Strength training for runners
Strength training is something that is debated in the running world because many coaches believe that it will slow the runner down if they lift weights. Over the years in many sports these myths stand the test of time and this is because people don’t understand what strength training does to the body. Most runners will skip strength exercises all together.
Running can be taxing on the body and when we get tired during a run we can start to fall apart. Strength training is something that a lot of runners don’t do because they’re afraid of becoming big and slow. This can’t be farther from the truth. The reason why you put on mass while your strength training is due to diet not because you’re lifting weights. Yes, lifting weights with extra calories will cause you to get big but eating extra calories without lifting weights will cause you to get big too. Size from strength training has a lot to do with volume, not low reps with high amounts of weight. When you hit the gym most of the big guys are lifting moderate weights with lots of reps at many different angles. The strength training we will be talking about will be low reps and low volume to maximize muscle recruitment without building mass.
A common mistake that people make when doing a strength program is that they will do too much volume and this will grow unwanted mass from strength training. High volume weight training is something that body builders do because their goal is to be as big as possible. The style of weight training was built in the 1970s and 1980s by people like Arnold Schwarzenegger. While these body builders are very strong, pound for pound they’re not. If you’re a runner, doing a program like this is not ideal.
Another common mistake is that runners will do what’s called “endurance weight training”. This consists of sets of 12-20 reps that only leave the muscles fatigued rather than increasing strength. Yes, if you do high reps vs no lifting at all you will see some slight gains in strength but those gains are tiny compared to a maximal strength training program. Strength training exercises should focus on less reps and more weight. Light weights have their place but heavy weights will train a different energy system than running. Which can help with running performance.
Check out our article on how to run a faster marathon.
The Benefits of Strength Training for Runners
Adding a strength training program to your running will help you feel strong at the end of the race. You won’t be slumped over and falling apart like many of the other runners out there. Strength training will help your knees and hips stay in proper alignment during the end of the race because doing things like squats, rows, and lunges will help keep your muscles in balance.
Running programs tend to make you good at doing one motion over and over. This leads to tight muscles especially in hips and ankles. If you’re a runner and you don’t do strength training, try doing a full range of motion squat with your butt almost touching the ground. Most likely you won’t be successful. Doing movements like lunges and squats help to develop a proper length tension relationship in major muscle groups. When the muscles are balanced, you have less chance of developing an injury. If you’re not injured, you can run more, making you a better runner.
One other reason you should be doing strength training during your running program is that it will improve force production in the legs. Basically, while you run your legs will be able to produce more force which may help you run a little bit faster. Just keep in mind that you shouldn’t eat extra calories during the strength phase because it will lead to gaining weight which will make you slower on race day.
Strength training for runners can improve running form, stride efficiency, injury prevention, body composition and muscle imbalances.
Catabolic vs Anabolic
The last reason why you should be adding strength training to your running program is that running is catabolic which means that your body is breaking things down. It’s important to have some exercises that are anabolic to prevent the breakdown of muscle tissue during your running program. Having a little bit more muscle is like having more engines to carry you forward while running and losing these engines can take away that edge that you need at the end of the race.
Side note: When doing a strength program, it’s important that you’re not gaining too much weight. Keep an eye on the scale and limit the amount of volume that you’re doing if you see yourself gaining more that 10 pounds during your lifting program. Having a few extra pounds of muscle in your lower body may be beneficial but more than that will cause you to slow down.
When to add Strength Training to your Running Program
If you’re new to strength training, it’s best to start the program when you’re in an offseason from running. This will allow your body to adapt to the new stimulus. When learning, the basic barbell lifts it’s best to do higher reps around 12 so that your body learns how to do the movement correctly. Jumping in to 3 sets of 5 heavy barbell training will lead to incorrect movement patterns or an injury.
Running programs are set up to have 3 phases; a base phase, strength phase, and a power or speed phase. You should be adding your strength training phase during your strength phase of running. Most running programs will have this in the program so you should program in your strength training during this phase. Keep in mind that you will need to do a stability phase before doing a strength training phase to get the most out of your strength phase. If you skip the stability phase you increase the risk of injury and you might not progress easily during your strength phase.
Another good time to do strength training is during the offseason while you’re not training for a race. The benefit of doing this is that the strength training will not interfere with your harder running workouts so you can add more days of heavy lifting while you’re base building.
What is the right way to train for strength?
The right way for any athlete to train for strength is to focus on complex barbell lifts like the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bent over row and pull up. If you would like to add the power clean as a bonus you can but it’s not required. The rep range for the strength training program should be 3 sets of 5 repetitions for men and 5 sets of 3 repetitions for women. Over the years coaches have found this to be the ideal rep range for power lifters. Because you’re not a power lifter and your goal is to build strength for running, you will not be doing a high-volume program like a power lifter. The goal for a runner is building strength, therefore, all you’ll need to do is 1-2 days a week of heavy strength training to see results.
Muscle imbalances can be a common problem for distance runners. The repetitive nature of running can cause certain muscles to become overdeveloped while others remain weak. This imbalance can lead to injuries, as the overdeveloped muscles place unnecessary strain on the joints and connective tissue. The best way to prevent muscle imbalances is to vary your running routine. By incorporating different types of workouts, you can ensure that all of the muscles in your legs are evenly developed. Strength training, hill running, and speed work are all great ways to achieve this goal. In addition, regular stretching and massage can help to keep the muscles flexible and prevent imbalances from developing in the first place. By taking these precautions, you can avoid the pain and discomfort that often comes with muscle imbalances. Correcting these imbalances will lead to fewer injuries and better neuromuscular coordination.
For example if your knees are pointing inward on your squat it’s important to do exercises that focus on abduction of the hip. Examples of hip abduction are band walks and calm shells. Abduction exercises work the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. These muscles help stabilize the hip and knee joint.
Keeping the volume low will minimize soreness and allow you to perform your runs without feeling burnt out from your strength training. Each workout should last about 45 minutes and at the last 15 min of each workout should have some core training with things like planks, cable twists, and mason twists to build a strong core which is also important for running. A higher volume strength training routine may add unwanted muscle mass which can impact running performance. The goal isn’t to build muscle but to build strength. Having a few extra pounds of lean muscle mass is ok but you want to minimize muscle growth. Endurance runners do best with low volume maximal effort effort exercises.
Pick the day wisely
Don’t program your strength workouts a day before a hard-running workout because this can leave your body taxed and unable to perform at a high level during the run. Many runners will be running 6 days a week during running season and should stack strength training on the same day as running. When you’re doing a running workout the same day as strength, make sure to do running first because doing strength first will affect performance during the run. Give yourself a few hours between workouts before doing a strength training workout because your body will need time to recover.
If you’re new to strength training pick up a book on strength training. I recommend Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. Or you can hire a fitness trainer to help you get started. If you hire a personal trainer make sure that they don’t add too much volume to your workout and don’t make you too sore, because this will affect performance while running.
The 4 barbell lifts that a runner should focus on for strength is the barbell squat, deadlift, shoulder press, and bent over row. The reason that we’re not adding the bench press to the program is that it will not help with running performance.
Doing the barbell squat is a simple movement where you place the barbell on your back and squat down then stand back up. The biggest mistake that people make is that they don’t set up the body position correctly before the movement. When setting up the body for the barbell squat you will need to place your feet a little wider than hip width, the feet should be pointed out 30-45 degrees, the barbell should be a little lower than the upper trapezius muscle and the head should be neutral with the eyes pointed at the ground a few feet in front of you. Once you get the body in the right position you will lower the barbell until your hips are a little bit below parallel and then you will drive the barbell back up through your hips. Remember all the power comes from the hips in the squat.
Side note: Make sure to have the safety bars in place and a spotter before you do the squat. If you’re squatting with heavy weight it’s a better idea to have two spotters on each side of the barbell but this mostly applies to powerlifts or elite weight lifters.
The deadlift is a great barbell lift for building strength in the posterior chain of the body. “The posterior chain is a group of muscles on the posterior of the body. Examples of these muscles include the hamstrings, the gluteus maximus, erector spinae muscle group, trapezius, and posterior deltoids.” The posterior is important to generating force during movements while running and training to build strength in the posterior chain will pay dividends when you need top end speed, running up a hill or at the end of a race.
How to deadlift
The deadlift, like the squat, is all about setting up the lift properly. First, you will need to set the bar with the desired weight, the feet should be hip width, next you will walk up to the bar with the mid part of the foot under the bar, without moving the bar you will bend your knees until the shinbone touches the bar, now you will straighten your legs slightly to engage the hamstrings and lastly you will lift the weight off the ground without rounding the back. Make sure to keep the neck in a neutral position with the eyes looking a few feet in front of you.
The shoulder press is an upper body barbell exercise that works the entire kinetic chain. Ace fitness defines the kinetic chain as: “Anatomically, the kinetic chain describes the interrelated groups of body segments, connecting joints, and muscles working together to perform movements and the portion of the spine to which they connect. The upper kinetic chain consists of the fingers, wrists, forearms, elbows, upper arms, shoulders, shoulder blades, and spinal column. The lower kinetic chain includes the toes, feet, ankles, lower legs, knees, upper legs, hips, pelvis, and spine. In both chains, each joint is independently capable of a variety of movements”
How to shoulder press
Because the shoulder press works all the muscles in the body it’s great for any sport. It works all the muscles involved in keeping your upright and this will help you at the end of the race when you start to get tired. When doing the shoulder press correctly you will feel it in the core and the hips.
When starting the shoulder press, you will need to use a cage or squat rack. The setup is important just like the squat or deadlift. Your feet will be a little wider than hip width apart, the hands will be shoulder width apart. When gripping the bar, you will slightly turn the hands down towards the ground, take the bar off the rack, engage the glutes, hyperextend the back, lift the bar above the midline of the head, straighten out the body and bring the bar back to the resting position to repeat the movement again.
Pro tip: When doing, the shoulder press it’s important to take advantage of the bounce at the bottom of the lift. Using the momentum from the stretch shortening cycle will help you get more reps and lift more weight.
Bent over row:
The 90-degree bent over row is a barbell exercise that will build strength in the upper back, lower back, and core. Building strength in these areas will help you keep the body upright at the end of the run when you become tired. The set up for the bent over row is almost the same as the deadlift.
When you set up for the bent over row you will walk up to the bar with your toes under the barbell, you will grip the bar with an underhand or overhand grip, your upper body will be parallel to the ground, lift the bar in the straight line to the mid part of your chest and put the bar back on the ground then repeat.
Programing strength in your running program
When you’re planning your running program and you’re trying to add strength, it’s important to remember that running comes first. If strength training gets in the way of running performance, it’s important to examine your strength program and adjust. When your base building in your running program, you will be able to lift at a higher volume and a higher intensity, but when your race plan starts you may have to cut back on your strength training because it can get in the way of key workouts.
The good news is that you don’t need to do a lot of strength training to maintain your strength, once or twice a week will do with one or two work sets for each lift. As you get closer to your race it’s important to cut strength training down to almost zero because you will want your body to be fully recovered for your event.
It’s important to add strength training workouts to your training schedule but keep in mind that strength training sessions are secondary to your running program.
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