Strength training for runners is one of the most significant performance and health enhancers athletes can possibly do. Elite runners all over the world are prioritizing strength training alongside their training plans, and age groupers should be doing the same to improve their running.
Whether you’re a beginner training for your first 5k or 10k, or you’re an advanced runner planning on doing a half-marathon or marathon, cyclists, triathletes, swimmers, and endurance athletes of all shapes, sizes, and backgrounds need to include strength training if they want to stay healthy and be successful in reaching their goals.
- In this article, you’ll learn:
- Why is strength training important for runners
- The benefits of strength training for runners
- How much strength training runners should do
- What are the best strength exercises for runners
- How to create a strength training for runners plan
- Best strength training equipment for runners
- How runners can strength train at home
By the end of this article, you’ll better understand how to incorporate strength training into your running routine to improve your performance and overall health.
History of Strength Training for Runners
Strength training for runners has come a long way in the last few decades. In the past, many runners and coaches thought strength training would make athletes bulky and ultimately slower. However, science has since shown us the massive benefits of strength training; we now know it absolutely improves the performance and health of runners (and it may even help you run faster!)
Strength training is second only to sleep in how much it can improve your performance. Here’s why:
7 Key Benefits of Strength Training Workouts for Runners
The purpose of strength training for runners is to improve race performance and overall health. By having bodies that function better, runners can stride more efficiently and with less risk of injury.
Strength training also helps improve runners’ health by strengthening the bones and joints, which in turn helps prevent injuries. It also helps improve the overall health of the body and its systems, which is essential for runners who want to maintain a high level of fitness.
Seven measurable benefits of strength training for running:
- Measurable race performance improvement
- Improved running economy (athletes will use less energy at every pace)
- Better body composition (lower fat and higher muscle)
- Improved hormone profiles
- Reduced muscle loss, a key factor associated with aging well
- Better mood
- Increased metabolic rate, making it easier to keep fat stores low
These benefits are not just opinions; they are supported by numerous studies.
One of the most concrete pieces of evidence is a meta-analysis published in the journal “Science Translational Medicine” in 2017. It looked at a broad sample of many studies and confirmed that strength training reduced the amount of energy required to swim, bike, or run. These improvements were seen in both beginners and advanced athletes.
In other words, getting stronger made endurance exercise easier.
Another commonly associated benefit of adding weight training is the reduced likelihood of injury. While this had been somewhat difficult for researchers to study due to there being so many variables involved, coaches and physiotherapists often report observational evidence that strength training reduces the likelihood of injuries. Finally, a study published in 2018 found evidence confirming that strength workouts reduce the likelihood of injury in runners.
Best Strength Training Equipment for Runners
While paying for a gym membership or a personal trainer can be effective, they’re expensive, time-consuming, and overkill for athletes simply looking for a quick, affordable, and effective strength training program. If you like the gym or your personal trainer, go ahead and keep using them. But we’ll provide a home-based strength training program right here that’s extremely effective.
We feel the best strength training equipment for runners is the easiest equipment to access. The equipment we recommend needs to satisfy the following conditions:
- Easy to store (it doesn’t take up too much space in your home)
- Easy to purchase (it’s not expensive or hard to find)
- Can be done effectively at home without a huge learning curve or the need for a partner
- Extremely versatile (athletes can do a lot of different strength exercises with just a few items)
- Extremely effective and based on supported science
The key to being effective is to focus less on super heavy weights and complex machines. Instead, runners should focus more on simply activating muscles and creating stability. The following equipment is good for a home gym:
- Free weights like dumbbells, medicine balls, and slam balls
- Stability bands or resistance bands, both the small 8-12″ and large 36″ bands are useful
- Foam balance pads and wobble boards to create lower leg mobility
- Exercise rings or TRX straps are equally great
These items are affordable, versatile, and can target all of the major muscle groups that runners need to strengthen, particularly in the lower body (EG: glutes, hamstrings, lower back). However, one vital piece of equipment ranks above the others.
The Best Home Gym Equipment to Improve Your Training Plan: The Kettlebell
One piece of equipment that we particularly recommend for running strength is the kettlebell. Kettlebells are inexpensive and the most versatile piece of equipment we’ve ever found, making them the perfect addition to any runner’s home gym.
Kettlebells are particularly effective for runners, who need to create stability in the body. This is because the center of mass in a kettlebell is off-center from where you hold it. The nature of this design requires you to stabilize your core and build stability with every strength movement you perform.
And, as it turns out, many people find kettlebell training much more fun than most forms of traditional strength training! There’s a lot of technique required to handle a kettlebell safely, and learning how to use it properly engages the brain. People find this surprisingly interesting and a lot of fun.
But don’t just run out and buy the first kettlebells you see. Getting the correct weight for yourself is critical, so use this chart to select the kettlebell sizes that are best for you:
Recommended Kettlebell Weights:
|25lbs (11kgs)||35lbs (16kgs)|
|15lbs (7kgs)||20lbs (9kgs)|
|45lbs (20kgs)||65lbs (30kgs)|
|35lbs (16kgs)||45lbs (20kgs)|
Unless you have a long background in weightlifting, you should start with the weight recommendations above. Also, look for a kettlebell made of steel or cast iron with a handle that is not sticky whatsoever. (If the handle is sticky, you’ll have trouble moving it around your hands and could end up with painful calluses.) With just two or three kettlebells, runners can perform a complete and very effective strength and mobility training program right from home, often for less than $200 in total.
Best Strength Training Exercises For Runners
Compound movements are the best strength training moves for runners because they involve multiple muscle groups and joints — just like the typical movements you do throughout the day. Strength training with machines locks you into a specific range of motion, but compound exercises (like the ones you’d do with a kettlebell) are very dynamic. They’re the most similar to the real forces that runners will have to withstand while running because they mimic the motions runners use while on the road.
Some of the most basic and popular compound movements for runners include (but are not limited to):
These simple exercises can be modified to different variations, creating a more well-rounded strength training program and keeping things interesting.
Below are some of the most commonly used exercises in our training plans for running, triathlon, duathlon, cycling, and swimrun events. These are all designed by our strength coach Craig Slobodian, specifically for the needs of age groupers. They will build the correct muscle groups for endurance training while counteracting the imbalances that build up over the years while doing the activities of typical day-to-day life.
We have 30 minute, guided strength workout videos in the MOTTIV training app that are part of every training plan we offer; here is what that looks like within one of our marathon training plans:
Strength Training Guide for Runners
Creating a strength training plan for runners can be overwhelming. Still, with the proper guidance, it can be easy to fit into your weekly routine.
How Often Should Runners Strength Train?
First, let’s talk about how many times per week runners should do strength training. During the off-season and base-building season (November to March for athletes in the Northern Hemisphere), we recommend two to three resistance training sessions each week.
During the race season, when endurance training is much more intense and needs to be the focus of our training, we recommend just one strength session per week.
Doing more strength during the offseason and base-building season and fewer weight sessions during race season will allow athletes to build a lot of strength when the training load of swim/bike/run training is low. Then, athletes can carry that strength into race season and focus more on strength maintenance while endurance training intensity is ramped up.
How Many Sets and Reps Should Runners Do?
Next, let’s talk about sets and reps. The traditional 10-15 muscle building (hypertrophy) rep range isn’t recommended for runners because this rep range tends to tear down muscle and make you feel sore in the following days, which can cause you to run with bad form and introduce injuries.
Low rep ranges of 2-9 are great for building strength without putting on size, so you can increase your power-to-weight ratio, improving run performance.
High rep ranges or isometric holds are great for building muscular endurance, decreasing your fatigue later in your running workouts.
We recommend 3-5 sets of each exercise for most runners.
How Long Should Strength Training Workouts Be?
We recommend keeping strength sessions to just 30 minutes, plus a five-minute warm-up and a five-minute cool-down. Lifting weights for 60 minutes or longer at a time is very stressful on the body and can hinder recovery. We are looking for quality and efficiency over quantity.
Strength Workout Intensity
The intensity of the resistance training you do should vary depending on the time of year. During the base-building season and off-season, runners can go more intense and end the workout feeling tired and sweaty.
However, during race season and rest weeks all year long, workouts should be very low intensity and focused just on activating (as opposed to building up) muscle groups. Athletes should finish feeling a little guilty about how easy they went during these sessions.
When Should Runners do Strength Training Workouts?
For years, most coaches treated muscular strength as an afterthought and scheduled the workouts on rest days. This scheduling is counterproductive because weight training is stressful on the body, so this removes the rest from a rest day.
We recommend doing strength on its own day (meaning not on a rest-specific day) or paired with an otherwise key workout like an intense run, a tempo run, or a long run. The run should be scheduled prior to your resistance training so you’re not performing the run on tired legs, using bad running form, and opening the door for injury.
Trail Running to Increase Explosive Power
As a bonus tip, a great way to increase explosive power is to do a lot of your long runs on hills and trails. Studies have found that trail runners had much more explosive power than road runners even though they ran less and did less strength training.
Developing more strength and power will allow you to run more efficiently, using less energy, as found in this study.
We prompt our athletes to do most of their running on hills and trails in all of our training plans.
Here is an example of a typical long run roughly six weeks out from a half marathon:
Run Strength Training Program Keys:
Here are the key points to remember when you’re incorporating weights into your running plan:
- Perform two to three sessions per week during the off-season and base-building season
- Perform just one strength session per week during race season
- Low rep ranges of 2-6 or high rep ranges of 15, and isometric holds, are best
- Stick to 30 minutes plus a five-minute warm-up and a five-minute cool-down
- Intensity should vary depending on the time of year
- Schedule strength training on its own day (not on a rest day) or paired with an otherwise key workout
- Do your long runs on hills and trails to increase explosive power
Wrap-Up on the Benefits of Strength Training to Improve Running Performance
Strength training for runners has come a long way in the last few decades and is now seen as one of the most important ways to improve race performance and overall health.
You might be thinking, “Great, one more thing I have to find time for if I want to reach my goals.” But the most amazing thing can be found in this study, which shows strength training is so effective you don’t need to find extra time to strength train to get the benefits.
Triathletes and runners can and should replace some of their current training hours with strength training. You can actually run, ride, or swim less, strength train more (from the comfort of your home with the small amount of equipment we’ve outlined), and perform better while staying healthier.
There’s no reason not to prioritize strength training in whatever training plan you create. If you need help creating a strength training routine, or want a complete training plan for any running race, triathlon, cycling event, duathlon, or swimrun that includes strength training with the methods we’ve outlined in this blog post, check out our app.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Taren Gesell is the world’s leading authority on helping adults take up endurance sports successfully. Taren is an accomplished age group athlete and a respected amateur triathlon and running coach. Taren wants to help you become the best version of yourself.