Strength Training For Runners: The Complete Guide

Most runners love to run. It’s what drives us to get up and out of bed in the morning, what we talk about with our buddies, and what makes us feel alive. We heartily train through downpours, heavy winter snows, sweltering summer afternoons, and windy gales.

We tack on extra miles on days the run feels as natural as a gazelle loping along the endless savannah. And, we analyze our splits and run data as soon as we are home from the workout.

However, as much as runners love running and want to be able to run faster, longer, and forever injury-free, the motivation and interest to head to the gym or pull out the dumbbells at home to strength train are often woefully low even though strength training for runners can indeed be the most critical adjunct to mileage.

Whether you’re a beginner runner looking to get in on the ground floor with your strength training program or a seasoned runner ready to get stronger and make your body more resilient, keep reading for our complete guide to strength training for runners.

What’s Strength Training?

Strength training is any training that causes the muscles to contract against external resistance. When you do a weight-lifting workout, you’re trying to get stronger by conditioning your muscles to overcome heavier resistance.

The resistance can be created by a dumbbell, kettlebell, barbell, or resistance band. You can also use your body weight—think push-ups, squats, press-ups, lunges, and so on. Weight lifting strengthens the muscles and joints. This builds proper form, improves running time, and reduces injury risks.

The Benefits of Strength Training for Runners

Run Faster

Resistance training puts stress on your body, forcing it to adapt to boost its ability to withstand the extra load. Over time, with regular training, these stress-induced adaptations can have an enormous impact on your running speed, efficiency, and endurance.

So, for instance, the stronger your leg muscles get, the more force you could generate on each stride, and the more distance you can travel on each foot strike. Plus, stronger shoulders and arms are essential in increasing your speed and form efficiency.

Fix Muscle Imbalances

Running is one-directional action, meaning it works some muscles more than others, leading to the onset of muscle imbalances. This places excessive pressure on ligaments and tendons, reducing stride efficiency, limiting running economy, and increasing the risks of injury.

Research shows that, more often than not, many runners’ nagging issues, such as shin splints, runner’s knee, Achilles tendinitis, etc., stem from muscle imbalances.

With all that being said, the good news is, as little as six weeks of proper weight training can reduce, or completely alleviate, knee pain, according to a study.

Burns More Calories

Many runners took up running as a means of weight loss. And as my experience dictates, running helps shed pounds—especially during the first few months of training. That said, once your body gets used to running (especially if you lack variety in your training), it’ll start to burn fewer calories.

 For that reason, you might want to back up your running for weight loss training with a well-rounded and intense strength training schedule. As a matter of fact, by increasing your lean muscle mass, you’ll boost your body’s ability to shed more calories.

Build Stronger Bones

In addition to helping you prevent injury, improve running performance, build muscle, and lose fat, strength training also improves bone density. This can be typically measured using a DEXA scan, which is similar to an x-ray, but more thorough.

But how does strength training make bones stronger? It’s actually quite simple. By stressing your bones, strength training can increase bone density, therefore, reducing the risks of bone-related issues.

That’s it. This is especially the case for us runners as stress fractures—a common overuse injury—are every runner’s worst nightmare.

Strong Arms

Have you ever tried running without using your arms? It’s not a good idea. Swinging your arms faster automatically increases your step frequency, and vice versa. 

We pump our arms as we run, and the stronger our arms are, the more powerful the forward drive, and the faster we move forward. That’s no secret.

Be More Efficient

Running doesn’t just involve relying on the leg for forward propulsion, but we’re also using our core, back, arms, shoulders, and chest to balance and improve efficiency.

When the legs are exhausted, we use the upper body more because of the kinetic chain. Everything is working together in one interlocked system.

Better Form

Your running form can ultimately make or break you as a runner. That’s why if you can’t hold proper form throughout your runs, you’ll never reach your full running potential.

Improving your upper body strength can make your posture more efficient and help you keep a consistent form, especially as fatigue starts to set in.

Basic Equipment For Strength Training Workouts

You don’t have to have access to a full circuit of weight machines at a gym to get in a good strength workout. In fact, free weights such as dumbbells and resistance bands usually provide more functional benefits to runners.

While you can certainly strength train in a gym using fancy resistance machines, kettlebells, TRX suspension straps, and medicine balls, it’s also perfectly viable to work out in your living room with just a few dumbbells, resistance bands, and your own body weight. 

If you do want to strength train at home, consider getting adjustable dumbbells as they take up less space and allow you to still have a range of weights to use for different exercises as you get stronger. 

Best Strength Training Exercise For Runners 

Strength training for runners should be geared towards balancing the demands of running. Running is a unilateral exercise, which means that your two legs are moving independently of one another and supporting your body one at a time. 

Consequently, runners should focus on one-sided activities (like lunges and step-ups) and those that promote core power when performing strength training.

Nevertheless, doing compound, full-body exercises such as squats and deadlifts can help to grow and fortify the muscles utilized for running.

How Often Should Runners Strength Train?

Ideal runners should work to perform 2-3 complete-body strength exercises per week. A certain number of runners like to perform their strength workouts three to five times a week while others can only manage to do one session each week.

The most important point is that performing any strength training is more beneficial than not performing any, no matter the amount. Therefore, if you are not able to work out with weights multiple times a week, simply do as much as you are able.

Moreover, a well-rounded strength training workout for runners doesn’t have to take much more than 20-30 minutes.

When Should Runners Do Strength Training Workouts?

It is usually suggested that strength workouts should be done on days when you are running at a lower intensity instead of an extensive run or a hard workout. Combining powerlifting sessions with a demanding exercise routine can be excessive for one’s body.

A strength training routine for runners can have a noticeable effect on how your legs respond right after the workout and even a few days later. Consequently, it is generally advisable to complete your running exercises first—either before lifting any weights or earlier in the day if your weight-related activities are scheduled at a later time.

7 Tips For Strength Training For Runners

Strength training for runners can feel daunting if you’re new to it, but here are some helpful tips to ensure your workouts go as smoothly as possible:

1. Work With a Trainer

Most gyms offer a complimentary session with a personal trainer who can show you how to properly perform basic exercises like squats and lunges and how to use various resistance equipment. 

2. Follow a Guided Workout

Consider using a workout app, like Peloton Digital or Open Fit, or stream a free strength workout for runners video on YouTube.

3. Focus On Your Form

Proper form is paramount for two reasons: it prevents injuries while doing the exercise and ensures the move is actually effective. If you find you can’t maintain the correct form for all the reps in a set, swap to a lighter weight or stop the set early. 

4. Momentum Is Not Your Friend

For any strength exercise to be effective, you have to use your muscles. Therefore, don’t swing the weights or use momentum to help you lift a weight, and don’t allow gravity to do the work on the way down.

Lift slowly and deliberately through each movement.

5. Don’t Go Too Light

Some runners use too little resistance because they worry they will bulk up. Because running is a sport that already increases muscular endurance, strength training for runners should focus on trying to increase muscular strength and power. 

To do so, you have to use enough resistance to provide a load great enough to stimulate your muscles to get stronger. A good rule of thumb is to use a weight that you lift with good form for 8-12 reps. 

If you can get to 15 reps, it’s time to jump up to a higher weight.

6. Vary Your Routine

In the same way that your body should vary your routes and running pace, varying your strength training workouts by incorporating different exercises and different forms of resistance will allow you to get stronger more efficiently. 

Similarly, as you get stronger, increase the difficulty of your workouts to keep challenging your body.

7. Make It Fun

Making strength training fun will encourage you to stick with your routine. Try playing motivating music or lifting weights with your running buddy to give you that extra boost to do your workouts. 

When your drive is lacking, just remember that strength training helps ensure you’re able to run stronger, healthier, and more consistently, and who doesn’t love that? Here’s a bodyweight workout for you to get started right away.

Advanced Strength Training Strategies For Runners

Once you spend a few months lifting weights and getting stronger, make sure to take things to the next level. Here are a few strategies:

Magnificent Seven

When it comes to the best strength training exercises, there are no secret moves.

In my experience, squats, lunges, deadlifts, planks, push-ups, burpees and shoulder presses are the best strength-building exercises you can do to improve your running and become the best athlete you can be.

These “big seven” weight training exercises build strength and engage every muscle in your body from head to toe, forcing your muscle systems to work together rather than isolating them to work independently.

Therefore, the magnificent 7 should be the bread and butter of your strength workouts. Stick with low reps for the first few months of training, working diligently on practising and mastering proper lifting form.

Aim for two to three sets of seven to 12 reps, with about 90 seconds to two minutes of rest between sets.

Circuit Training

Circuit training is a high-intensity workout that mixes aerobic exercises with strength training. And when done the right way, can be one of the best running-specific strength routines you can ever do.

Think of circuit training as resistance training mixed with interval training. You get the best of two worlds: the muscle-building properties of a weight workout along with the endurance-boosting and calorie burn of intense cardio.

With circuit training, you could customize your training program to meet your own fitness goals, whether you are in to lose weight or add muscle mass. The exact mix of aerobic and strength exercises depends, mostly, on your training goals, fitness level, and your own imagination.

Progressive Overload

Strength building is more of a marathon, not a sprint. This is one of the profound lessons you need to learn and put into practice as soon as you can, so please if you had to take one thing from this whole post.

Progressive overload is the foundation of strength training, and it’s all about ensuring that you are lifting more and more and forcing your muscles to work harder than before.

So to keep gaining strength, you have to consistently add more weight or do more reps with the same weight, period. This powerful concept applies to all aspects of training including running, and strength training.

So if you hit the weight room or run every day and do the same routine over and over again, you are not applying this principle in your workouts.

Instead, aim to increase your workload after each workout.


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