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November 15, 2022
Strength training for runners can potentially reduce injury risk and significantly improve running performance. However, most runners' strength training workouts miss the mark drastically. Either by choosing the wrong exercise selection or by selecting a sub-optimal rep scheme, many runners' strength training plans do not deliver the benefits they could (and should!).
An ineffective strength training program for runners typically comes from a poor understanding of how the muscles respond to strength training, what the best strength exercises for runners are, and what a runner's goal should be when strength training. Don't worry, though. This article will clear everything up.
This post will discuss:
Let's find out why runners need to spend some time in the gym (and what it should look like!).
Running is the purest sport there is. It simply takes the most beautiful machine ever created (the human body) and perfects a very basic form of locomotion. In other words, running tests the natural athletic ability of a person.
Further, it's a fundamental function of the human body that everyone has done in some manner, whether it's running for sports, running with your dog, or our favorite, running because your plane's gate closed 5 minutes ago, and you think you can still make it.
Whatever your reason is for running, you've done it before. But it's important to note there is a difference between running for fun and running as a sport.
Running as a sport requires time on your feet and specific training to enhance running performance. Part of this includes a strength training program for runners. However, most runners aren't strength coaches so they don't fully understand what they need to accomplish in the weight room.
Before we get into what strength training for runners should look like, let's look at some common mistakes seen when runners work out.
While running is definitely a fantastic way to gain health benefits, endurance training is not the same as strength training. The rise in exercise science has clearly shown that these different modes of exercise operate on entirely different physiological systems and provide very different benefits.
Because of this, a runner who thinks they don't need strength training is making a huge mistake. At the same time, strength athletes following a strength training program also need to include running (or some form of cardio), so this issue is seen across the field of sports.
In the sport of running, a runner's body weight can make a huge difference in their running performance. Running consists of a person being able to propel their body a certain distance faster than other runners.
In this context, the body is a load that needs to be carried by the lower body. In other words, having excess body weight can make running harder as the muscle must work harder. As a result, a runner often wants to be as light as possible, and with this goal comes a fear of building muscle.
However, this line of thinking is problematic. First, fat is not the same as lean muscle mass. Excess fat can decrease a runner's mobility as it provides no benefit. However, muscle is actually required and is what drives the limbs. If we took this idea to the extreme, this suggests having no muscle is ideal, which is obviously ridiculous.
Now, there is an extent to which too much muscle will become an issue. However, unless a runner is "enhanced," this isn't going to be an issue as the amount of running they do decreases the ability of muscle growth. Further, the location of the muscle can also make a difference i.e. huge biceps or huge hamstrings?
You're probably reading this and thinking: "Of course, you want muscular endurance!"
And we would say you do! However, you can't use light weights or resistance bands to replicate the volume you get running.
Consider the fact that most runners take around 2,000-2,500 steps in just one mile. Further, this takes 6-10 minutes of continuous running on average. You cannot do that amount of training with a leg press, nor should you!
It's important to keep in mind there is a difference between muscular endurance and cardio. In addition, there are two scenarios in which a runner may get tired.
Basically, your fatigue is either from poor cardio or from running extremely long distances, which requires time on your feet, not strength exercises. Trying to replicate muscular endurance using high reps and light weights on repeat is not going to solve either of these issues.
Heavy weights and cardio are going to help a runner hit their goals.
A needs analysis is a breakdown of the different variables that can improve performance and decrease the risk of a specific sport. These are some of the variables that must be considered when building a runner's strength training plan.
VO2max is the measurement of the body's ability to utilize oxygen. This means a higher VO2mas can get more oxygen from one breath. As a result, the muscles get more oxygen and function better.
VO2max is generally agreed upon as the number one fitness variable that dictates potential success in athletics, especially endurance runners¹. To improve VO2max, training with a heart rate of at least 65%max is required.
Lactate threshold is another vital variable for runners and refers to the intensity at which they can no longer clear a buildup of lactate. When this occurs, your muscle burns, and you become fatigued. Similar to VO2max, increased intensity for a prolonged time is required to improve this variable.
Unfortunately, studies have shown that strength training typically has no effect on VO2max in trained or untrained runners as it generally produces 50% max heart rate². We should note we are referring to resistance training of runners, not things like HITT, but this echoes what we said earlier when we stated muscular endurance is not the same as "cardio".
This is still important; however, as strength training does not seem to decrease running performance. This is important as, again, sometimes runners believe that running will reduce their performance, so they choose not to do it.
Core strength training for runners is a huge factor. This is why some new runners will complain of sore abs when they first start running, as the core must activate to keep the hips straight.
Most runners will include core work in their program, so that's a good thing. However, not all core training is the same.
Many people associate the core with doing crunches, which causes flexion and extension in the spine. We want to ask you a question regarding this: When have you ever seen runners flexing their spines as they run? Never!
The core's main job is not flexion of the spine. Instead, it's stabilization or anti-rotation. In daily life, the torso experiences forces that want to bend it or twist it. The torso would flop over if it wasn't for the core. This is to protect the spine and organs from any type of sudden jerking or keep the body aligned to ensure performance.
However, while running, the body wants to consistently twist due to the motion of walking and pumping of the arms. To prevent this, the core flexes to keep it steady in one position. Doing so keeps the hips and torso aligned for maximal performance.
This is similar to the plank position, which is why it's such a common exercise with runners.
Stride efficiency is vital to be a successful runner. It's an umbrella term that refers to the amount of energy a runner puts into their stride to the amount of speed they get out of it.
There are a ton of different factors that can affect this, such as stride length, stride rate, and force output. We're going to dive into some of these factors below.
Before getting into exercises and workouts, let's take a look at what the latest research says about strength training workouts for runners. This includes understanding the physiological adaptations that occur with strength training and how it directly impacts running performance.
But real quick, understand that weight training is not the same as different loads affect the muscle differently. Strength training programs typically refer to using heavy loads (>85% 1RM) and cause adaptations to the neuromuscular system. It improves communication between the muscle and brain so that it can work better and produce more force with less energy.
Work economy refers to the amount of effort a runner puts in and how much force they get out. Think of your car's fuel efficiency.
Obviously, you want a car to have a higher fuel efficiency, just as a runner wants higher running efficiency. This would allow two scenarios:
Unlike VO2max, strength training exercises for runners seems to improve running economy through several mechanisms³. Research has found strength training helps improve running form and running mechanics by training the neuromuscular system on how to co-activate agonist and antagonist muscles. This helps improve stability in the joints and stronger motions.
In addition, strength training for distance runners can decrease ground contact time and increase power. This is due to the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) improvement.
The SSC refers to elastic energy that is stored in the connective tissue during an eccentric contraction when the joint flexes, much like a rubber band. When the joint quickly switches to the concentric, this energy is released and contributes to greater force production.
Neuromuscular enhancement is believed to be yet another factor that improves running efficiency. Greater synchronization and muscle recruitment occur from strength training, which results in overall better function of the muscle. Basically, the muscle works better and is able to produce more force.
Time to exhaustion refers to the maximum amount of time the body can work until it is no longer able to physiologically. Generally, runners focus on improving their VO2max and lactate threshold to increase their time to exhaustion.
VO2max and lactate threshold are vital, so there's nothing wrong with including that training in your overall program. Remember that these can only be achieved with some form of cardio training, meaning your program needs to be well-rounded.
Recent studies in exercise science have also found that strength training can directly affect time to exhaustion². And it's pretty obvious why. A strength training workout for runners strengthens the muscle, so it can use less energy to exert the same amount of force.
For example, let's pretend your bench press max is 270 pounds, and you can bench 225 pounds five times until exhaustion (failure). You then strength train, and your new max becomes 315 pounds. Now, you could perform 12 reps of 225 pounds until failure. In other words, you increased your time to exhaustion.
We have already hinted at this, but strength occurs through the enhancement of your neuromuscular system. Increased efficiency of the neuromuscular system results in greater force production and allows the muscle to propel the body further and faster with less energy.
A strength training plan for runners that focuses on resistance training can strengthen connective tissue in joints. But research shows high strain (>70%1RM) produces greater strengthening adaptations. Therefore, if you can do 15 reps, it's too light. Further, it seems as though there's a dose effect meaning that a heavier load produces stronger tendons and ligaments.
Further, as we all know, strength training is effective in strengthening the core. With the use, of anti-rotational exercises, you can strengthen the core in a meaningful way.
So we now know how strength training for runners can improve performance. However, what variables need to occur to cause these adaptations and optimize training? Let's find out.
When we say "strength training," we refer to legitimate strength training. This means performing heavy loads with heavy weight.
Loads that improve the neuromuscular system best are >85% 1RM with reps <6. Compare this to the "high reps" usually seen in strength training for runners.
We'll also use plyometrics to produce power as they have also shown to be very effective in improving the neuromuscular system². This is helpful in the gym or with at-home workouts, as you can use just bodyweight training if needed.
A runners strength training should not overshadow their actual running. While it can improve your running, training too much causes too much damage, which can also decrease it. For this reason, we believe that serious runners who use strength training to complement their running should train twice a week.
To produce adequate volume, each session will be a full-body workout routine. This is sufficient to get an adequate amount of training while allowing plenty of muscle recovery time to occur.
Now let's look at the best strength exercises for runners that will provide the best carryover to performance. We are using the simplest most effective exercises we have. Remember your goal is to improve performance, which is done by increasing power production.
These exercises will train the muscle groups in the lower body.
The back squat will be the first of the lower body exercises for runners. It's a great compound lift to train the whole lower body.
In the starting position, have your feet shoulder-width apart or wider. As you descend into the squat position, the bar should drop in a straight line, so don't let your body weight move forward.
The Romanian deadlift is going to be the primary hip hinge exercise to strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and back. We chose this over the deadlift as the deadlift can be incredibly taxing and brings a very slight increase in injury risk.
Stand with a narrow stance with feet hip-width apart. As you descend, keep your shoulder blades pulled back and your core tight. Remember to only have a slight bend in the knees to target the posterior muscles.
Walking lunges are excellent training for runners! It strengthens all the lower body muscles and the connective tissues in the knees and hips since it works in multiple planes. It also improves balance and stability and helps identify (and correct) any muscle imbalances.
From the starting position, step one foot out but make sure you have proper foot placement. One leg is out in front while the other leg is behind, with the torso about midway. Both knees should make perfect 90-degree angles when you drop in a straight line.
The sled push is awesome! Studies show that it elicits similar muscle activation as squats. However, there is no stress on the back which allows more volume⁴. Further, you can use it as part of HIIT or EMOM to improve anaerobic endurance⁵.
When you perform sled pushes, try to get as parallel to the ground as possible to recruit more leg work.
You can't forget the upper body! Strengthening the upper back, shoulders, and scapula (shoulder blades muscle) is crucial to maintaining proper posture during long runs.
And as the strength aspect isn't as vital, it means you can include a variety of reps. Also, you want to favor the lower body because you have limited time. Therefore you only need one exercise for each primary movement pattern. This is a great time to also use bodyweight exercises.
Movements to include:
We mentioned this above, but runners should use anti-rotation exercises to build core strength. These are exercises that force the lifter to fight a rotational force.
This is a great exercise to build a strong core. In fact, studies show that it's the best as you must support your body with just your abs⁶. It trains every part of the core, including the lower abdominals, upper abdominals, and erector spinae.
These will help a runner maintain a neutral spine during their runs.
Another anti-rotation exercise for runners, the Pallof press is simple to perform and only requires a cable machine.
In the gym, you will perform some complex sets in your running strength workouts. This is when you perform a few reps of a free weight exercise and then immediately perform similar plyometrics.
Use proper mechanics and always land softly when training plyometrics.
We will now lay out two running strength training workouts for runners to add to their training schedule. The first of the two strength training sessions will be a two-day gym workout, while the other is a strength training for runners at home workout plan that requires only your bodyweight.
Our gym strength training plans for runners make full use of the equipment available. From dumbbell deadlifts to the bench press and sled push, you'll work every single one of your muscles.
For the complex training sets, perform the suggested reps of the leg strength training for runners exercise and then move right into the plyometric portion of the exercise, also completing the number of reps listed.
These strength training for runners without equipment workout plans rely heavily on RPE, so make sure you brush up on what RPE-based training is before diving into this at-home bodyweight routine.
Hopefully, you now understand how important it is to follow a great strength training program for runners. Fortunately, a strength training routine for runners only needs to include basic fundamental lifts with a concentration on power production.
You will be tired but you should not feel as if you were hit by a bus the next morning. Remember, strength training should enhance your running, not impede it.
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