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