Study Shows How to Best Combine Strength Training and Running

Hard running workouts hampered the day after the gym? This research shows how to balance the two.

You already know that lower-body strength training can make you faster, but damn, if time in the squat rack doesn’t trash your legs for tomorrow’s run. If you’ve ever rationalised skipping it to prep for the next day’s mileage, you may have a point. According to a recent review of 132 studies, it takes a full day or two more to recover from resistance training than it does a high-intensity run.

That said, many of us all know (and accept) that we’ll perform and feel better if we do more than just run. That’s especially true for people who took up the sport as adults and whose non-running hours include a lot of sitting. And regular strength training—especially for your legs—can help to correct muscle imbalances and weaknesses that are common in modern life.

Because of this, it’s important not to skip your strength training, but rather, figure out how to game your schedule. After all, strength training is supposed to help, not detract from your running.

The Background on Strength Training vs. Running

To get it right, you need to understand how your body reacts to moving heavy stuff. Picture pushing a hand truck 50 feet. Pretty easy. That’s running, and your body is the hand truck—it moves its own weight rather effortlessly. Now slide the hand truck under a fridge and push it just five feet. A lot more difficult. That’s mechanical loading; it’s why 10 heavy squats hurt more than 1,000 foot strikes.

The reason strength training makes you faster is because it lowers the amount of energy required to hit a certain pace, explains Kenji Doma, Ph.D., a sports and exercise scientist at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, and author of a 2014 study on the topic published in the European Journal of Sports Science. Your brain alters its neural recruitment pattern, calling up the most fatigue-resistant muscle fibers so you exert less energy. Doma’s research offers guidance on how best to combine mile repeats and repetitions in the gym.

The Study on How to Combine Strength Training and Running

Fifteen runners of a wide range of ability and average weekly mileage did different strength-training sessions on three occasions. One workout was a high-intensity, whole-body session, one was high intensity but for legs only, and one was a low-intensity, whole-body workout.

Six hours after each workout, the runners did a treadmill test for 10 minutes at 70 percent of ventilatory threshold pace (easy), then 10 minutes at 90 percent of threshold pace (roughly, close to half marathon pace), and then as long as possible at 110 percent of threshold pace. The runners also did the treadmill test at the outset of the study, to get a benchmark for how they would perform when fresh.

The high-intensity strength workouts significantly lessened the runners’ time to exhaustion at the end of the treadmill test. In the benchmark test, they’d lasted an average of close to 5 minutes at 110 percent of threshold pace. After each of the high-intensity strength sessions, time to exhaustion was almost a minute less, suggesting that the hard weight workouts six hours earlier had dramatically decreased the runners’ ability to sustain fast running.

How to Apply It to Your Own Training

Doma says his findings have practical implications for how runners should arrange their workouts.

First, he advises not to schedule a hard running workout later in the day of a weight session. “Running at maximal effort is impaired six hours [after] lower-extremity resistance training, and therefore trained to moderately-trained runners will need more than that to recover for running sessions set at high intensities,” he says.

Plus, running at maximal effort is still impaired 24 hours after lower-extremity resistance training, according to Doma. “Therefore, in the case of trained and moderately-trained runners undertaking high-intensity running sessions after lower-extremity resistance training, they may need more than one day to recover.”

Doma also found that running performance at lower intensities was unaffected by the weight workouts. “Runners could undertake strength training and running sessions on the same day six hours apart as long as the running session is set at submaximal intensities,” Doma says. In other words, if you have an easy, long run or recovery run on the schedule, it’ll be fine to double up that day, as long as workouts are over six hours apart.

If possible, Doma suggests arranging your schedule so that on days that you run and lift, running comes first. “I found that lower-extremity resistance training performed six hours prior to running sessions at moderate to high intensities cause carryover effects of fatigue the next day to a greater extent than the reverse sequence,” he says. “Therefore, if undertaking lower-extremity resistance training and running sessions on the same day, it is best to undertake a running session before a strength training session. For example, running in the morning before work and lower-extremity resistance training in the evening after work.”

In this scenario, it would make sense to have that morning run be one of your harder workouts of the week. Your workout the following day would then be an easy recovery run, which would be warranted even without the evening lifting, but is that much more called for on the basis of Doma’s research.

This sequence would also mesh with many coaches’ recommendation to have great discrepancy between your hard and easy days, so that you can better recover from your toughest workouts—instead of including hard elements of non-running training on your easy running days.

Sample Run + Lift Weekly Plan

  • Day 1: Light resistance training with a focus on upper body
  • Day 2: Tempo run (run at an 8 out of 10 effort for approximately 20 minutes)
  • Day 3: Easy run, then perform heavy resistance training with a focus on lower body later
  • Day 4: Off
  • Day 5: Tempo Run
  • Day 6: Easy Run
  • Day 7: Long Run

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