to compensate for soreness, if any soreness dissipates or starts to feel better during the workout, or if the soreness is just mild or a dull, achy feeling, then it’s probably okay to lift.”

Ultimately, the movement itself is far more important than the weight that you lift. So if you’re feeling sore but still want to get in some strength work, simply reduce the weight or do fewer reps or sets.

As with running, you need to let your body recover from strength sessions. So don’t forget quality sleep and nutrition. “Recovery is hugely important, especially if you are attempting to add the stress of strength training into your weekly run mix,” Dircksen says. You need recovery time after strength work to let muscles adapt and get stronger—that’s when you’ll see your distance running performance peak, too.

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