Strength Training For Runners | Benefits and Best Exercises

Written by Elly McGuinness

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Strength training might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re looking to improve your running performance. Maybe you’re thinking that it’s most beneficial to stick to running-specific drills and activities. These could include speed work such as sprints, or hill training to improve your running performance.

The reality is that there are many possible ways to put together a running workout program. Evidence suggests that strength training can hold an important place in your training program when your primary goal is to improve your running. Contrary to what you might initially think, it’s not about light loads and high repetitions either.

Let’s start by summarising a few of the benefits of strength training for runners before taking a look at studies about strength training and running performance. We’ll then look at some important considerations when it comes to strength workouts for runners. Finally, we’ll share some of the top strength training ideas for runners.

The benefits of strength training for runners

Implemented well, strength training can be beneficial for runners on a number of levels. Some of the benefits can include:

  • Improving neuromuscular coordination and balance
  • Addressing muscle imbalances to help improve movement patterns. This may help reduce the risk of injury
  • Improving stride and overall running efficiency
  • Increasing muscular force and power. Lifting heavy weights increases muscle force. Plyometric-style exercises work on the speed element. The combination of these types of training can effectively improve power

Adding an appropriate volume and type of strength training to your overall workout plan can help you take your running performance to the next level. With a well-considered plan, you can conquer those hills runs AND improve running technique and overall efficiency.

Studies on strength training for runners

A meta-analysis of strength training programs on running economy showed running performance benefits from both high and low-intensity resistance training programs. All of the studies included a low volume of resistance training (2-4 exercises), plus plyometric exercises. The frequency of resistance sessions was 2-3 times per week over an 8-12 week period.

Another specific study implemented a 40-week strength training program for competitive distance runners. The results at both 20 weeks and 40 weeks showed significant improvements in maximal and reactive strength, running economy, and VO2 max in the strength training group. Conversely, the control group showed no significant changes. Running economy and VO2max are considered to be crucial performance indicators in long-distance runners.

There were no significant changes in body composition variables between the groups. Therefore, the strength training groups were able to achieve performance improvements without muscle hypertrophy. This finding may help to mitigate the fear of building too much muscle mass and the potential detrimental effect on running performance.

Getting your program balance just right

There are a lot of variables that need to come together to create a well-balanced workout plan for runners. When you’re including strength training in your plan, the most important thing is to remember your number one goal. If it’s running, then your primary exercise mode should be running. Other sessions such as strength-focused sessions should be complementary to your running sessions.

Important points to consider:

  • There are many ways to include strength training into your weekly plan. You may choose to do strength training and running in the same session, or in separate sessions on the same day. Alternatively, sessions could be done on different days
  • If your main goal is running endurance, go for your run first, if you’re doing a combined run-strength session
  • Ensure you are well rested for long or hard runs. You’ll need to ensure you leave sufficient recovery time in between any hard sessions to keep performance high
  • Low volume is an important consideration in strength training programs for runners. You may only need to do a few high-quality strength training exercises, 2-3 times per week. If you only have space once per week, then start with that. 10-20 minute strength-training sessions are likely to be sufficient for runners

Strength training for runners-barbell back squat-woman-rear view

Example strength training exercises for runners

If you’re a runner who is just getting started with strength work, it’s important to build a strong foundation first. Start with basic bodyweight resistance exercises that focus on strengthening your lower body and core. Good technique and quality movement are always the most important considerations. Therefore, choose an exercise level that’s appropriate for where you’re at.

Some gentle, corrective exercises may be required to begin with. These could include:

  • Double leg hip raises, progressing to single-leg hip raises as strength levels allow
  • Bodyweight clams, progressing to clams using a resistance band
  • Core-specific work such as dead bugs, and front and side planks

Full body, compound exercises

Multi-joint (compound) exercises that work large portions of muscle mass are great choices for runners. They are considered to be functional exercises that can give you “more bang for your buck”.

Examples include:

  • Squats and variations. Start with bodyweight squats, then progress to weighted squats such as dumbbell or barbell squats. Drop the weight and try split squats and then single leg squats before adding weight again
  • Double or single leg deadlifts as appropriate
  • Lunges and variations. Examples include reverse lunges, side power lunges, and static lunges

Step-ups and variations also use the same, important muscles that are used in running. As with the exercises above, you can add weight as you get stronger over time. Focus on quality over quality and keep your repetition ranges relatively low (e.g. 6-10).

Other exercise considerations for runners

Once you have achieved a good base level of strength, you may choose to progress to some plyometric exercises to further enhance your power. During this phase of your program, you might consider dropping a couple of strength exercises and adding in a few plyometric exercises.

Examples of plyometric exercises could include box jumps, squat jumps, long jumps, single-leg power jumps, burpees, and more. You also need to remember to include an appropriate warm-up for whatever workout you are doing. Runners may also benefit from specific mobility exercises as another complementary program element.

If you’re unsure exactly how to put together a running plan that includes strength training, contact one of our qualified and experienced at-home and online personal trainers.

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